Sexual harassment. It's the conversation we're finally having ever since the recent allegations came out against Harvey Weinstein. Since all this started I've seen amazing women coming forward to tell their stories, big and small. I've witnessed conversations about the consequences of victim blaming, the prevalence and normalization of workplace harassment, and just general wishes to overthrow the patriarchy. I didn't plan to do a blog post focused on this topic, but there's an important element of this discussion that I feel is missing. Unfortunately, it's an element I can personally speak to: sexual harassment and depression.
At age 17 I had recently dropped a bunch of weight and was the skinniest I'd ever been. Eating disorders will do that to you. Being skinny was everything I always hoped it would be. I could finally borrow my friends clothes, and wear shorts without being embarrassed. I finally fit into the stereotypical idea of beauty. My hip bones jutted out. I was also finally attracting the attention of guys. Lots of attention.
I was at a work event that brought together all of the regional branches of the clothing store I worked for. I met a guy. He got my phone number. He asked me on a date.
He told me we were going to eat dinner and watch a movie. I thought he meant we would eat dinner at a restaurant and watch a movie in a theatre. We'd been driving for almost an hour when I finally asked where we were headed. He said we were going to his house. This struck me as cheap, but not sinister. Inconvenient, but not problematic. During our time in the car I found out that he wasn't 19, like I thought, but 21. This struck me as confusing, but not alarming. We arrived at his house, which was a trailer off a gravel country road in the middle of nowhere. This struck me as unimpressive, but not dangerous. To the pure all things are pure.
We went inside. He turned on the tv. The movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith was playing. He didn't even kiss me before putting his hand up my skirt. No one had ever had their hand up my skirt. I told him I didn't want to. He told me he would change my mind. I told him that was unlikely. He laughed and put his hand under my shirt. Then under my bra. No one had ever had their hand under my bra. I told him no. I moved his hands. I feigned interest in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. My unwillingness to participate in what he was doing did not deter him. I asked if we could grab dinner somewhere, but he wasn't hungry. I said I wanted to go home, but he didn't want to leave yet. I left to use the bathroom. I checked my cell phone. I had no service. I waited as long as was plausible and then went back out.
The rest of the evening was a balancing act. Be agreeable enough that he doesn't get angry. Agreeable enough that he doesn't decide to hurt you, or feel the need to hold you down. Be disagreeable enough that you leave this place without all of your "firsts" crossed off the list, only most. He touched me everywhere. I never touched him back. I always moved his hands. I never said yes. Eventually I just stopped saying anything. That. Is. Not. The. Same. Thing.
He took me home. We didn't speak. He texted me later to ask when I wanted to "hook up again". I said never. He called me a bitch.
That same night I gently broached the subject with someone I trusted. I didn't give vivid detail, but a general impression of how the evening had gone. Her response: That's just how boys are. You shouldn't let them do things like that.
I found someone at church who I thought could advise me. His response: Why were you in that situation in the first place? Why were you wearing such a short skirt? Why didn't you stop him?
I told a friend at school. Her response: My boyfriend touches me like that all the time. What's the big deal? You're such a prude.
Eventually I just stopped saying anything.
I started cutting again. I'd been clean for six months. I'd started medication. I was doing fine. Suddenly I became reclusive, angry, ashamed, and more depressed than before. I felt guilty for allowing something to happen to me that made me feel so dirty and look so naive. I was angry with myself for not seeing all of the warning signs before it was too late to change my circumstances. I was embarrassed for being so upset over something that no one else in my life seemed to think was that big of a deal. I thought God hated me for being a slut. I knew the guy hated me for not being cooperative. I was disheartened, believing that the only two options I had moving forward were to let guys touch me whether I enjoyed it or not, or be single and alone forever no matter how hard I worked to make my hip bones jut out. I felt like I deserved what happened. I had wanted to be skinny. I had wanted guys to like me. I had wanted attention. I asked for this. This was the first time I punished myself with cutting for something that someone else did.
Over the course of the year between losing weight and leaving for college I experienced behavior from men that was absolutely abhorrent. I received filthy texts and instant messages that described in detail what men wanted to do to me, or what they wished I would do to them. These came from boys at school, boys in the youth group, and even from a man at church in his late twenties. I was propositioned in grocery stores and learned not to turn my head when men started talking to me. I was hugged abnormally often and learned how to wiggle out of a hug that's lasted too long with a man who's hands wandered. I felt disgusting, used, unsafe, and wholly responsible. I hated myself for being whatever I was being that made men act this way toward me.
I eventually decided to protect myself by gaining back some of the weight. I wanted to blend into my surroundings and go back to being the girl no one noticed because she wasn't attractive enough. I protected myself from the outside world with a layer of fat. I stopped wearing make up and started wearing sweat pants. I needed to be plain. Frumpy. Unharassable. It worked. Then I hated myself for being unremarkable, unattractive, unable to keep the weight off.
I don't tell this story to garner any sort of sympathy over what happened. My story is mild compared to some. I have healed. I tell this story to remind men and women who don't think sexual harassment is "that big of a deal" that the consequences of sexual harassment on a person's mind are destructive, long-lasting, and sometimes life-changing. I tell this story to try and show people who aren't angry about sexual harassment why they should be. I tell this story to try and remind us all that the "little things" add up. Every look, every text, every boob-graze, every cat call, every crude joke, every "honey", every time a victim is blamed for an offender's actions, adds up to being made to feel less than human. Being made to feel less than human DOES AFFECT someone's mental state. It often leads to depression. Sometimes to self harm. Sometimes to suicide.
If you think women are up in arms about being whistled at, you've misunderstood. We're up in arms about what the whistling means, where it comes from, what it implies, and how it makes us feel. We hate the whistling and the boob-grazing because of how it whittles away at us over time, every day making us feel less human, less valuable, and demanding that WE be smaller in order to prevent behavior from others.
Well, I am human. I am valuable. I will not make myself small.