Trigger Warning-sexual assault, domestic violence
This #MeToo movement feels like ripping off a collective band aid-badly needed but painful. Seeing men that I admired admit to sexual assault hurts. It reminds me of my slow realization that the man I loved was abusing me. It took a long time to realize I was in an abusive relationship, too long. Gaslighting is powerful and for years I thought it was all my fault. As I read more recollections of sexual harassment and assault, it is starting to feel like we all have been gaslit, collectively.
I used to think I was lucky. I had my own stories but always downplayed them. In my mind they weren’t too bad. There was always, always, a female friend who experienced worse. Even after I left my abusive relationship, I downplayed the abuse. The other women at the Domestic Violence Resource Center had much more violent stories than mine. I never ended up in the hospital nor did I have any visible scars. Surely, I was one of the lucky ones.
Weeks of reading #MeToo stories is triggering. The little details that match up, the way we excuse unwanted touches, blaming ourselves. My PTSD is back for an uninvited visit bringing with it the usual lack of energy and concentration, the insecurities, the insomnia, the ex nightmares.
A friend from college shared her story of sexual assault on Facebook today and I was shocked how several details of her story matched mine. But I was never sexually assaulted as a girl I told myself. I was one of the lucky ones. Right?
Her recollection sparked a bad memory. How different it looks decades later. She inspired me to write about the incident but as I began another memory spoke up for attention. And then another. And another. It dawns on me that I’m not one of the lucky ones. I’m just like every one else who’s experienced this.
And that needs to change.
The incidents that follow are the “bigger” offenses. The memories that jump out, the ones that make my arms feel heavy as I write. The incidents I label as “smaller”-the catcalls, the creepy come-ons, the inappropriate comments on my appearance, the countless bra snaps in elementary school-those have become the background noise of what I experienced growing up female in a small mid-western town in the 80s. These experiences were so common they became normalized. That needs to change too.
It hurts to read about other women’s pain but it also helps tremendously. It’s like drinking liquid strength. One thing that has become clear these last few weeks is that there is strength in our collective sharing. Strength to change the system? I need to believe the answer is yes.
The first time I remember being sexually threatened I still had training wheels on my bike. I was five, maybe six? It must have been summer because I remember I kept looking down at the training wheels, trying to balance my bike so they would finally get taken off.
My Dad taught me how to ride. We would ride to the end our of dead end street, him rjogging alongside me, holding the bike seat to help me balance. One day he told me I’d be big enough to balance on my own and he’d take the training wheels off. I didn’t like being a child and yearned to grow up faster. In my little girl mind getting my training wheels taken off meant I would be a big kid.
One sunny day I was riding my bike while my Dad worked in the garage. I rode up and down our sidewalk, wobbling along, trying to balance without the extra wheels.
A car was at the stop sign but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by myself. By the time I got to the end of the sidewalk I looked up at the car wondering why it was still there.
A man was staring at me. The way he leered at me and rubbed his steering wheel scared me. He wasn’t from the neighborhood, I was sure I had never seen his car before. There was something wrong in the way he looked me up and down. I couldn’t articulate at that age what was happening, I just sensed danger. The temperature was hot that day but I remember shivering as I stared back at this strange man.
The man’s lips opened in a sneer and he crooked a finger for me to come closer. I didn’t know what he wanted but knew if I went closer I would be in danger. Fear welled up in me and told me to run. I remember turning my bike around and riding it down the sidewalk as fast as I could. I raced down the sidewalk only realizing I wasn’t using my training wheels as I neared my house.
My Dad saw me ride up the driveway on two wheels and congratulated me. I didn’t tell him what had just happened. I didn’t even fully understand it. He was congratulating me on being a big girl and I didn’t want to disappoint him by telling him about the stranger. I never needed my training wheels again.
In second grade two older boys fondled me on the school bus. For years I never liked riding the bus to school. I always assumed it was the loud and crowded space or the pecking order of where to sit that made me anxious. I met my best friend Jennifer by asking to sit next to her on the bus. The safety of sitting next to her made our friendship strong. It is only as I write this does it occur to me that my aversion to the school bus was influenced by the events that follow.
I remember I couldn’t find a place to sit and had to move all the way to the back of the bus where the older boys sat. Two boys made me sit between them which I didn’t like but couldn’t avoid. The bus was moving and the driver yelled at anyone still standing when the bus was in motion.
The boys kept trying to touch me. I kept pushing their hands away. They kept laughing and whispering things to each other. They were both taller than me and their heads were over mine. I felt small and scared. They both leaned into me, putting their hands on me and I kept trying to slap them away. It never occurred to me to yell for help. The bus driver became angry if we made too much noise and I didn’t want to get into trouble.
I remember I had on a coat with a zipper. The boy on my right unzipped it and put his hand down my shirt. The boy on the left put his hand up my skirt. I remember trying to squeeze my legs tight to stop him. They were bigger and stronger than me and I couldn’t stop them.
This happened on the morning bus ride to school. There were kids all around us. I remember the bus pulling into the queue and jumping up as soon as I could, pushing myself forward, trying to get off the bus as soon as possible.
I don’t remember all the events that day. But I do remember being in the principle’s office telling a woman what happened. My mother had taught me “good touch/bad touch” and I knew the boys had “bad touched” me.
One was in fourth grade, the other sixth. The bus driver must have been consulted because I remember the two boys being brought to the principle’s office and me being asked to identify them. I told the woman (the principle, a secretary? I don’t remember) that they were the two boys who had touched me.
I was sent back to my second grade class. My school had corporeal punishment and the two boys got spanked with the principal’s infamous wooden paddle.
The two boys avoided eye contact with me afterward. I never had to sit with them on the bus again. I always sat near the front of the bus after that. It never occurred to me until writing this that maybe my eagerness to get Jennifer to sit with me on the bus was for protection. Girls know there is safety in numbers.
Were my parents called over the incident? What about the boys’ parents? I don’t know. Some of my classmates told me I was a “bad girl” for getting the boys in trouble. They told me I made the boys get spanked which hurt them. They bad touched me I told myself. I didn’t tell my classmates. Maybe I was too young to argue. Maybe I didn’t want my classmates to be mad at me. I stopped talking about it and didn’t tell anyone else for years.
When I was in junior high school I went over to my friend Matt’s house to work on math homework. He was in a higher grade, maybe ninth, and having trouble with algebra. I liked math then, it always seemed like a coded game. It was the middle of the day and he was alone when I arrived. This didn’t seem weird at the time, a lot of my friends were latchkey kids.
In the middle of homework Matt leaned over and kissed me. It was a light kiss and made my stomach flutter. I liked Matt and had a bit of a crush on him. We went back to homework and I liked that too. A little kiss and we were still friends. I remember wondering if Matt could be my boyfriend one day.
A few minutes later I was working a math problem when he grabbed my hand and placed it over his crotch. I felt hardness under his jeans. Thankfully I had received sex education and knew what an erection was. But consent wasn’t something taught back then.
I felt uncomfortable and pulled my hand away. I didn’t like this side of Matt and hoped focusing on the math problems would indicate this. He grabbed my hand again and put it down his pants, holding it on his penis while staring at me.
This made me feel worse. I remember telling him no and trying to pull my hand away. His grip tightened and he held it there but I kept pulling, telling him no louder. “Come on,” he whined.
I pulled my hand out of his pants, grabbed my math book and ran home. Matt avoided eye contact with me at school the next day. Our friendship died and later in high school we would pass each other in the hallway as if strangers. I never told anyone for years.
The one that scared me the most happened at Bible Camp. I grew up agnostic in a fundamental Christian town. Agnostic wasn’t an understood concept when I was growing up so instead I was known as the atheist kid. As a girl I thought it was awesome that I got to sleep in on Sundays but my friends peer pressured me from an early age to go to church. My friend Jennifer had asked me to come with her to Bible Camp. She was my best friend so I said yes. I believe I was in the seventh or eighth grade.
From the start I didn’t feel comfortable at the Christian camp. I disliked the morality stories, skeptically questioning them but not daring to speak out. I felt extremely out of place as the atheist kid. One day after a Bible lesson a wet balloon contest was held on a big lawn. Many of the girls were all wearing white shirts and the boys kept throwing balloons at our chests. Adults were present but they didn’t stop anything. Boys will be boys right? I heard this a lot growing up.
I wandered off to a trailer to use the bathroom. When I came out an older boy was standing in the main room. I recognized him, he was the son of one of the pastors and was in his mid teens. Assuming he was waiting for the bathroom I started to walk towards the door.
He blocked my path. “Show me your tits,” he told me. Certain I had misheard him I again made for the door. Again, he blocked me. “Show me your tits.” I remember thinking he’s a pastor’s son, everyone will side with him. I told him no.
He pulled out a utility blade. It was one of those box cutters with the retractable blade. He pulled it out of his pocket and pushed up the blade while staring at me.
“You’re going to show me,” he said in a quieter tone that was much more menacing. There was a smugness to his voice, a confidence of someone used to getting what he wanted. Sometimes when I remember this incident it feels like he said something else but I can’t remember the words.
The way he looked at me was terrifying. I knew if I didn’t leave the trailer he was going to use that knife and force himself on me. I remember planning an escape-run around his left side since the knife was in his right hand. If he slashed out at my arms maybe I could still keep running.
Just then a pickup truck drove by. There were teenage boys in the back, their happy yelps were enough to distract my would be attacker. He momentarily looked over his shoulder and I seized my chance, running as fast as I could, shoving him as I passed. I ran out of the trailer and back to the main gathering of camp kids, looking for Jennifer and safety.
I never told her. I just said I didn’t want to go back to Bible Camp. I never told my parents either. They seemed relieved when I stopped going, likely happy I wasn’t getting religious.
I didn’t tell anyone because I thought no one would believe me. The teenage boy who threatened me was a pastor’s son. I was the atheist kid. At that young age I was convinced they would assume I was lying, trying to cause trouble for the church. For years I told no one.
Then there is the years of domestic violence. The bruises, the sprained-possibly broken-wrists taking weeks to heal, the seemingly endless amounts of broken glass. The slammed doors, the yelling, the insults of bitch and cunt and whore. Slowly I am learning how to talk about it but it’s difficult.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk about the abuse because it upsets people. They feel upset or sorry for me or powerless to change the system. It’s rattling but it also feels healing to share. It’s hard to open up your heart to show your scars.
This global sharing of pain feels like a watershed moment. What will come from this collective sharing? I don’t know but let’s all keep talking.