The first time I remember it happening I was 14.
It was summer and I was wearing my new pale yellow halter with little flowers embroidered on it. I loved it. There is no memory of if I was wearing shorts or pants but whichever it was being 1974, I am sure they were denim. My hair was still long then halfway down my back and of course parted in the middle. I was almost my full height, only an inch or two to go and I was skiiiiiiny! Nothing more than a stick really not even weighing 100 lbs.
My friend Becky lived down the street, she was a year younger than me in school, was one of 5 kids, the youngest and the only girl. We were hanging by the apartment complex I lived in when her twenty-something brother Bill, who I hadn’t met since he had just moved back to Denver came up the street to fetch Becky home for dinner. Bill comes up to us, and without looking at Becky tells her it is time for dinner. He doesn’t look at her because he is looking at my overdeveloped bosom.
Not looking exactly but starring in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
Staring it way that makes me cross my arms in an attempt to hide. It is then that I understand the word leer. I FEEL the word, I know what he is imagining and I feel myself flush with embarrassment and fear.
“Nice lungs” he tells me. I am horrified, instantly understanding what he really means.
“I bet you can take really deep breaths. Let me see, take a really deep breath.”
My body stopped being my own that day in 1974. I realized without really understanding that I HAD to keep it covered up. That I had to be careful. That I was not safe if my female body parts were showing.
I didn’t understand that this was just the beginning. That this harassment would come in many forms, many ways, some threatening.
It is my guess that most women remember the first time, the fear, the nervousness, the un-sureness if they are safe are not. Most of us become used to it and I am guessing most women can’t remember each and every time, only the ones that scared us the most.
I was sitting on a city bus when a young man wearing a muscle shirt gets on and as he walks towards the back he is looking around then he spies me sitting almost in the back and makes a beeline to me. Even though the bus is mostly empty he sits next to me. He has that wild, wired-up look and energy of a man either crazy or tripping.
Immediately I know that I am in danger and have pressed myself as close to the window as possible as he looms over me. He looks me up and down with the smile of predator gives its prey, focuses on my face and says, “You have eyes like a cat.”
I remember him, this man who now has me trapped. He is the one in High School that completely lost it in a class and it took four police officers to get him handcuffed and out. My mind raced through the options:
Try to move seats?
Then instinctively I carefully, non-threateningly replied “Gotta’ be careful some times cats scratch.”
His eyes snapped as if I had slapped him. He leaned in so close I could feel his breath, “Girl, if you scratched me I would kill you.”
Frantically thinking with my head tilted downward submissively I held his gaze and went with honestly, “I don’t doubt it.” We stared at each other for what felt like an eternity then he laughed, said “Brave Girl” and got up and moved to the front of the bus.
By that point in my life I was 19 and had been harassed so many times I had learned how to balance that thin line of not being threatening but not being a target either. Each situation different from the next, what is correct in one case may only inflame the next. I had also learned to always reply.
Once while walking down the street a man passed me in the opposite direction said “Hello pretty lady.” I just kept walking. He turned at starting yelling and cussing at me following for half a block, most of the yelling was how I was a stuck-up bitch that didn’t know how to take a compliment, how it wouldn’t kill me to say thank you and smile.
After that I would always reply with a non committal 'Sup” and while I was asked numerous times, my rebellion was to never smile at them.
At 15 I was fired from my first job because I wouldn’t let a manager grope me and at 18 quit another because one wouldn’t stop trying.
I have been yelled at while walking down the street; brushed up against in crowds; grabbed on the dance floor; harassed because I politely said no to a dance; rubbed against on the subway; bartered being gropped so my date would drive me home; hit and called a whore because my boyfriend didn’t want me to wear makeup and have been raped, all because men believed they had a RIGHT to MY body.
My body stopped being mine at 14. The first time I was harassed because a man felt he had the RIGHT to stare and comment on my body even though I was clearly uncomfortable, even though I was a child.
These type of men believe they have the right because of decades of the sexiest chauvinism that permeates our culture. In jokes, in advertising, in music, TV, movies and games and in the people around us. In shaming women and their clothes, make-up, dance and their nerve to walk alone in the night... or the day.
It is time that this changes. That change can only come through awareness of our role in it. We all men and women need to do two things:
Stop it - Don’t degrade women by talking about their bodies, don’t objectify women in jokes or memes. Don’t say she deserved it or she shouldn’t have been there; doing that; wearing that. Don’t place the blame on women when they are harassed or raped. That blame only belongs to the harasser and rapist.
Speak Up - Silence is acceptance. If you hear someone say disparaging things about women, tell them to stop. If you see someone verbally or physically harassing someone tell them to stop. If someone says she deserved it; shouldn’t have been wearing that; shouldn’t have been drunk; or in any other way places the blame on a woman for being harassed or raped, speak up and set them straight the only person responsible is the harasser and rapist.
Women are our daughters and mothers and sisters, girlfriends and wives and friends, this is US...this is OUR FAMILY OF WOMEN, look around and see it happens everyday to women everywhere. BE the Change!