The first time it happened to me I was sitting in the back of a bus with two males on either side. I didn’t know their names. For a while, nothing happened. Just a ride on a bus. Then slowly, one of them slipped his arm around my shoulders and reached down to grab my breast while the other male laughed. I elbowed the reacher in the ribs – hard – and the other riders who had turned to watch this show laughed. The reacher withdrew his hand, then tried again and received the same response. This went on for the rest of the ride: reach, elbow, withdrawal, laughter.
You might ask all the questions that females are often asked when they recount stories like this: Why didn’t you fight harder? Why didn’t you get up and leave? Scream? How were you dressed, anyway?
The first time it happened to me I was twelve years old. I was on a field trip with my summer school field biology class. I didn’t know these boys or any of the other students in the class. It was 1966, a time when girls were taught that these things happen to women; they are an inevitability that comes with a uterus and breasts.
For the rest of the summer school term, these boys harassed me sporadically, withdrawing and returning with no predictable pattern. I was aware that their attentions had nothing to do with romance or even lust. It was sport. Nothing more.
I told the teacher; he did nothing. I told my parents. I was counseled to ignore the boys. I dressed in a way that sought invisibility. The entire summer, I dreaded going to class and refused to leave the house on weekends out of the fear that I might run into them, even though they lived far from my neighborhood. They had taken on the magnitude of a larger, looming threat.
Finally, as summer drew to a close, the class ended. I entered junior high, attended sock-hops, joined school clubs, and gradually began to enjoy a normal life again. The boys of my summer class attended a different school, and my memories of them receded.
The threat to which they had introduced me, however, remained. It hung in the background like a dark presence, waiting. Over the years, it drew close without warning: a groping on a crowded subway car or a man exposing himself and masturbating in the library. “Nice tits,” hissed from a passerby. The shadow of a stranger following me home from a late shift at work.
The world is filled with women who have stories like these. Many of them can tell stories far worse than mine. But the residue that is left behind is the same. To be preyed upon is a sickening feeling. It diminishes you. The shadow that it casts over your life is steeped in fear, shame, betrayal, profound disappointment, and finally, rage.
I never expected to see that boy – the reacher – ever again. But I did. It was eight years later when I was a teaching assistant in the theater department at my college. He had signed up for an acting class mid-semester, and I had been assigned as his mentor. I’d been asked to work with him on a monologue he’d brought into class. We met in a small rehearsal room, and as he put down his backpack and started to warm up, I realized he had no idea who I was.
“Did you take a summer school class once at W – -Junior High? Field biology?”
He stopped stretching for a moment. “Yeah. How did you know?”
“I was in that class. I remember you.”
“Yeah. I remember you in the back of the bus. You kept grabbing my breast, and no matter how hard I tried to get you to stop, you kept doing it. All summer you were after me. Funny, that you would forget that.”
He was suddenly still, like a wild animal that doesn’t want to betray its location.
“Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know. It was just a joke.”
“It was a really shitty thing to do. It felt awful. It was an awful thing to do to someone.”
He wouldn’t look at me.
“So, why acting class? Did you think it was a good way to meet girls? A lot of guys think that. And it is. Lord knows there are plenty of women in the drama department. And every single one of them is going to know about you. They will all know who you are and the shitty thing that you did.”
He dropped the class the next day. I never saw him again.
The reacher and the others didn’t ruin men for me. I fell in love with good men. I’ve been married to a good man for forty years. We’ve raised a boy and a girl, and as far as I know, my boy has always been respectful and compassionate toward women and my girl has never had a man demean her or force himself on her. As far as I know. But these stories persist for far too many women and for those who love them. And this, I believe, is due in part to a failure of imagination.
I want you to imagine three scenarios.
Here’s the first:
Every time you hear about or read some story of sexual harassment or abuse, imagine for a moment that the woman at the center of the story is not a celebrity or a distant, anonymous stranger. Imagine instead that it is your mother. Your sister. Your friend. Your daughter. Imagine she is telling you her story because as much as she might wish to hide it away, she can’t. She must tell you because it is destroying her from the inside out. In other words, when you hear these stories, imagine they happened to someone you love.
Here’s the second:
Imagine a world in which it is a rite of passage for a father to pull his son aside to have a conversation that goes something like this:
“Son, I want to talk to you about something that might embarrass you and might be hard to hear, but it’s important. I want you to be prepared.”
“Son, most women are wonderful, like your mother or your sister. But women are essentially different from men. They have needs that are difficult for them to control. At some point in your life, you’re going to come across a woman who can’t control her needs, and she will try to do things to you.”
“It may not be a woman you know. It could even be a stranger. Or it could be someone you work with. But she’ll be the kind of woman who thinks that men are just … objects. It may not be terribly serious. She may just make crude jokes about parts of your body or the way you dress. But you might come across a woman who will expose herself to you. Try to get you alone and masturbate in front of you or grab your balls or grope your rear-end. She may try to force you to have sex with you in exchange for advancement at work. She may even try to make you feel that you owe it to her.”
“Gee, Dad. What do I do?”
“Well, Son, there’s a lot you can do to avoid this situation. Be aware of how you dress. Don’t wear pants that are too tight and keep your shirt buttoned up. Also, be careful not to lead a woman on. Once you flirt with a woman, it’s only natural that she would expect you to put out. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re alone with a woman like this. Don’t come home too late at night, or if you have to be out alone after dark, always carry some pepper spray or a whistle.”
“Gosh, Dad. I had no idea.”
“The main thing to understand, Son is that while women will be women, there is a lot you can do to prevent unwanted advances.”
Finally, the third:
Imagine that a twelve-year-old girl gets on a bus and sits in the back between two boys. Maybe it is the only seat available; maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. During the ride, maybe the girl and the boys have a conversation, maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter. All three arrive at their destinations un-groped, un-shamed, undiminished. They move ahead in their lives with the peace of knowing that when you’re on a bus or anywhere else in the world, the person you are next to is a human being, to be treated with the common human decency that you would hope for yourself.
That is the part that matters.