As soon as the “me, too” posts started on Facebook recently, I joined in. Of course. Didn’t everyone have an incident of sexual harassment or assault in their past?
I guess I’ve just gotten too hard and cynical over the years, because I assumed few women had escaped this behavior. I was very surprised when my own mother said, no, no one had ever done this to her.
I also saw Facebook friends who cataloged all the instances they’d experienced. That actually made me recall incidents I’d totally forgotten.
There was the time I attended a Christmas party for our church choir when I was about nineteen. A beloved elementary school teacher, a fellow choir member, volunteered to drive me home from the party. (I didn’t drive in those days and depended on the kindness of others for very long or late drives; otherwise I walked.) As he slowed to let me out of the car, he leaned over and said, “You know, I’d love to ravish you.” I was surprised because he didn’t seem the type–grandfatherly, considerate, a pillar of respectability. He’d been drinking at the party, but still. I didn’t feel threatened. I laughed it off, and he let me out of the car without further comment. To this day, I still marvel over it. It wasn’t something I ever would have dreamed coming from him.
I also remembered instances when I was at Clown College in 1977. There was one student who might have had a little thing for me. Whenever he sat next to me in the bleachers or at one of our class movie nights, he loved to reach over playfully squeeze my thigh. He was a couple of years younger than me, and I tended to regard him as a mischievous little brother. I’d give him a “look” but I never blew up over it. Yes, it was an intrusion, and sometimes there was plenty of disgust in that look, but it was never a big thing to me. Later that fall, one of the male students yelled to me that so-and-so said he wondered if I had trouble staying upright on the trampoline because of my big bust. I was more insulted by that incident but still scornfully laughed it off.
At one publisher where I worked in the ’80s, several males in management positions were notorious for being a little too friendly with their hands. Most of the women had their turns at having their shoulders kneaded or putting up with sleazy innuendo. No doubt there are other times that I just haven’t retained in memory. What always come to mind when I think of sexual harassment/assault are what I call the “big three.”
The first was when I was nineteen in my first apartment; a relative stripped my top and bra and sucked my breasts. That one really upset me. It also showed me what so many women describe: how easily you freeze up, go into a kind of trance while it’s going on. I’d fought back at first, but once he got started I was transfixed and just sat there. Except at some point I said, “This is as far as it goes.” Thank God he did relent after that. It was a couple of years before I told anyone about it.
The second was when I was working as an elf in Santa Land in a local department store. I was twenty-four. The best Santa, who might have been in his thirties, liked to do ornery things with some of the stuffed animals heaped around his “throne.” He also could be insistent at times about me coming over and sitting on his lap when things got dull. (As “elf” I took pictures of kids sitting on Santa’s lap, but there were lulls when literally nothing was going on.) When we elves were trained, we were warned that sitting on Santa’s lap meant immediate dismissal. For the elf in question, that is. I don’t recall anyone saying anything about firing Santa.
I always pointed out the “immediate dismissal” thing when Santa started harassing me about climbing on his knee, but that didn’t dissuade him. One day we were going back and forth over this when he shrank back against his throne and cried, “Okay, okay. Don’t hit me with that camera!” Suddenly the supervisor appeared and said, “Nancy, do you need a break?” Apparently my voice had gotten louder and louder as we argued; one of my coworkers said they could hear me clear up at the cash registers.
The third incident was when a bunch of us from my clogging group went down to Natural Bridge for the weekend. There was always a hoedown on Saturday night, but we departed after work on Friday evening. One of our older dancers had a motor home; we were all going to sleep in it camp style.
It was November, 1980. I don’t remember how else we spent the evening besides having dinner, but I recall that was the night they revealed who shot JR on “Dallas.” We sat around in the hotel lobby watching it on the communal TV. Back in the motor home, different people were doing different things. The owner of the motor home got to grab-assing with one of the women nearer his age and maybe someone else (I think he was the only married one of our group; most of us were in our ’20s and ’30s).
I don’t recall how I wound up in the middle of it. A motor home is relatively small, especially with several people in there at once. But the randy gentleman turned his attention to me all of a sudden, and before I knew it he was trying to push me backward onto one of the bunks and land on top of me. I remember kicking fiercely at his shins, the only part of him I could reach, and hitting him and yelling. I guess he backed off, and maybe it was never supposed to be more than “play,” but I was badly shaken. He’d been sort of a fatherly figure to the group and I’d never seen that kind of behavior out of him before. (His wife had health problems and usually never came along on any of our dance outings.) I’d hated the gleam in his laughing eyes and the way he’d stuck his tongue out between his teeth as he was pushing me down. We weren’t alone. I probably was never in any danger, but I genuinely felt assaulted. I grabbed my coat and went for a walk by myself in the chilly, darkened woods. It took me awhile to force myself to go back inside. I’m not sure I’m remembering this correctly, but I believe at some point, maybe when he let me up, he said something like, “Nancy, you’re a good sport.”
Ugh. This whole thing with Weinstein has been like a poultice that’s brought some ugly boils to a head. I feel bad that so many women have endured episodes like these, and I almost feel worse that “me, too” has awakened memories some women had buried, resurrecting the traumas and causing fresh pain. I’d like to believe men have been evolving and more are behaving better than in the past. But there’s a long, long way to go.