It was cold and rainy out, and the subway as a result was packed, muggy, miserable. It was rush hour and at every stop more people stuffed themselves into the car. There's always just a little bit more room if you're willing to pull your personal space around you just a little bit tighter. And that's what people do in big cities, on packed subway trains.
Except, someone had moved inside my paper-thin cocoon of personal space. It's unavoidable, this touching of strangers on crowded trains, but unless someone jostles you hard or steps on your foot, you ignore it. It's the big city code, like the elevator-riding code. But this wasn't anywhere in the code.
The man standing behind me in this crowded subway car was rubbing his crotch against my back.
At first, I didn't realize that's what he was doing. I thought he was bumping into me because of the movement of the car. But it made me uncomfortable, and when I subtly moved forward a little bit, he moved too.
And then I thought --- and this is exactly what I thought --- "He can't possibly be rubbing himself against me. I'm fat."
But he was. I managed to glance at his face in the reflection of the window. His eyes were closed. He was enjoying himself. Breathing heavily.
I looked around. No one else was paying attention. How could they not see? The train was moving. There was not any place for me to go. And I didn't know what to do. It didn't occur to me to make a scene, or to shove my way closer to the door, or to do anything but try to edge further away. I was embarrassed by that time that I hadn't made a scene. I was afraid he might try to follow me home, and I didn't want him to know which was my stop, so I decided to get off at the stop before mine. In the rain.
As I got off the train, a middle-aged black lady who had been standing a little to my right and behind me said loudly, "That's right, we all see what you're doing! You nasty thing! You rubbin' yourself on that girl!" Why she didn't speak up while he was doing it, I will never know. But then, I'll never know why I didn't speak up, either.
I wasn't very scared during that encounter, more bewildered and confused. But I've been frightened during episodes of sexual harassment, to the point where I believed I needed to take possibly violent physical action to save myself. The first time was when I was in junior high school, on a date with my boyfriend Eddie. His older brother and their friends were driving us home from the mall, where we'd all been to the movies, and they weren't going straight home as I'd expected. Eddie and I were in the back seat, and the older kids, all teenagers, kept teasing Eddie, making nasty jokes, and pressuring him to kiss me. Eddie was a gentle, nice kid and never would have done it on his own, but he couldn't take the peer pressure and he did try to kiss me. That's all. But I didn't want him to, under the circumstances, and I felt very uncomfortable. I was scared of the older boys. I remember thinking about jumping out of the car at the next stop, finding a phone, and calling my mom. It didn't come to that. But anytime we went out after that, I made sure my mom was driving.
When I was in college, I worked at a Renaissance Fair, singing and helping sell food at a stand. At the end of the day, I was loading supplies back into the trailer, when the owner's husband followed me in and trapped me against the wall at the back of the trailer. He backed me up against the wall and put his hands on either side of me, so I couldn't get past. His face was very close to mine. It was dark, it was isolated, and no one else was around. But at first I didn't understand what was going on, because the idea that any man could find me attractive enough to want to grope or kiss was just beyond my comprehension. And yet, that was what he was trying to do. I don't remember exactly what he said --- all very suggestive --- but I did tell him that he needed to get out of my way or I was going to tell his wife. He laughed at that, and said, "Go ahead. What do you think she's going to do?" And I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Let's find out right now." He backed off and let me go, and I refused to go back in that trailer. I just stopped going to work after that. Quit without telling anyone why.
There've been other incidences. Once a guy I'd never met got mad at me because I didn't return his flirtations, and he threw a pear at me from across a room, hard, and hit me in the chest. Just the other day someone grabbed my ass in a restaurant, where I was leaning over the table talking to friends. I guess he considered it an invitation. I actually thought it was funny at the time. The point is, no woman is exempt, at any time. I can remember as a child seeing a man pass by my mother in a crowd and touch her breasts --- with her three small kids standing right there and my dad a couple of feet away!
I don't think I know a single woman who has not, in some form, been sexually assaulted or harassed. I know a number of women who have been raped; two of my dearest friends among them. Most of my friends don't talk about it much. They've moved on with their lives for the most part, although those who were raped always have it with them to some degree. I don't think about my own assaults or harassments much, unless something like the Steubenville rape comes up to make me think about it. They were upsetting at the time, but compared to what happens to a lot of women they weren't so bad, and I am strong and know my self-worth. I know that the men who did those things to me were and probably still are pathetic cowards who will never know the joy and rewards of a real, healthy relationship with a woman; and they are probably miserable people in their own daily lives, anyway. Living well is my revenge against those losers.
But I didn't talk about those things much when they happened, either. I told a couple of friends. I didn't tell my parents. I've never mentioned it to my husband. There is some part of me that feels I should have done something differently in each encounter, that somehow I failed because this happened to me and I didn't handle it well. I should have spoken up. I should have called those assholes on their behavior.
And I wish I had. I hope if it were to happen again, I would make a huge deal out of it and get them arrested. And I hope if I ever see something being done to another woman, I will have the courage to speak up.
But the real point is how common sexual assault and sexual harassment are. They happen constantly, and they don't just happen to girls and women who are young and hot, or provocatively dressed, or in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. They happen all the time to women and girls who are just going about their everyday lives, and have done nothing more provocative than possessing a vagina.
I bet that every woman who reads this blog has at least one story to tell. If you feel inclined to share, please do. And by the way, I know that men aren't exempt from sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, either. They don't deserve it any more than women do. NO ONE deserves it, under ANY circumstances.
So tell your stories. Maybe our brothers, husbands, sons, boyfriends, and friends who read them will realize that sexual assault and harassment are a violent and evil form of bullying that happen to women every day --- to women they know. Maybe the women in our lives who think rape only happens to "those kinds of girls", the kind who are "asking for it", will get a clue and stop hating on other women.
Maybe more people will be like my friend Zac. The other day, Zac stood up to a much bigger man who was cursing a woman in front of her children. "I may weigh 100lbs less than him, but I got him to be respectful and be quiet" he wrote on his FaceBook page. Then he thanked his parents for bringing him up to stick up for others. Another friend of mine --- grimly joking --- wrote that if his son had been one of the kids who stood around watching the Steubenville rape and did nothing, "I'd drown him --- or at least make sure he got sent to juvie with the perpetrators."
These are guys with parents who taught them how to be real men, and we need more real men like them. We need more real women, too, like this lady who cornered her flasher and loudly shamed him until the police arrived. (Turns out the guy was a repeat sex offender and was deported as a result of this arrest).
We need to look to ourselves, our spouses, our children, our friends, and STAND UP for those who are weaker and in trouble, even if we secretly think they got themselves in trouble or in some way were "asking for it". We, as a society and as individuals, need to stand up when we see it happening and say it is NOT OKAY.
Nobody asks to be abused. Man or woman, nobody asks to be hit, humiliated, injured, sexually assaulted, disrespected, made miserable. Nobody. And if we stand by and watch the bullies --- who become criminals --- get away with it, we are no better than they are.