This post contains descriptions of sexual assault.
I was 19 the first time it happened to me.
I was standing in the coat check line of one of those seedy 18-plus clubs that reek of smoke, too much cologne, spilled booze. The music was still pulsating, but my body went numb when I realized what was happening. As his hand made its way up the back of my shirt and around to the front of my body—and eventually to my breast—I stood completely still and silent, too paralyzed with fear to even look back at who the hand belonged to.
Thankfully, my friend was there that night, and she was quick to notice—and react. She screamed, yelled, pushed my assailant away from me and eventually punched him square in the face. A stranger waiting in the same coat check line soon caught on and took over where she left off. My assailant was thrown out of the club.
And that was that. I never spoke of it again. I never reacted. I never even realized that I had been sexually assaulted, that I had unknowingly become part of the group of young women who are four times more likely than the general population to become a victim of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.
Years later, I found myself on a crowded subway during rush hour—once again frozen by an unwanted touch. I was so angry at myself for not yelling, pushing, fighting back, screaming “NO!” as loud as I could have.
It turns out I wasn’t alone in staying silent. In the U.S., someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported, and only six of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault will end up in prison. Women’s reasons for not reporting sexual assault include fear of retaliation, the belief that the police won’t do anything to help, shame and embarrassment and the belief that the incident wasn’t significant enough to report—a belief I held myself.
Since last October, thousands of women have broken their silence—telling stories of sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment. With all of the recent allegations, confessions and apologies, it should come as no surprise that the rates of workplace sexual harassment are sky high themselves. A 2016 study performed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Coalition (EEOC) showed that 1 in 4 women will be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace; there are also estimates that the number may be as high as 85 percent. And like with sexual assault, up to 75 percent of women are estimated to not report their harassment—fear of retaliation, shame and embarrassment and the belief that the incident wasn’t significant enough to report.
It is here where I am once again disappointed to be in good company. When I was 27 years old, I accepted a job at a group home for men. But after I accepted the position, my manager stopped communicating with me. He never told me a start date. He never followed up. When I finally got through to him, he informed me that he “regretfully had to rescind my offer”—because, “I can’t have a girl that looks like you do working in a house full of men.” I hung up the phone shocked, saddened, embarrassed, angry. I was college-educated and experienced. And I was naive enough to believe these days were behind us. But perhaps worst of all was the doubt the situation instilled in me. Had I dressed inappropriately for my interview? Did I come off as “too flirty?”
It wasn’t long until I realized it had absolutely nothing to do with me and was purely reflective of both the manager and the company he represented. Too embarrassed to tell my story, I never reported the blatantly illegal sex discrimination that I had experienced.
I was always the girl who adamantly claimed that I would never “lay back and let someone rape me.” I swore I would “fight back as hard as I could.” Then it did happen to me—and I didn’t.
I tell these stories because the power of #MeToo is the power of shattering silence and shame. I am hopeful that when we tell our stories, we shed our embarrassment and create a culture where assault and harassment are less rampant. If more perpetrators feared exposure and legal ramifications, if more perpetrators didn’t feel assured in our culturally-sanctioned silence, perhaps they’d be less likely to commit these heinous acts.
What has happened to so very many of us, to too many of us, was not our fault. We didn’t ask for it and we didn’t have it coming. We were victims of criminals who consciously chose to violate us. We owe it to ourselves to speak our truths and take back our control.
To all of the women who have already bravely shared their stories: my pussyhat is off to you. Well done. Let’s tell our stories until we’re sure that #MeToo will never trend when our daughters reach young womanhood.