He lifted me up by my armpits, sat me on the kitchen counter, leaned over me and slid his tongue into my mouth. I was eight years old. I was reading Beverly Cleary books and wishing I could be a horse. Do you think he had been listening to locker room banter? The second time I was kissed I was twelve or thirteen. He sat on my bed, ran his hand under the covers and put his fingers up inside me.
He made me hold his penis and rub it. I went to school the next day, sitting in class like nothing happened. I told my mother only that he had propositioned me, not anything else. It took twenty years and much therapy before I could tell her the full story, before I could admit it even to myself.
This man had known me since I was nine — he had two daughters. How had this happened? Had he started listening to locker room banter? I pretended I was okay, but I tried to kill myself not long after that. When I was fifteen I was date raped at summer camp by a boy I had a crush on.
Did he not hear me? Perhaps his ears were too full of locker room banter. The next day I tried to talk to him, to tell him what had happened wasn't okay.
He looked at me with a blank face and dead eyes. To him it was nothing. I feared I was pregnant afterwards. Maybe I should have protested louder. But I thought he wanted to be my boyfriend. I ran into that boy at a Christmas party decades later. But simply being a woman made me vulnerable. There was nothing I could do to avoid that. In college I was careful. If a guy showed interest and seemed safe and we started dating, I pretended to get drunk and pass out, just to see what he might do. Would he put a blanket over me and be kind, would he push me aside in disgust or anger at not getting what he wanted, or would he take the opportunity to go up my shirt or down my pants?
I needed to know if I could trust him when no one was looking. I chose well and never had to deal with the latter. When I was twenty, I went running on a bike path along a river in the city where I was a student. There was a park and families came to enjoy the sunset in the evenings. Fishermen lined the water. It was a popular place. That day had been rainy.
The clouds cleared by late afternoon, but when I arrived the park was empty. I had never seen it like this. As I ran, I heard footsteps that got louder — two men, running directly behind me. Turning my head I got a glimpse of them. They were not wearing running clothes. I sped up, trying to outpace them.
They sped up too. They began to grab my ass. I whirled around to face them but they grabbed at my breasts. I broke off and ran away from them—faster this time, but they kept up. Their legs were longer, they were stronger, and there were two of them. They kept grabbing at me. I kept breaking away and trying to outrun them. I could kick them in the shins, I thought, I could kick them in the balls.
I had been learning how to play rugby; I knew how to tackle. That was the thought that leapt unbidden to my mind: I had been raised to see men, all people, as human, to be concerned about their welfare, to be a nurturer, to care.
I had never listened to locker room banter. I was also practical: They were bigger and they were stronger. I kept pushing their hands away from my body. He reached down to grab it, cursing. There was no one around to hear me, but I screamed anyway; I made as much noise as I could. They ran away, laughing.
On the subway home, I sat on the hard, plastic seat rocking back and forth. There were four other people in the compartment: The train compartments did not have doors connecting the cars. I felt sick, panicked that the couple might get off at the next station and leave me in a closed compartment with two men.
I no longer knew what they might be capable of. When I saw her, I burst into tears and she thought someone had died. She was not entirely wrong. The next day I asked the dean of my academic program to go with me to the police station. We spent the afternoon looking at mug shots of known rapists. There were pages and pages of them. Had they all been listening to locker room banter? I wanted only for this crime to be recorded, to be a number.
I wanted my pain to be counted. The police told me it was the fault of the immigrants. When I returned to school I explained to my professor why I had missed class.
There have been other instances as well, though less violent. Boys who were dating my girlfriends who also tried to kiss me in secret. There was the coworker who, in front of our shared work colleagues, announced that my breasts were like overgrown melons. He was 56 and a father of daughters; I was There was the man in southern Italy who grabbed at me as we passed each other on the sidewalk, laughing with his friends.
There was the teenager who stood near me at an empty train station on a cold January day in Japan. It was snowy and he was shivering, his thin shoulders shaking. I worried about him. Until I saw that he was masturbating. I have been catcalled and followed and made to feel unsafe on three continents and in more countries than I care to count. The only thing I have done was to be female and to have the gall to leave the house.
How do I dress? I like turtlenecks and long scarves. I rarely show my legs. I wear shoes I can run in, in case I might need to get away. Most of the time I wear the same black fleece vest that zips into a turtleneck. It cloaks my stomach, waist and chest. It makes me feel safe. It feels like my armor. But my appearance is irrelevant and these are the wrong questions to be asking. The mistake we make is thinking that harassment is about desire, lust or even attraction. Harassment is about dominance.
I am more powerful than you are. I can do what I want.