“What is the big deal?” I hear so many of you ask.
It’s a big deal because it hurts women like me. It opens up a painful, gaping wound that took so long to heal. It’s because it strikes a cord in the pit of many women’s stomachs who suffered at the hands and words of men who pushed us into a collective corner and grabbed our pussies. It hurts because those who say it’s nothing worse than raunchy banter are, at the end of the day, complicit in perpetuating verbal and sexual abuse by not holding the perpetrators culpable for their actions.
Why have I waited so long to speak up, you ask? There was a time when I did say something and was not believed, so I shut up, shutdown and made myself as invisible as possible. If I wasn’t seen, then maybe, just maybe, those men would leave me alone. My father’s friend, the dean and the counselor of my middle school, and my best friend’s father, were all guilty of uninvited and improper encounters which colored my path through life far more than they or I could have ever imagined.
For most of my life I lived with a shadow in my background – a silent and painful reminder that there were places in my life that I was led to believe were secure, but turned out not to be. Family friends, school, the work place, were meant to be safe locations and people but instead were venues where confusing and unforeseen things happened to a young girl too naïve to understand that she could and should speak up for herself and take a stand when certain lines were crossed.
Childhood memories of a drunken family friend whose hands grazed me in a way that didn’t feel right still haunts me. That man with his dark mustache and leering bloodshot black eyes who seemed to show up out of nowhere when I was on the beach in my bikini with friends, or later, as I came out of the bathroom after a shower with only a towel wrapped around me. He made comments about my body and how I looked, which left me embarrassed and frightened by him. I was ten years old.
Then there was the middle school counselor who called me out of class and into his office. After I entered the room, he shut the door behind me, grabbed me, pulling me onto his lap and held me in a bear hug from behind. I squirmed out of his grip, stood up and nervously laughed. I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do as I escaped his office and left the school grounds as quickly as possible. I walked the seven miles to my home in a state of bewilderment and utter loneliness. I was thirteen years old.
The dean of that same school, an amateur photographer, asked multiple times to take photos of me. He told me that I could use them as part of a modeling portfolio, a profession I never aspired to. His harassment continued until I finally agreed. Understand that this man was the head of my school, in the ultimate position of authority, and I was afraid of him and his temper. I told him many times that I didn’t want my pictures taken, but he insisted that I should. I knew he had taken photos of some of my classmates so I thought it would be OK and I gave in hoping that if he took my pictures, he would then leave me alone.
On the day of the shoot, I asked a friend to come with me to the park across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel where I was to meet him. When he saw the two of us arrive, he became clearly irritated. The next week in school, he pulled me into his office and angrily reprimanded me for bringing someone with me who he had not invited. He said it wasn’t a polite thing to do. I was thirteen years old.
After that, I cut class for almost two weeks before the school notified my mother. I was taking the bus to school, walking to Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood and catching a public bus to the beach where I would spend my days. I was careful to make it back to school in time to catch my school bus home.
My mother was furious when she found out I had not been in school. I wasn’t able to clearly articulate what was going on – I couldn’t find the words since I didn’t have the maturity or experience to comprehend what was happening. I did tell her that my counselor had physically handled me in manner I didn’t like. She met with the principal of the school who assured her I had issues with authority and was simply misunderstanding the caring gestures from an advisor.
A few years later my mother apologized to me for not believing me – she had seen on the evening news that the dean had been arrested for molesting female students. My photos were amongst the many of young girls that lined this man’s walls in his home.
Then there was my dear friend’s father. During the same period of time as the middle school incidents, while driving me up Benedict Canyon to my home, he suddenly pulled the car to the side of the dark winding road and turned the ignition off. He turned to me, took my hand in his and in a seductive voice proceeded to tell me that he had thoughts and dreams about having sex with me. Absolutely terrified, I looked down at the floor of the car and didn’t respond. He started the car and drove me to my house. I was too embarrassed to tell anybody and never said a word about the alarming episode. I was thirteen years old.
These are the types of situations that are not entirely unique and in an insidious way, groom a young girl for more of the same and form an expectation of a certain amount of abuse as being normal.
Into my thirties, I was still under the adverse spell of the molesters and abusers, the men who had stepped over a sexualized line with a young girl. It was at a work event when a top executive of the company I worked for, slipped his hand under the back of my shirt, stroking up and down my back and finally, resting his hand on my ass, when my “f-you” voice began to rise. Still in the volume of a meek whisper, it had begun to find its way from the depths of my pain and out of my lips.
It was only once my son was raised and in college, when I felt I could afford to lose my job, that my cry became too powerful to suppress. A compelling force of self-assurance and personal love meant I could no longer stifle the anger and feelings that had been bottled up for decades. I found my voice and learned to hold boundaries, challenging the nefarious minded individuals who felt entitled by power, position or lack of moral character.
The sad truth is, I know many women who quietly crawled away from date rape during their college years, endured sexual harassment in the work place, and tolerated denigrating relationships, all because they needed a pay check to survive, felt shamed, tarnished or too afraid to speak up.
When I woke up one morning following the release of the video of Donald Trump boasting about how his celebrity allowed him to “grab them by the pussy,” I was enraged to see Facebook friends, mothers and fathers of daughters, posting comments explaining away such behavior as “men being men” and “locker room talk”, repeating Trump’s strategic PR spin. It felt like a slap to our aggregated victimized face. I’ve been around long enough to know that secure, smart, sensitive, conscientious men, do not speak of women in such a way, whether women are present or not. It’s an insult to men to suggest that vulgar conversations are somehow such a part of the male DNA that they must be considered excusable.
So when you ask “why now?” My answer is this – to mend the painful, bleeding gash that those abusers left on my soul. To gather around my sisters who know the suffering and shame of such trauma and worse. To join the rising voice of women who will no longer allow men to grab their pussies, and to teach young men and women to challenge anybody who steps into their personal space uninvited.
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