I was moved by the story below about a mother protecting her 3-year-old daughter from a disrespectful and inappropriate step-grandpa. It made me reflect on the often insidious and silent experience we have as girls and women in a patriarchal world.
Because this is a topic too often silenced, I want to share my own personal experience of being a girl and a woman. I had many privileges that likely sheltered me from additional experiences. Being white, middle-class, educated and not being exposed to incest to name a few. So as you read my experience, know that it is the experience of a privileged girl and woman. Many others have had, and have, it MUCH worse. Nonetheless, my experience may be illuminating for men to understand the constant vigilance even a privileged girl and woman must endure.
Despite innumerable inappropriate encounters at the hands of men from the age of 8, I have been extremely lucky. I’ve never been physically molested or raped. Unlike more than 50% of my close women friends.
The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) data show that one in three women worldwide have been subjected to physical or sexual violence. A January 2021 study by U.N. Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality, found that 97% of women have been sexually harassed. Ask any woman you know about this statistic and you will likely find the only surprise is that it isn’t 100%.
As a child and adolescent, I can recall no less than 7 incidences where I was approached by and had a close call with a potential molester, had men expose themselves to me while I was walking down a street, in a park and on public transit, and even one incident when I was 15 years old and actually got jumped by a man in an alley on my way home from school. By the grace of God, three people walked up the alley just then and the man ran away.
I can’t count the times I have been verbally assaulted by having a man or group of men “catcall” me while I was going about my own business. It’s not a compliment. It’s sexual harassment. It’s an assault.
As a young professional I endured the unwanted and inappropriate sexual attention, and, on a few occasions, aggressive pursuit, of men at work, all of whom were much older than me, held positions of power over me and were usually married.
Most men I’ve worked with were and are wonderful and respectful. However, there is a subset of predators out there who use their power in subtle and overt ways to have their way with women and men. Many of them may think it is flattering, acceptable and even appropriate. In light of the #metoo movement, awareness and education are growing.
For the last 20 years I’ve been sheltered from most of those experiences by running my own company and by the glory of getting older and off the radar of prowling men.
Here is just one example of an incident I had to manage in my 20s as a journalist and field producer for a major TV network. It was during the First Gulf War in 1991. I was based in London and on a trip to Jerusalem to cover a story related to the war.
After a long day of shooting video footage and conducting interviews, the team and I were having drinks in the hotel bar, along with a senior correspondent from headquarters. After an hour or so, the correspondent left us and said he was heading to bed. About 20 minutes later, the bartender came to me and said there was a call for me. What? Late at night in a hotel bar in Jerusalem? Who the hell could it be? It was the correspondent telling me not to say anything but that he wanted me to meet him in his hotel room to discuss something.
I made my excuses to the crew and left the bar and headed to the fancy hotel suite of the correspondent. I felt important, thinking there might be some lead or story angle he wanted to discuss with me. In the back of my mind, I realized it was totally inappropriate for him to discuss anything with me so late and in a hotel room, but he was the boss in this situation, so I felt I had to go. He invited me in, offered me a drink, asked me to dance with him and then told me how attracted he was to me. I had to figure out how to extricate myself from this situation without bruising the ego of this powerful man. It was not flattering. It was not fun. It was excruciating and familiar for a young woman traveling with mostly older men.
I did manage to get out of that hotel suite without having a sexual experience with this man, who was more than 40 years my senior, by letting him know how wonderful he was and how I wished we could but couldn’t. I did have to physically stop his advances while verbally stroking his ego so he wouldn’t feel threatened and put my career in jeopardy.
That was a juggling act I had to do more than once. And it will have a familiar ring for many of the women reading this.
I’ve told very few people about that incident. I certainly didn’t report it. In the back of my mind I worried that somehow I shared some of the blame. Did I listen to his stories in the bar with too much attention? Did I smile in a way that led him to believe I was interested? The answer to those questions is NO. It wasn’t my fault. But societal messages told me otherwise.
This experience of dealing with a lack of physical or sexual boundaries starts young for girls, as the following story so clearly portrays.
Our patriarchal cultures have historically given men permission to dominate women in subtle and overt ways. As women, we’re not supposed to talk about this for fear of judgement and repercussions. How wonderful it is, and another privilege I have, to now feel free to speak and share truth.
“A grown man looms behind my three-year-old daughter. Occasionally he will poke or tickle her and she responds by shrinking. Smaller and smaller with each unwanted advance. I imagine her trying to become slight enough to slip out of her booster seat and slide under the table.
When my mother views this scene, she sees playful taunting. A grandfather engaging with his granddaughter.
“Mae.” My tone cuts through the din of a familiar family gathering together. She does not look at me.
“Mae.” I start again. “You can tell him no Mae. If this isn’t okay you could say something like, Papa, please back up — I would like some space for my body.”
As I say the words, my step-father, the bulldog, leans in a little closer, hovering just above her head. His tenebrous grin taunts me as my daughter accordions her 30-pound frame hoping to escape his tickles and hot breath.
I repeat myself with a little more force. She finally peeks up at me.
“Mama . . . can you say it?” Surprise. A three-year-old-girl doesn’t feel comfortable defending herself against a grown man. A man that has stated he loves and cares for her over and over again, and yet, stands here showing zero concern for her wishes about her own body. I ready myself for battle.
“Papa! Please back up! Mae would like some space for her body.” My voice is firm but cheerful. He does not move.
“Papa. I should not have to ask you twice. Please back up. Mae is uncomfortable.”
“Oh, relax,” he says, ruffling her wispy blonde hair. The patriarchy stands, patronizing me in my own damn kitchen. “We’re just playin’.” His southern drawl does not charm me.
“No. You were playing. She was not. She’s made it clear that she would like some space, now please back up.”
“I can play how I want with her.” He says, straightening his posture. My chest tightens. The sun-bleached hairs on my arms stand at attention as this man, who has been my father figure for more than three decades, enters the battle ring.
“No. No, you cannot play however you want with her. It’s not okay to ‘have fun’ with someone who does not want to play.” He opens his mouth to respond but my rage is palpable through my measured response. I wonder if my daughter can feel it. I hope she can.
He retreats to the living room and my daughter stares up at me. Her eyes, a starburst of blue and hazel, shine with admiration for her mama. The dragon has been slayed (for now). My own mother is silent. She refuses to make eye contact with me.
This is the same woman who shut me down when I told her about a sexual assault I had recently come to acknowledge. This is the same woman who was abducted by a carful of strangers as she walked home one night. She fought and screamed until they kicked her out. Speeding away, they ran over her ankle and left her with a lifetime of physical and emotional pain. This is the same woman who said nothing, who could say nothing as her boss and his friends sexually harassed her for years. This is the same woman who married one of those friends.
When my mother views this scene, she sees her daughter overreacting. She sees me “making a big deal out of nothing.” Her concerns lie more in maintaining the status quo and cradling my step-dad’s toxic ego than in protecting the shrinking three-year-old in front of her.
When I view this scene, I am both bolstered and dismayed. My own strength and refusal to keep quiet is the result of hundreds, probably thousands of years of women being mistreated, and their protests ignored. It is the result of watching my own mother suffer quietly at the hands of too many men. It is the result of my own mistreatment and my solemn vow to be part of ending this cycle.
It would be so easy to see a little girl being taught that her wishes don’t matter. That her body is not her own. That even people she loves will mistreat and ignore her. And that all of this is “okay” in the name of other people, men, having fun.
But. What I see instead is a little girl watching her mama. I see a little girl learning that her voice matters. That her wishes matter. I see a little girl learning that she is allowed and expected to say no. I see her learning that this is not okay.
I hope my mom is learning something, too.
With respect and a desire for the truth to set us all free,