I am sharing this because I have been reading the accounts of many women, and each one shows a unique but recognizable part of women’s lives that we have ignored for far too long. It seems to be helping other women speak out and start productive discussions about how sexual assault and groping and rape actually look to those who have endured it. Like so many women, I read and nod because I am familiar with how they feel and know what they go through.
As someone who is constantly out in public, meeting with people or just covering events, I realize I am at a higher risk of being groped because of the sheer amount of contact I have with people. It has happened enough times that I usually can see it coming and deflect it. Sometimes, given the setting and proper context, deflect it with attitude and teach a lesson in the process. The reason I selected this particular example is because I was caught off guard and it bothered me deeply. At that moment, I was as unprepared as any woman might be who was just going about her business, without any idea that something was about to happen.
I met a musician at Starbucks to discuss writing a story about a project that his band was putting out at the end of 2017. It was the end of October, right as the final details were falling into place, and it truly was a brilliant project. I really enjoyed our conversation. We were about the same age and shared many musical influences, so there were some inside jokes and common reference points.
When I meet people for the first few times, I usually signal the end of the meeting and let them leave first. I may say I need to use the restroom, or that I have some work to do before heading out, something to make it unremarkable that I am not walking out with them. I’ve been followed to my car and I’ve had some creepy moments in parking lots, so this has become an adopted strategy. It’s nothing personal. That night, he wasn’t taking the hint. Against my better judgment I decided to walk quickly to my car and hop in, because I was in the spot closest to the door. Ten feet at the most, and in full view of a crowded coffee house, so I felt okay about it.
I stood, and prepared myself to get out as quickly as possible. He went to shake my hand, and out of years of habit I leaned in to return it. And that’s when he did it. The oldest boob grab move in the world, he “missed” the handshake and his palm slid between my breast and my arm, and he squeezed me. Our eyes made contact, and he smiled. He had done it on purpose, and was not only enjoying the contact but my response. Maybe he thought I liked it. Maybe he saw my horror for what it was and it pleased him. I’ll never know.
It’s far too easy to say “and then I gathered my things and walked to my car without saying a word.” If you were watching it on film, that’s what you would have said to describe the moment. But here’s what really happened in that three to five seconds:
- I had a flashback to when I was groped last (it was far more violent than this episode), and my stomach dropped and a sick sweat covered me. When I got home I had to take a shower immediately to get rid of it. The smell of my own fear and upset was subtle but unmistakable.
- Even as his hand squeezed me, I wondered if this was really happening and if I was in the clear to defend myself (were there enough witnesses, was there sufficient need to take action, was he really smirking at me as he squeezed).
- I started to slap his hand back, and froze. I was cornered and carrying an armload of recording equipment, so if he punched me I had no way to defend myself.
- I was afraid that if that happened, nobody would step forward, and might even believe I spontaneously attacked him.
- I was angry at myself for not seeing it coming.
- I was angry at myself for being angry at myself.
- I was ashamed and afraid I had somehow let it happen, and didn’t realize until later I feared I was partly to blame for his hand squeezing my breast. Because my focus wasn’t on his choice to do it, but that I had allowed it to happen.
- I wanted to cry.
- And folks, I’m not going to lie… a small part of me wanted to die. That is not a dramatization. In that moment, the shame and stress and ick made me wish I could just fall down dead and not live anymore. Because I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened from grown damn men. It started in elementary school when they were little boys, but some never learned better.
Instead, like I wrote above, I gathered my things and walked to my car without saying a word.
As soon as I got home, I stood in the shower and cried in private. I was so angry at myself for not striking back, for being powerless, and for hesitating. I’m a brave woman and I’ve had my share of self-defense moments. I am not afraid to fight back. I asked a trusted guy friend if I put off vibes that may have invited this (which is victim blaming 101, but the immediate reaction of so many of us is to blame ourselves). He assured me that I do not. I didn’t tell my husband until I decided to write this post. As an unspoken agreement, I don’t tell him these things and he doesn’t ask. Moments like this are the price I pay to do the work I love, and the price many of us pay just to be out in public. It was weeks before I wasn’t upset or dodgy when someone touched me. My boss went to pat my shoulder and I flinched. A great friend tried to hug me and I froze. There were several similar awkward moments.
It has now been months, and I’m still upset when I think about it. That smile, that smirk that said he had gotten what he wanted, and there was nothing I could do to take it back. Despite running drills in my head almost nonstop to prepare for these times, and not including the fact that I have successfully deflected several grope attempts, the first thing I felt was massive guilt and shame for not being able to stop him from helping himself to my body. By this point I realize it was his choice to do so, but the guilt remains even as the anger rises. Emotions do not answer to logic.
So if you have ever asked what the big deal is about being touched, now you know. It isn’t the touch. It’s the feeling of helplessness, of being used, of being invaded, and of knowing that even though you were just wronged nobody gives a shit and nobody is going to help you. And that it is going to happen again, and again and again.
The true exhaustion doesn’t come from dealing with these small moments. It is from constantly being on guard for the next one. The next “nice guy” or new coworker or bandmate or friend who decides to turn without a second’s notice. Of having to look at every shoulder pat and hug attempt on the fly to decide if it’s a threat, and if it is realizing you have only half a second to respond. That is what is exhausting. Because you know it will happen again, it’s just a matter of when and whose hand will find you.
I am determined that the next time my turn comes that I will be ready. Between holidays and year end drama I have been too busy to get out much. But that will change soon, and when it does I hope the next guy is ready for me. He by God better be, because the last thing I ever want to do is cry and relive every time an uninvited hand has closed over my wrist, or am unwanted palm brushed a part of me, or a surprise squeeze became painful if I moved away. I fought back and won a hundred times, but I will forever lament the time I froze and failed and lost.
So now you know what we are being asked to endure, to indulge those who would do so much worse to us if they could.
#NoMore #MeToo #TimesUp