I remember the first time it happened.
I was thirteen, and running around my suburban neighborhood in Saratoga, CA. I was on the cross country team, and we were on a group run – I must have been lagging behind [not surprising since I was a slow poke – I often won JV races because I was the only one in my category, definitely not for speed] because I was separated from the group. I remember being alone. I was wearing our team uniform – baggy t-shirt and long shorts, made out of that uncomfortable and unflattering mesh material that all high school sports uniforms seem to be made of.
I was running up the crest of a hill, focusing on the incline, when a pickup truck drove by with two men in it. The man in the passenger seat closest to me leaned out of his window, and I thought for a moment they were lost, and about to ask me for directions, so I looked up and smiled helpfully. Instead of asking for directions, the man looked me up and down, grinned, whistled at me and said a few words in another language which I didn’t understand [but could guess at by their tone] chuckled and sped away.
I felt shock, then fear, then – and this is what really pisses me off, looking back – shame. I felt ashamed that this adult man had commented on my thirteen year old body. I felt ashamed that I had attracted this unwanted attention. I felt ashamed that attention was being drawn to how I looked, to my sexuality [again, I was thirteen – I’m not sure I even knew that the word sexuality meant at that point].
Most of all, I felt like it was my fault. How dare I run with my cross country team at 4pm on a Wednesday? How dare I wear a baggy t-shirt and ill-fitting shorts in public? How dare I move about in the world, living my life, as if I had a right to? [This is when a “sarcastic font” setting would come in really handy].
I never told a soul about it, because what would have been the point? I felt I must have done something wrong to attract that unwanted attention. I felt it was my fault – for having a body, for being out in the world, for being female.
That experience is burned in my mind as the first time I realized that to be a woman was to be vulnerable. It marked the end of my childhood innocence and the beginning of a growing realization – one that has developed slowly over time like a really depressing photograph – that to be a woman in this world is fraught and complicated and dangerous – that it is in many ways a liability.
Fast forward a few years, and I was on a summer volunteer trip in NYC with a Christian organization from my college. I remember the packing list, being told that I should only wear knee-length shorts and tops with at least a 2 inch sleeve. I forgot once and wore a spaghetti strap tank top to church – one of the leaders leaned down and asked me to put on my jacket [in 95 degree, 90% humidity weather] and I felt a wash of shame. The message was clear – my body was a liability, and it was my job to cover it up, lest my “brothers” stumble.
There were maybe 40 college students on this trip, men and women, and in the evenings we would all hang out together in the lounge of where we were staying. I remember the female leaders coming to our group of 19 and 20 years old girls a few days in and telling us that we needed to change what we were wearing in the evenings. Some of us had been wearing yoga pants and the guys told their leaders, who told ours, that it was too “distracting” to them to see us in tight fitting athleisure wear [yep, this happened – the yoga pants thing is not a joke].
The fact that these 20 year old college guys felt entitled enough to ask us to change our wardrobe to deal with their lust is infuriating and mind-boggling to me as an adult, and makes me want to tour every Christian church in the country to give a lecture about the harm of “modesty culture.” That’s not how I felt in that moment, though. In that moment I felt the same emotion I felt being catcalled when I was 13 – shame. A sense that this was my fault – for having a body, for drawing attention to it. It was my fault for being a woman.
I could go on and on – about the constant street harassment when I lived in New York, about being told to smile walking down Haight street in San Francisco, about making sure I always told a friend where I was meeting a first date so she could make sure I got home safe, about the looks and murmurs and unwanted attention that is part and parcel of the experience of being female. No matter where you go or who you’re with or what you wear.
The “what you wear” part feels important to call out – for a long time I believed the insidious lie that if you were dressed nicely or provocatively you bore part of the blame for men’s reaction to you. Pardon my French but that is total and utter bullshit. I’ve been catcalled wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt just as often as when I’m wearing a little black dress. It has nothing to do with what you wear – it has everything to do with power and control, and men reminding you that they are the ones who have it, and you’re not safe.
I remember going on a date years ago and talking about an organization I used to work at that helped victims of sexual assault [clearly I like to keep the banter light and cheery on a first date]. I mentioned the statistic that 1 of 3 women in the US is sexually assaulted and this guy looked at me like I had three heads. “1 out of 3? You mean assaulted like with words right?” I almost laughed out loud, though it’s the opposite of funny. No, buddy, I mean 1 of 3 is physically assaulted – assaulted with words is 3 out of 3, no question.
I look at my friend groups and social circles, and those statistics come alive in a sickening, heartbreaking, fall to-the floor in grief way. I know story after story after story – what really keeps me up at night is the stories I know exist that I haven’t heard.
The worst part about all of my “Me Too’s?” I know I am SO DAMN LUCKY. Compared to what I KNOW are the experiences of so many of my friends, acquaintances, coworkers, women who have written articles or shared their stories – mine are painfully benign. They are a mosquito bite compared to Stage 4 cancer. I don’t say that to minimize my experiences, to say they don’t matter, because they do – because they are still wrong, and they still hurt and impacted me and it’s not right that they happened. All of our stories matter.
I point out that mine are relatively minor to make it crystal clear that this is a problem, an epidemic, a Stage 4 cancer in our society, and this needs to end. Every woman I know, myself included, has adapted to it, learned ways around it, to attempt to minimize the risk and the damage – but that’s not the way I want us to live. That’s not the world I want to bring daughters – and sons- into.
They myth of the “few bad guys who hurt women” is just that – a myth. 33% of women are not being sexually assaulted by 1% of men – they are being assaulted by their friends and acquaintances and co workers and ex boyfriends and first dates. 100% of women are not being catcalled and harassed and made to feel unsafe going for a run or walking to the grocery store by 1% of men. This is a problem that runs deep, and no man is exempt from culpability, even if it’s unintentional.
I feel deeply thankful to know so many good men. Men who are allies and partners and friends of women, on an individual and collective basis. Men who treat women – all women, not just the ones they are related to or friends with – with respect, dignity and kindness. Men who are aware of their own gender privilege, and are open to learning about women’s stories and experiences, open to feedback [without being defensive] about the ways they can change and do better to help create a world where women aren’t treated at second class citizens, but as people. I am profoundly grateful to these men for giving me hope, for being my friends, and for modeling behavior that influences their friends and coworkers and children.
I also, sadly, know a lot of men who seem like “nice guys” but when you scratch the surface, the truth is much darker. Men who say they’re all for equality in the workplace, but constantly interrupt women, who make “jokes” and passing remarks that diminish women’s intelligence and abilities. Men who see no ethical inconsistency with going to church on Sunday morning and hearing a sermon about how we are all- men,women, black, white, gay, straight – God’s precious children, created in His image and full of incredible worth, value and dignity – then going to a strip club on a Sunday night where women are objectified and treated as less than fully human. Men who don’t hear a woman’s “no” as a complete sentence, but rather a jumping off point for negotiations and manipulation to get what they want.
Here’s the thing though – I believe those men can change. If I didn’t believe that, I’d just curl up in a ball of despair right now. I have hope that, just like every hard and sad and seemingly intractable problem in our world, progress is possible, and it starts with all of us on an individual level. To quote Oprah [which always seems like a good place to start] “When you know better, you do better.”
I think change starts with men being willing to listen – really listen – to women’s stories and do some honest and painful soul searching. I understand that it’s uncomfortable – just like it’s uncomfortable for me as a white person to really listen to the stories of people of color and know I’ve been complicit in their pain. That’s a really hard truth to reckon with. But my discomfort seems an awfully small price to pay if it means moving forward toward a world where all people are treated with equality, dignity and respect. Reckoning with our own privilege [which we all have in some way] is the birthplace of change – and the alternative to listening and repenting is continuing the cycles of oppression that hurt people, and that is not something I’m willing to be part of in any way shape or form.
So men – the really good news here is that you have so much potential and power to make this world a better place – for the women you know and care about, yes, but also for women you will never meet in your life, who also deeply deserve to live in a world where they are valued and treated as people, full stop. I know it’s hard to do the work – to reckon with your own privilege, to challenge the cultural assumptions of what it means to “be a man” [shoutout to the incredible organization A Call to Men that is doing such great work in this space]. I know it’s hard to say something when a sexist joke is made, to not just go along with the group making sexual comments about a woman behind her back, to be mindful of how much air time you’re taking up compared to your female colleagues.
It’s hard because the most important and meaningful and impactful things in life are really hard – change doesn’t come easily, but I believe it’s possible. So men, I am asking you to do some soul searching – be humble, ask questions, have these conversations with your friends and partners and sisters and colleagues. Ask what you can do.
Because in so many ways my experiences have been best case scenarios compared to what could have happened, what does and has happened to so many women – and I am still freaking exhausted.
I’m exhausted from constantly being on guard, from weighing the pros and cons of accepting a drink, of smiling at a stranger, of wearing a pair of shorts on an 80 degree day. I’m exhausted from having to prove that I’m just as smart as the men in the room, from laughing off sexist remarks so as not to rock the boat, from apologizing to men when I’ve done nothing wrong because diffusing the situation and ensuring my own safety has to be prioritized above speaking my mind. I’m exhausted from having to be hyper aware of my physical, emotional and psychological safety all the damn time. I’m exhausted and I know I’m not the only one.
I believe change is possible, and I refuse to give up hope – but nothing is changing unless we’re all in this together.