Obviously me, too.
I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed or assaulted or both. The stories are all a little different, but the gist of them are all the same. We didn’t want or welcome what happened to us, but it happened anyway. And now we live with it, bottling it up, or putting it in the backs of our minds, or quietly sharing with our closest friends and begging them for their secrecy in return.
What is hard for me is thinking about which experience was the worst. And then I feel ill knowing there have been so many for me and every other woman out there.
There was the time that I was 23, a year out of college, at my first “real job.” When I wasn’t planning special events, I enjoyed taking my lunch in the kitchen and doing the crossword puzzle with my coworkers. I tried to get as many people involved to both have the best shot at completing it and to make others feels included. One day as I read the next clue aloud, I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. I turned to see Fred the maintenance man rubbing my shoulders and grinning as he peered over me to see the clue. Paralyzed, I just sat there not knowing what to do. I looked at some of my other coworkers to see if anyone else was having the same reaction that I was, which was “What is happening? Why is this man touching me?” No one reacted at all and instead they all shouted possible answers to the clue. After what felt like an eternity, Fred stopped touching me and walked away.
Over the next few days, I observed him doing the same thing to other women—and always the same type of women—the young ones. “That’s just how Fred is,” one my female colleagues told me. “Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”
Soon I started eating less in the kitchen and taking my lunch at my desk. If I did eat in the kitchen, I would be sure to face the entrance so that I couldn’t be surprised attacked again. And if I saw Fred approaching, I would pretend I needed to get something and would stand up. But it didn’t always work. There were half a dozen more times he touched me like this and countless times he did it to my coworkers. Believing what others had told me about him being harmless, I didn’t say anything to Fred, or to anyone about how I felt. I just took it.
It continued beyond the kitchen. My office was on the second floor and I had to walk down a big staircase to the first floor get supplies, go to lunch, or leave for the day. Often, Fred would be standing at the bottom of those stairs, talking to the administrative assistant, another creepy man named Jim. When they would see me start my descent, they would both stop talking and watch me walk down the tall staircase, their eyes looking me up and down the entire time. Sometimes they offered their unsolicited opinion on what I was wearing.
“That sweatshirt you had on yesterday,” Jim said, “It made you look…” (blows up his cheeks and stretches his arms out).
“Yes,” Fred agreed. “This is a much more attractive on you.”
I would just smile uncomfortably and say ,“Thank you.” Yes, I would thank them for simultaneously insulting me and sexually harassing me. So young. So naïve.
For years, the role of Human Resources at this organization was done by the person who was also the CFO. As you can probably imagine, this created lots of conflicts of interest when deciding on things like what benefit package to offer employees – the cheapest one to save the organization the most money, or the more expensive one that is better for employees? Eventually they wised up and split the roles, hiring someone to head up HR.
This person immediately noticed Fred’s behavior and launched an investigation. I remember her interviewing me and asking if Fred ever made me uncomfortable. “Sure,” I told her. “But everyone told me he is harmless, so I’m sure I’m just overreacting.”
“You’re not overreacting, Amy,” She told me.
I was finally validated.
Fred was put on a leave of absence while they did the investigation. They decided not to fire him, for what reason I don’t know—maybe it was because none of us ever told him, “Stop.” But when he returned, he wouldn’t speak to me or to any of the other young women. A few months later, I left for another job. To this day, nine years later, he still works there.
Then there was also the time that I was 16, drunk at a party, and called an older guy I worked with at Record Town for a ride home. His name was Bob and he was 21, and was a senior in college. I had been warned about Bob, and about a guy named Jeremy, who was seven years my senior. Both warnings I did not heed. Hearing “Stay away from them,” made me think they were just misunderstood and that I should give them a chance. I learned much later that they were creepy guys who preyed on young girls. I had just been dumped by my first real boyfriend who I had dated for most of the school year, and I was heartbroken. So being flirted with by not one, but two older guys made me feel awesome.
Bob and Jeremy made it known that they were both “interested” in me and a weird competition between them developed. At the time, I had convinced myself that I was “old for my age.” But now when I imagine a 23 year old man and a 21 year old man vying for the attention of an inexperienced 16 year old girl, I get nauseous.
I don’t remember how or why, but eventually Bob won me over. He gave me his number and told me to call him anytime. We also chatted on AIM (yeah, that’s how long ago this was). He knew I was going to a party that night and told me to call him if I needed a ride.
I got very drunk at the party. For one, I was very new to drinking. For another, instead of starting off with something like light beer, we drank vodka because that was readily available in someone’s home liquor cabinet. So pretty soon after arriving to the party, and getting shitfaced, all I wanted to do was go home and sleep. I called Bob for a ride. He drove over immediately.
I don’t remember much of what happened next. He drove me somewhere that wasn’t home. He parked the car. We started making out. I remember saying to him at least twice, “We just can’t have sex, OK?” I had only done it one other time with my ex-boyfriend and I was petrified of getting pregnant. “Of course,” he told me.
The next thing I remember was that he was on top of me, straining not to hit his head on the roof of the car, and then he was inside of me. No conversation like, “Is this OK?” or “Do you want to do this?” No condom. He just did it. I liked him so much. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I didn’t say anything. I just let it happen.
He didn’t drive me home after. He drove me back to the party. I can’t remember if I asked him to do that, or if he didn’t want to face the possibility of running into my parents so late at night. He kissed me goodbye and said he would call me the next day.
When I went back into the party, a few people asked me where I had gone. “Owww, Amy just had a booty call!” one of them said. I fake smiled. I told no one what happened. I fell asleep on the living room floor.
In the morning, I was up with the sun, totally hungover and feeling terrible for multiple reasons. One of the first things I did was I made an appointment to get emergency contraception. Thank God I was smart enough to be proactive. I remember being afraid of what I should say if they asked me questions like, “How old was your partner?” because I knew he could get in trouble. Even after what happened, I wanted to protect him. But no one asked me that. They told me how to take the EC and warned me I might feel sick to my stomach. Too late.
Bob did call me the next day. In fact, he sort of thought we were an item after that. I remember him picking me up a few days later at my house, acting like what had happened was totally normal. And again, I went with it because I didn’t want to lose this older, cool guy. As he drove me to see his college, he blared Papa Roach’s “Last Resort.” To this day, I can’t hear that song and not think of what happened to me.
I don’t really remember what caused Bob and I to fizzle out – I’m guessing it became abundantly clear that I was never going to have sex with him again – but thankfully we did fizzle very soon after the incident. I started to see Jeremy shortly after. His response when I told him I had sex with Bob was disappointment.
“He got to you first.” Jeremy said to me. He had lost the competition. This was the kind of guy he was. So naturally, I proceeded to date him for the next four years.
Even to this day I have a hard time writing “rape.” I thought for so long rape looked like a stranger ripping your clothes off and forcing you to have sex at knife-point. But this wasn’t that. I knew Bob and it was my fault for getting drunk, for not stopping him, for only telling him “I can’t have sex” two times instead of however many times it would take for him to get it (if at all). I viewed what had happened as an, “Oops! Shouldn’t do that again.” I see now that I was an underage, intoxicated girl–not woman, not “old for her age,” but a child — who was incapable of giving consent. In more cases than not, that’s what rape really looks like.