Elementary school, age seven. I am at the Smoky City Folk Festival with my mother and little brother, who is five. We are running around in a grassy area near the stage while my mother sits a bit farther back on a blanket on the grass, listening to the music. A man comes up to me and starts asking me questions, trying to lure me away. I don’t remember exactly what he says, but I have been told about strangers and what they want to do to little girls. I run back to my mother. The man follows, saying to her, “You make beautiful children.” My mother mumbles an awkward, “Thank you,” gathers up the blanket, takes my brother and me by the hands, and hurries us away.
Middle school, age thirteen. My breasts begin to develop when I am eleven years old, in sixth grade, earlier than most of the other girls in my class. By eighth grade my chest is large enough to draw attention and nicknames from boys, including “Juggers” and “J-6” (the boys think this is an enormously clever play on bra sizes). Boys call these nicknames out to me as I walk down the hall. I tell myself this is a compliment and feel vaguely popular in certain circles, although definitely not part of the “popular” crowd.
Freshman year, age fourteen. I am pursued by a senior, the lead in the high school musical. I am a late bloomer. I have never been kissed, but am bowled over by his attention. He pulls me into a dark, hidden corner in the cafeteria and all of a sudden I have been kissed. He pushes his tongue into my mouth and I feel like my body isn’t my own, like I am hovering above the action, watching some other girl get kissed. He drives me home from rehearsals and parks on a dark dead end street so we can make out, him trying to get his hands inside my shirt and pants until I finally push him away, saying I have to get home. Fortunately, he stops and drives me to my house. There will be more nights like that, frantic groping and kissing in the back seat of a car, me letting him touch me and feeling totally disconnected from what is happening with my body, wondering if this is how it is supposed to work. A few weeks later he drops me entirely, leaving me wondering what I did wrong.
Sophomore year, age fifteen. I work at a stable in a nearby town every summer. The managers have two grown sons. One afternoon the older of the two isolates me in a stall and begins kissing the back of my neck. I let him. While I don’t think I encourage him, I also don’t tell him to stop. I feel like it says something about my own attractiveness to have this older, good looking man pay attention to me. He is more than twice my age. I feel nervous and eventually push him away, walking out of the stall. Luck is on my side again. He lets me go.
Junior year, age sixteen. I get asked to the senior prom by the boy I am dating. I am still a late bloomer, though, and after it becomes clear that I am not going to have sex with him, he breaks up with me a few weeks before the prom, leaving me with a shiny strapless metallic teal ruffled dress and nowhere to go. My friend’s older brother ends up inviting me to go as his date. I accept, but spend the evening removing his hands from various parts of my body; apparently me accepting his invitation to the prom means he has expectations of certain privileges.
Senior year, age seventeen. Two exchange students from Spain called Chris and Pat come to my high school for a semester. Although I don’t really interact with these boys, my male friends quickly coin new nicknames for my breasts: Caress and Pat. These nicknames come with accompanying hand action from the speakers, first a “caress,” then a pat to my breasts. Over my four years in high school my breasts and ass are grabbed and groped more times than I can count. I tell myself that these sorts of attentions are compliments and signs that boys find me attractive.
College, age twenty. The summer between my junior and senior year of college I get a job at an Osprey reintroduction program. This is my first “real” job in my field, and something that paved the way for much that has come since. One of the project leaders is an area lawyer, in his fifties. He showers me with compliments and says he wants to help me with my career. One day at our semi-remote field site we are sitting at the picnic table and he offers to pay for something for me–it is enough money that I don’t feel comfortable accepting, and tell him that. He then offers to pay for a fishing license so I could catch fish for the Osprey chicks I am raising and asks, “Will you let me do that for you?” The price is $20; I don’t know how to say no anymore, so I accept even though I don’t want to take anything from him. I have long hair that I wear in a braid. He says, “Your hair is beautiful. You should never wear it in a braid. You should always wear it down.” I mutter something about how I always wear it in a braid when I am working and somehow get myself away from him. I keep working there all summer, but spend my time making sure that I am never alone with this man again.
Post college. I graduate and after a number of years of working a variety of jobs, I end up in southeastern Arizona. My then-boyfriend and I start a project working on conservation projects with rural landowners in northern Mexico. For three years we build relationships with people in the local communities. I teach classes in the elementary school. We take people on birding field trips. I cook with the women. They teach me how to make menudo. I teach them how to make lasagne. I babysit their children. We are friends.
One of the landowners lives in Phoenix but comes to the small town where we are working every few months to visit family and check on his property. Every time I greet the landowner, he kisses me on the mouth. When I mention this to my boyfriend, he remarks, “Yes, I noticed. Isn’t that nice? It’s a real sign of trust.” I don’t say that it makes me uncomfortable, wondering if it IS actually a sign of trust and acceptance.
The last time I see the landowner is in the living room of his cousin’s house. Also in the room are his wife, cousin, his cousin’s wife, and various children. The room is full of people. He greets me with a kiss on the mouth, but this time, he also grabs and squeezes my left breast. It happens so quickly I almost can’t believe he did it. I am so stunned I have no response at all. When I later tell my boyfriend, he says, “What do you want me to do about it? I can’t say anything–it would ruin my relationship with him. Just think of it as a compliment.” I never return to the community, but spend lots of time imagining the response I wish I had given, in Spanish and English. My boyfriend and I eventually break up, for reasons not entirely unrelated to his attitude in this situation.
Recently, on the Metro in Washington, D.C. I am on my way to a meeting during morning rush hour. People are crammed into the subway car, with little room to move. I am standing up, holding onto a pole in the middle aisle. A man is standing uncomfortably and unnecessarily close to me. I suddenly become aware that he has an erection, and that it is pressing firmly into my back. I move as best I can, shifting over several inches to escape him. He follows. I move again. He follows. I move a third time. He follows a third time. I get off at the next stop even though it isn’t anywhere close to my destination and it makes me late for my meeting.
Anywhere, anytime. I am running in the early morning before the summer heat gets too intense. A car drives by. The driver honks and hollers something obnoxious out his window at me about my legs and what he wants me to do with them. It is apparently supposed to be a compliment. I am startled out of my focus and the podcast I am listening to by the horn, but ignore him and try to keep running. As I continue, I look around nervously, trying to figure out my plan of escape should he come after me, plotting which house I can pretend is mine, pulling my keys out of my pocket so I can use them as a weapon if I have to. He drives on. My heart races, and it isn’t because I have been running. Maybe I shouldn’t run with headphones anymore, I think, to be safer and more aware of people like this.
Everywhere, all the time. I am walking down the street. A man I have never seen before in my life catcalls. I ignore him and keep walking. He starts yelling insults at me. “What, are you too good for me, you stuck up cunt? Fuck you! You deserve to be raped, you mother fucking whore!” I walk faster, heart pounding, hoping I make it to my destination before he catches up to me, hoping he will lose interest, blaming myself for walking down the street alone even though it is broad daylight, blaming myself for deciding to turn left at that intersection to take the short cut instead of staying on the main street.
Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too.
Some of my friends, especially those of you from high school, may recognize yourself in this essay. I invite you to read the post below by Christopher Golden and ask yourself: What have I done? How have I contributed to this situation in the world today? Own it.
If the first word of your response begins with, “But…” then please take a deep breath and be quiet.
Then ask yourself: How can I be better? How can I teach my sons, or anyone’s sons, to be better? How can I teach my children, or anyone’s children, that this is not okay under any circumstances? How can I teach my daughters, or anyone’s daughters, that they never, ever have to convince themselves that this sort of behavior is acceptable, or that it is some sort of twisted compliment, or that they are somehow to blame for someone else’s shitty behavior.
And when the women in your life tell you, “Me, too,” the response is simple. Tell them, “I believe you.” (h/t to the amazing Lara B. Sharp for this last bit, as well as the picture at the top of this post and the link to the status below.)