Women’s History Month Feature
When his hands touched me, I could have screamed.
I could have cursed him. I could have ripped his hand from my body, could have knocked him to the floor. I could have done something, anything, to defend myself －to make him know he was the lowest human being on the planet at that moment.
Instead, standing there in someone else’s apartment, I froze in my tracks. Somehow, I laughed. Horrifically, the moment passed. The subject changed. I withdrew into myself. It was not the first or last time.
It was a going-away dinner at my coworkers’ house. This particular coworker was intoxicated in the ugliest fashion. He was five minutes from passing out, I was sure. He had leaned in for an attempted kiss just moments before. He had a girlfriend at the time. All of these thoughts shrieked in rapid succession through my head in that paralyzed moment.
But these thoughts were not excuses for my inaction. I still should have screamed at him, ought to have knocked out a tooth. I ought to have screamed in the face of the other man who saw it happen, did nothing and waited for my reaction.
But what came out instead? The tightest, most alien laugh I’ve heard from my own throat as he and my other coworker looked on.
I’d heard that laugh, disconnected from within my own being as if from some desperate attempt to disassociate myself from my body, years before. I remembered it following a gasp when the same coworker, months before, slapped my buttocks with a metal rod in the back stockroom. As I stood in frozen shock, he had walked away chuckling. I remembered it at age 14 when a neighbor’s son, whose house I frequented with my little brother, groped me in passing.
In each of these moments, I could have fought for myself. I was always a tomboy. I’d certainly wrestled my brother to the ground enough times. I’d never been afraid of men before until those helpless moments.
Others might ask why you could simply freeze in the face of such blatant violation. But, for women around the world, for all of history, this is what it often looks like. We read about enough rapes and assaults to begin to lose sensitivity to these stories and perhaps even forget our fears of these realities. We don’t hear enough about fleeting, yet devastating harassment that happens at bus stops, at swim meets, at grocery stores, to know how to react.
The many, many other women I have met who tell their stories of harassment know these moments well. These feel impossible, even pointless, to report. Because often as women, what we are first concerned about is causing a stir. When the world around us questions women constantly for what they wore, where they were and why, how can we share our moments of unwanted gropes and touches and kisses and expect to be taken seriously?
So many girls are unprepared for these fleeting moments. They’re unprepared for how to protect themselves and how to respond when attacked, when existing as a woman often feels constantly on-display and vulnerable. When most of the world still sees women primarily as sexual objects, a major part of the female existence is spent feeling as if you must protect your body and its sacred space from the evil of the world. And if someone does violate that sacred space and you freeze, does that make it your fault? Does that make you a coward and a shame to the rest of your sisters?
Because I’ve heard it enough to know how other women blame girls. I’ve heard the “Why didn’t you report him?” “How could you just stand there?” “Why didn’t you beat his ass?”
You may think you’re being an advocate, but you aren’t understanding the whole story that is often behind harassment.
I could look back, watching myself in that helpless moment, and judge that frozen girl for her inaction, her cowardice. Instead, I weep for that past version of myself and pray for her spirit and her wounds. I choose to instead hope that from each moment forward, I can find the courage and the voice inside of myself be a louder, larger, unapologetic version of myself that stands up for herself and for every other woman who has felt violated and silenced. I vow that I will not judge other women when they share how they were violated. I can only hope more women will do the same.
A violation is a violation. Women around the world deserve to be heard and their experiences believed.
Natalie Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or @NatalieH_Orion on Twitter.