(Originally posted on my old personal blog, Adventures with KHill!)
Trigger warning: sexual harassment, assault
Interrupting our standard blog fare, stories of travels, etc. to talk about something more serious that’s been weighing on me a lot lately. If you’re on social media at all (which you likely are if you’re reading this blog), you’ve probably seen a lot of the women you know posting the words, “me too.” In doing so, they are acknowledging that they have at some point in their lives experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. Many have shared their stories; they are powerful and heartbreaking, and I’ve mostly been in awe of the sheer volume. It seems like most of the women I know have posted. I am certain that even more have had the experiences even though they have not felt led to share (and no one is obligated to do so). I’ve been going back and forth about whether to post or write anything because I wonder, what does my experience really matter? I haven’t had it nearly as bad as so many other women. But I’m learning that it isn’t about some ranking of who has suffered the most, but rather about the fact that all the women I know have suffered at all. Sharing my story feels like joining in solidarity with all women who have felt belittled, sullied, broken, destroyed, or anything less than the happiness and fullness they should feel - at the hands of our harassers and abusers. So here goes.
I was six years old. A boy in my elementary school class made a habit of ambushing girls, grabbing our then-nonexistent chests and yelling, “BOOBS.” Everyone would laugh, even the girls. I know it had to make at least some of them as uncomfortable as I was. He did this for the whole school year, often in front of the teachers. It’s been almost twenty years and my memory could be foggy, but I don’t recall that he was ever reprimanded.
I was twelve years old. A well-meaning teacher encouraged me to put myself up for the “Snowball Queen” at the winter dance. All the nominees had our pictures taken and placed on a paper bag for our peers to put their votes in. I was standing near the bags, somewhat secretly hoping to see myself get some votes, when a boy I didn’t know approached my bag. He looked at my picture, my Math Team polo shirt and never-plucked eyebrows, and said, “Ew, she’s ugly. Why would anyone vote for her?” I still remember my face and my chest both feeling like they were on fire, and soon after, I called my mom to take me home. I cried to her the whole night, and believed that I was nothing more than ugly for years to come.
I was sixteen years old. At a restaurant with a bunch of guy friends, one made a lewd comment about the way my mouth looked on the glass Coke bottle from which I was drinking. I was so shocked, my face was burning while everyone else laughed. It was a joke, right? Especially funny because we all know that Kaitlyn has never so much as held hands with a boy. I tried out being assertive, not letting it slide. In the firmest voice I could muster, I told him that what he said was disgusting and he needed to apologize. His face as shocked as I had been moments before, he reluctantly mumbled a sorry. Everyone was silent. It was awkward. Kaitlyn is a buzzkill. She can’t take a joke.
I was twenty-one years old. I was the first person that someone very dear to me saw and spoke to after waking up in a strange man’s apartment. I talked her through what happened. Shaking, terrified, heartbroken, I told her that her rape was not her fault. I did my best to comfort her through the impossible, to assuage some of the guilt she felt for something a man did to her. I felt my own guilt at not having accompanied her when she went out the night before. Could I have prevented it? Would the same have happened, but to both of us? I struggled for months with the mental images, the awful flashbacks, before seeing a therapist and being treated for anxiety and PTSD. I wasn’t even the victim, who naturally endured much worse and has much more harrowing memories. It still hurts.
The compounding of these events and so, so many more is why I’m scared of men I don’t know. It’s why I can’t take sexual jokes. Why when anyone other than my boyfriend seems to be flirting with me, I’m suspicious of their motives. I feel icky and unsafe. I probably come across as rude or stuck-up when really, I’m terrified. I have been conditioned to be wary of the opposite sex.
The events from my childhood seem minor, but they taught me from an early age that my value was in my looks, my body, my sex appeal, and how men perceived all of the above could dictate my feelings and self-esteem. The events of my young adulthood have taught me that men’s perception of me can put me in physical danger and there is nothing I can do to completely protect myself.
I want to reiterate that my experiences are only a few (relatively minor) of the zillions of instances in which millions of women have been hurt emotionally or physically by harrassers, catcallers, sleazeballs, attackers, assailants, rapists. I feel devastated seeing even a glimpse of the breadth of those experiences on my social media this week, but encouraged by the bravery and strength of the women I know. There is power in numbers and our numbers are high.
I also know many good men who support us and want to be even more intentional in that support. For you all, I’m linking an awesome Facebook post here. I have four little brothers, and I want them to have strong male role models who teach them that treating women with respect is the only way to live. I also want to be a strong female role model, helping them fend off societal cues that would tell them half of society is lesser based on gender.
Thank you to everyone who has shared their stories this week for giving me the courage to add my voice to the mix. Women are incredible, and I have hope that society is moving in a direction in which everyone will recognize that.
Peace, love, and female empowerment,