I haven’t thought about this in two decades. But I’m thinking about it now, because these words and these statistics are in the news.
- Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted; a disproportionate number of them women.
- One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
- In 1995, 28 percent of rape or sexual assault victimizations against females were reported to the police. This percentage increased to 59 percent in 2003 before declining to 32 percent in 2010.
- The majority of sexual violence against females involved someone the victim knew. In 2005-10, 78 percent of sexual violence involved an offender who was a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance.
- On average, there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.
- As of 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape.
I could go on. (Sources linked below.)
You see, I was a victim of sexual assault, of unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances from a powerful man for whom I worked. Until today, I have only told two people about it: my friend Melania (not her real name), and my husband, Gerry.
I have reflected upon this for some time. I don’t bring it up now because I need the catharsis of telling. (I’m not a brooder, not prone to take things hard. I’m tough, I’ve always been tough, and I tend to remember the good and forget the bad.) I don’t bring it up now because I’m wounded or hurt and need help. (I know who the broken person is in this scenario; it’s not me.) I don’t bring it up because I want justice. (God knows there’s little justice in this ol’ world.)
No, I bring it up now—twenty-five years later—because there are women today who are being castigated for bringing up similar stories now. They’re being called liars by people (mostly men) who have no freaking clue what it was like, what was involved, what it’s like to live with the memory of something like this in which you were powerless—for a variety of reasons—to simply say, Take your hand off me, you asshole.
So let’s talk about it, shall we? My case doesn’t concern someone in the public spotlight—but otherwise it’s the same: a woman conducting her business, a man who sees women as things for his entertainment.
I got divorced at age thirty-seven; I was the mother of a six-year-old. I’d been married to my son’s father for eighteen years, and it had been my choice to leave—but it was not a decision taken lightly, and I was rattled to my core. At the time I was slim, didn’t have grey hair, and generally looked about ten years younger than I was.
After my divorce in 1990 I moved home, where I worked for a small family-owned company not far away. It was a stressful job, and while I had a few friends among the staff, for the most part I didn’t fit in. The owner of the company, a man, married with kids, was tall, outgoing, smart, funny, charismatic. He was my boss. The offices were attached to a warehouse, and it was a rabbit warren of hallways and out-of-the-way places that were not always well traveled. You didn’t necessarily run into coworkers going from A to B.
The first incident was this: The boss and I passed in one of these quiet corridors, and he engaged me in conversation. He said something funny, I laughed, we chatted. And then he reached out and gently pinched one of my breasts and said, “I want some of this.” A coworker came around the corner then, and nothing further happened. I didn’t have to respond and both of us were able to pretend as if nothing had happened.
Now—at age sixty-three—I am furious with him. Understand, I’m not damaged by it. I’m not carrying it around. But it was inappropriate at work or in any environment, and I shouldn’t have had to deal with it.
At the time I was shocked into speechlessness. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. (Sure there was that flasher in the raincoat in San Francisco about twenty years earlier, but I’d just laughed at him. Which is, basically, my style.) Also, of course, I needed the job; I couldn’t afford to make waves, though I knew this was sexual harrassment. (Actually, though, my husband reminds me, it wasn’t harassment: there was no quid pro quo. It was inappropriate touching without my consent, and that is assault.)
But I’d already learned how expensive lawyers are. I did nothing.
Just about the time I’d “forgotten” the incident, this man came into my office just as I was leaving it. I was in front of my desk, not behind it, and he asked for something, a document, I had on my desk. I turned around and reached for it, and was shocked to feel this man, my boss, up close behind me, bumping his groin against my rear end.
WTF? There was no rescuing coworker this time but I handed him the document and quickly put distance between him and me. I was mortified.
“He Didn’t Mean It”
Notice that? I was mortified, although I’d done nothing inappropriate.
I had this job because I’d been working for the company in a different capacity prior to my divorce. When they heard I was moving to the area, I was offered the job in the “main office.” I’d had the job in the field because my close friend of long standing, Melania, was friends with the owner’s wife. And with the owner.
One afternoon after these two incidents, Melania and I were visiting, and I cautiously brought up what had happened to me. And Melania said, “Oh, I don’t think he meant it like you think he did. You must be misinterpreting it. He’s a jokester.” And we never talked about it again.
See that? Someone I trusted brushed off my concerns.
So let’s review the reasons why I did not come forward:
- This man was my boss; he had money, power, and authority in the community.
- He chose his moments well; a public discussion of the incidents would be nothing but “he said, she said.”
- I needed the job: single mom, little money, couldn’t afford to take on a legal case.
- I had no idea how to handle the situation. I was mortified.
- A trusted friend brushed off my concerns.
Furthermore, I knew even then that women who report rapes are often blamed for it or told they have misconstrued what happened. Rape culture wasn’t as well understood and documented as it is now, but it was becoming more so. Nowadays corporations are careful to school executives and managers about sexual harassment in the workplace, but in 1990 that was a few years in the distance. It was still a Mad Men society back then, strangely, particularly in smaller companies like this one.
Women like me, we learned to get along with men in the workplace. If we didn’t laugh at their questionable jokes, we at least didn’t make a stink about them. That’s what we called “go along to get along.” I was a pragmatist. I went along, but I did my work and went home—I didn’t hang around with anybody after work.
And so I did nothing, said nothing. I went on.
Flash Forward Twenty-Five Years
A week or so ago, a videotape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about how he touches women inappropriately. It started a national conversation. And within days, other women began stepping forward, saying, “He did that to me too.” I think perhaps there are a dozen of them on the record now.
Naturally, this being an election year, the meme machine swung into action, accusing these women of being liars. These people think it’s suspicious that the women just now “remembered.”
I don’t. Think about the recap. These are all women who were accosted by a rich, powerful, tall (six-foot-two) man. No one else was present, so an accusation would be one woman against the Trump machine, which they probably couldn’t afford to do. In fact, if any of them consulted a lawyer, they were probably advised to not pursue it; Trump could ruin them. And, of course, they were probably mortified and didn’t relish the thought of being publicly shamed.
So what’s different now? There’s a tape; there’s audio proof of this particular type of bad behavior by this particular man. One woman came forward, and then another and another. The stories don’t sound made up when a dozen different women have similar stories to tell (also, they told others at the time, and those people—friends, mentors, and so on—have also verified the stories). Most of us believe them, but there are some very loud, ugly voices calling them liars … and worse.
And this proves the point. These are all women who, like me, just got on with their lives, because who needs this crap from these assholes? Who needs it? But they are coming forward now because of current events. Because there is safety in numbers. Because there’s proof that this man acts with others they way he acted with them. Because they are angry. Because women should be able to exist in society’s public spaces without fear of being assaulted.
I’ve had a wonderful, happy life. I still have a wonderful, happy life. The things that happened to me all those years ago don’t affect who I am now, and they certainly don’t define me. I don’t live a fearful life.
Though perhaps I should. Some people are angry with the victims, not with the perpetrator. On social media, people I know and love (?) are posting the nastiest, ugliest, lyingest things the meme machine can cobble together, as fast as it can cobble them together.
So let me remind you, my brothers, my fellow Americans, one more time: I am your sister, and it happened to me. I am your mother. I am your wife. I am your coworker, your employee. I am your neighbor. You know me. You know who I am, so you can’t—you shouldn’t—disparage my character simply because I say I was sexually assaulted by a man with power and money. I am coming forward now not for sympathy but because I am angered (nay, I am enraged) by the way you all talk about women.
I am a human being.
I am not lying.