About two months ago, we entered a period in which women and men can share their experiences with sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape with the expectation that people will be open to believing them. When I read that statement over, it really doesn’t sound all that exciting. In fact, it sounds a bit depressing. But it represents a huge shift in the way that we approach allegations of sexual misconduct.
Each day, more and more people come forward to share their experiences with sexual harassment/assault and rape. The majority of the allegations have involved individuals within the Hollywood community (which appears to be every bit as toxic as people always say it is). But as we know, these crimes extend to every community, and, unfortunately, tend to be well-hidden. I’m so proud of all the brave women and men who have shared their experiences with sexual harassment/assault and rape on various platforms over the past couple of months. Because of them, I am ready to share mine.
I feel the compulsive need to begin by stating that my experiences with sexual harassment/assault have not been that bad. Many people have been through worse. But it’s important for all of us to remember that no experience of sexual harassment or assault is acceptable. It’s necessary to speak out against all forms of inappropriate sexual misconduct. And I’m so glad it’s finally “okay” to do so.
I’ve experienced sexual harassment and assault a number of times throughout my life, but there are three experiences that really stand out to me:
The first experience that stands out to me took place while I was studying abroad. I was 20 years old. The details of this one are a little hard to explain, but I’ll do my best. I was on the train back to my homestay after dinner with a few friends. It was probably around 9pm. The train was packed. A middle-aged man squeezed his way into a seat between me and another woman. I remember thinking it was odd — there was barely enough room for him. But, hey, everyone deserves a seat. I sat with my arms crossed, as did he. Not long after he sat down, I began to feel a rubbing sensation on my arm right above my breast. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt at first. Maybe he didn’t know he was touching me. But when I tried to move away from him, I felt a resistance — he had a grip on my jacket.
I tried to readjust a bit, but there wasn’t much room to move around. A few moments later, I felt the same rubbing sensation. The rubbing was on a place on my upper arm so close to my breast that it became clear to me that this man thought he was rubbing my breast. I felt like I was unable to get away, and I continued to try to come up with reasonable explanations for what was happening. Maybe he didn’t realize what he was doing. Maybe he was just rubbing his fingers together absentmindedly and my arm just happened to be between them. Still, I grew progressively more worried. When we arrived at a busy station close to my stop, I decided to get off the train early. But when the man got up with the same somewhat frantic urgency as I did, I became nervous that he intended to follow me. So I decided to fake him out. I began to walk off the train and then turned around and got back on at the last minute.
I played this incident back in my head several times over the two weeks that followed. Had I interpreted it incorrectly? Did he really think he was rubbing my breast? Was he really intending to follow me when I got off the train? I’ll obviously never really know the answers to these questions, but I’m confident in my assessment. Something was just . . . off about the whole situation.
My second experience with sexual harassment/assault occurred in a big US city when I was about 23 years old. I was in town for a conference being held in a hotel in Times Square. I went to the Upper East Side to brunch with a friend, and, since it was a nice day, decided to take the ~40 minute walk back to my hotel. It was lovely. Until a man started following me.
He followed some objectifying comments about my butt up with a request for my number. When I didn’t provide it to him, he followed me, continuing to state obscene comments about my body, for at least 4 blocks. Every time I sped up, he matched my pace. I became increasingly nervous as he continued to follow me, continued to talk at me. It was the middle of the afternoon on a relatively busy street, but I still wasn’t sure what would happen next. I cannot tell you how relieved I was when he gave up, cursed at me, and turned around.
My most recent experience with sexual harassment/assault occurred 3 months ago in another big US city. A friend and I were walking to her house from a group dinner at about 11pm. We were engrossed in conversation and walking with a dog who was frequently slowing down to sniff things (this will be an important detail later). Through hindsight, my friend and I were able to piece together the series of events that followed. You guys get the refined version.
When we were about 5 blocks from my friend’s house, a man saw us and started following us. He wasn’t walking too close behind us, so we weren’t concerned at all. As I mentioned, we were walking with a dog. As we neared my friend’s house, we came to a complete stop to allow the dog to take care of his business before we went inside. At this point, the man walked ahead of us. He stopped at a parking sign a few feet ahead of us and pretended to read it.
Eventually, we made it up my friend’s stoop. With our backs now to the street, the man stopped pretending to look at the parking sign, approached me, and slapped my butt extremely hard. From my point of view, I felt a hard hit on my butt at the same time as I heard a guttural scream from my friend. My friend had witnessed all of this happening through her peripheral vision. It all happened so quickly. My friend attempted to hit the man to get him to go away, but he was running away down the alley by her house before she could even make contact.
We rushed inside and tried to process what had happened. This man had followed us home and then waited for us while we were stopped. I don’t normally go inside with my friends on the way home. What would have happened if I’d just dropped my friend off and continued on to my house? Would he have continued to follow me all the way to my house? Would he have done something more severe than slapping my butt had I been alone? My friend and I were jumpy for days.
My experiences are not unique. Many, if not all, women (and some men) have experienced something similar to one of the experiences I have described here. And each day, more women and men come forward with even worse experiences. We need to stop this cycle of harassment and assault. Societies around the world continue to implicitly and explicitly suggest that these kind of behaviors are excusable and to be expected. And unfortunately, many people still refuse to believe accusers when they come forward. And it’s not just public opinion that appears to be against accusers; it’s also the law. It seems like assailants are rarely face criminal charges, and when they do, their sentences are abysmally short. The Brock Turner case is one of the most outrageous recent examples of this.
It is critical for us to continue to bring our experiences with sexual harassment/assault and rape to light. They are real. They impact us every day. And from a slap on the butt to rape, they are all inappropriate. We deserve to live free of sexual misconduct of any kind. And the men perpetrating these crimes deserve to be held accountable and punished. I am so happy that this process is beginning to occur. Though it should have been happening for years, I suppose it’s better late than never.
As new allegations continue to come to light — in Hollywood, politics, the armed forces, and general day-to-day life — I hope you all remain safe, happy, and emotionally supported. You deserve it.