Yesterday was my 24th wedding anniversary, but this won’t be a love story. Plenty of those have been told and plenty more will unfold, but yesterday, as I sat down and logged on to social media for the first time in 48 hours, I was struck by the #metoo posts. Some included just the words, large or small. Some included instructions – what the #metoo signified, a personal experience with sexual harassment, or assault, and how one could participate. Some included stories from long ago, or as recently as last week. I scrolled and read, unable to turn away from the vulnerability of the posts and the obscenity of the numbers.
My first impulse was to type in “Of course #Metoo ” but something about that didn’t feel quite right. My dad would read that post, my brothers, my husband, their friends, my friends, my mom. Would they ask for details? Would I want to share them? Would I be more offended if they didn’t ask? And worse yet, would I have to explain myself, frame my story with the caveat that “Yes, I believe in personal responsibility” and own the fact that some of the incidents could have been avoided if I had planned better, been more careful, less young and dumb? I’d like to think all that goes with saying, but I couldn’t type #metoo without saying it all.
That’s why I came here.
I know many of my readers aren’t on social media and may not even be aware of the hashtag and what’s trending on Twitter and Facebook, but I think it’s important enough of a conversation to have a greater length, because it is complicated, painful, shameful (for many of us) and requires more nuance and vulnerability than we can usually muster, even in face to face conversations. It is difficult to sit with someone in their pain and truth and not want to explain it away, cheer them up, or defend our part or participation in it. This isn’t just about Hollywood or Washington DC, Weinstein, or Trump. This is about you and me, our sons and daughters, our grandchildren and the world we want to live in and we only get to live in the world we are willing to create.
When Tim walked in the door yesterday, I wanted to feel romantic and grateful; instead I felt sick to my stomach, awash in memories I had put away for decades.
Here are some of my #metoo experiences – not all of them by any means, just some of the early ones…
A quick heads up: the language I use in this essay is graphic and may be uncomfortable. I’m sorry about that, but I didn’t edit my language now, because none of the language was edited for me at the time.
Freshman year. 14 years old. Mater Dei High School. Spanish 2 with Ms. McCracken. Group work with one other female and two males, both sophomores.
“Do you like cocks that are long, or thick?” I ignore the question and look away. I’m sure I blushed. I try to get back to the task at hand, conjugating preterite verbs. “C’mon, freshman. If you don’t know yet, you’re going to need to figure it out.” They keep asking, seemingly unable to concentrate on the “-o” or “-aste,” or “-aron” endings until they know my preference for something I am completely ignorant of, something I am in fact terrified to even think about. I finally blurt out an answer, my best guess, just to get them to stop, which they promptly tell me is wrong, apparently because of their expertise with the female orgasm (and I’m guessing the shape of their own anatomy). I pray never to be in their group again, but occasionally am, where questions like that keep popping up over the course of the year.
Why didn’t I say anything?
Because I was a 100 lb girl-child being spoken to by “good, Catholic boys,” supposedly my brother’s friends. Maybe this is what “friends” do in high school? Anyway, why bother speaking up? Up until that point in my life, every report I had ever made to one of my beloved authority figures about bullying, or teasing was met with redirection, straight back to me. It was always my problem, something I had to figure out, a fact of life I had to deal with. But even in a best-case scenario, IF I had been believed and IF the teacher had chosen to engage and IF the boys had been called out to speak with the dean, or principal and given some consequence, I still would have embarrassed my brother, and become a social pariah, a girl who couldn’t take a joke, a tattletale, a prude. High school was way too long to sideline myself so early.
Sophomore year. 16 years old. Homeroom class, sitting next to a good friend.
My friend keeps asking me if I have an “itchy snatch.” I’ve known this person for years and we’ve never talked like this, so it catches me off guard. Why would he talk to me about the biological state of my vagina? I ignore the question. He asks again. I change the subject. He goes along with my new topic. The next day, the question comes back. And the next. Finally, I ask him what the hell he is talking about. Does he really want to know if I have a yeast infection, because yes, I’m a swimmer. It happens, but no, I currently do not have an “itchy snatch.” Oh, he looks offended by my answer. I just meant did you want to get laid, you know, like an itchy trigger finger. I still don’t know if he was offering to help me “take care of it” if my answer was yes. We were just friends, or at least I thought we were, but I learned that’s what it meant to be “just friends” with a lot of guys. You never knew when your body, desires, activities and undergarments were going to be up for conversational (and sometimes physical) grabs.
Senior year. 17 years old. Religion Class.
The priest who is teaching our class on family life and morality makes a big speech at the beginning of the semester about how the “ladies” in his class are supposed to sit. Required to wear skirts that reach our knees as part of our uniform, in his class we are also required to take special care with the placement of our knees and hemlines. It is offensive when we aren’t careful, so we must keep our knees pressed together, or legs crossed at all times. Also, keep your skirts pulled down to the tops of your knees. It’s not fair to your male classmates to have too much of your legs showing. We are seniors. This is our fourth year at this school, where close to half our teachers have been male and this is the only teacher who has ever delivered this speech. He offers it confidently as a man, in front of his fellow men, to the women sitting before him, who are sure to fail him in his endeavor to keep the male minds from undue temptation. More than once that semester, he comes up behind me and whispers in my ear that too much of my leg is showing and I need to cover myself. I sit in the last row. In the back corner. He is the only one who could even see me.
Summertime. 16- 17 years old. Huntington State Beach.
I am one of a handful of female lifeguards in a big-time boys club, mostly men between twenty and forty. Baywatch is popular on TV, so even though I am a trained first responder, my blond hair and red one peice is the most compelling thing about me. I am photographed on duty in my tower. I am approached by men, chatted up and asked for my phone number. Their favorite pick up line: “If I go pretend to drown, will you save me? Can you give mouth to mouth?” I know how to deal with that kind of nonsense. Part of the job, I guess. I’m a little older now.
What surprises me is the interactions with my co-workers. I like most of them. They are cute, funny, athletic watermen, but they are older, so I am satisfied with my fantasy crushes. Some of them like me too, I think, complimenting me by saying, “Aw Bush, if you were 18, I’d ask you out in a heartbeat.” Bush: The double-entendre is not lost on me. I’ve been hearing it since I hit puberty. Boys love calling me by my last name, perhaps as a reminder of the part of me they find most interesting? I remember thinking, Why not ask me out now? Why wait another year? But deep down I know. They won’t go out with me if they can’t sleep with me. Whatever else we have in common, however much they like me, it isn’t enough to overcome my sexual unavailability.
But my age doesn’t stop others from trying. I get propositioned more than once to have sex in the lifeguard tower. “C’mon, don’t you ever think about it?” they ask. Nope, I don’t, I answer, but ask the lifeguard in the next tower. He might give you a different answer. I am told by one of my supervisor’s that his doctor recommended regular sex to loosen up and ease his lower back pain. Would I be interested in helping him out? I decline and laugh it off, but I’m confused. What am I supposed to do with that? I thought we were friends and that he liked me. In his mind, we probably were friends; that’s why he asked. He could have hit up someone else if he didn’t think I was pretty enough. In those years, I am frequently asked by “friends” to “help them out” with all sorts of things from back pain, to being “backed up.”
Why didn’t I say anything if I was so uncomfortable?
There are so many reasons.
The “tattletale” syndrome, the fear of spoiling “everyone’s good time,” the “no harm/ no foul” mindset, the “locker room talk” excuse, the “you should take it as a compliment” explanation, the “what did you expect” question, the “tough it out” coaching approach. And I knew that even if I did bring it up, call them out, make a fuss, it wouldn’t matter. Nothing would change.
But there was also the very powerful influence of my religious upbringing which taught me that male temptation was a female problem. I was the cause as much as the victim. Though I have heard it my whole life, I never could totally work that one out, even as deep down, I believed it. How is it that just by being me, by making it through puberty, by being in the room, by wanting to be a part of a co-ed crowd, I had somehow given these guys permission? And these #metoo moments I’ve shared are just the awkward conversations. I’m still not ready to talk about the hands that went places I wish they hadn’t, the things I wish I hadn’t seen and the dangerous and life-altering situations I found myself in.
The world we live in is changing, but those scripts do not. They ran through my mind as I processed the moments I wrote about, as well as the ones I didn’t. And they almost kept me from publishing this essay. Why in the world does telling these stories matter? It’s ancient history. You’re fine. You learned. You grew. Let it go.
But ultimately, I couldn’t. I don’t know what the tangible outcome of this viral movement will be, but I do know it is raising our consciousness and that, at least, is a start. Thank you to all the women who have courageously shared #metoo and all the men and women who have shown up to support them.