If you have ever been subjected to sexual harassment, abuse, or assault — and if you are female, the chances are excellent that you have been — you know why it has taken so long for so many women to come forward with allegations and personal stories about men in power.
You know how the aftermath of such an incident goes: You are shocked. You are numb. You almost don’t believe what just happened. You check yourself: Am I hurt? Am I intact? Can anyone tell? And then you check your motives, because you are already questioning your own complicity in what happened: Did I do something to cause this? Did I make this guy think that his actions would be acceptable? Did I lead him on? Did I bring this on myself? Is it my fault?
You conclude, with deep shame: It is my fault. It must be. I am sure this doesn’t happen to other people.
Except it does.
And that explains the numbers.
When you hear another woman describe a sexually unwelcome encounter with the person who violated you, right down to the dropped towel or the groping hand or the self-pleasuring in the exact same details that you experienced, you know she is telling the truth. And you know that you can finally step up and corroborate the disgusting particulars. It happened to you, too, and you are not alone. You can finally speak up.
The perpetrator is usually someone who has power over you, usually a man who is a boss or a mentor or even a hero of yours. In my case, it was first a male babysitter who made me watch what he called “making milk come out.” I was 5 or 6. Only years later did I learn that this was called "ejaculation."
The next was a teacher, when I was a teenager. I thought the world of this teacher, who was in his thirties and smooth and sophisticated. He told me I was special; I was smarter and more talented and more mature than my classmates. He contrived for us to be alone on several occasions. He told me that he and his wife had an open marriage, but that he had never availed himself of this freedom before meeting me. He treated me as though, in his eyes, I was a woman. He also took the virginity of an impressionable, inexperienced girl: I had only ever French-kissed a boy once, and he was my age. Afterwards, did I feel special? I felt strange, a foreigner to myself. It was nothing like the movies. I also sweated out my next period. I definitely stopped feeling special when this man began ignoring me, and subsequently maneuvered himself into the pants of at least two other girls. I was not the only one. I was most likely not even the first.
I promised myself I would never publicly discuss these sexual messes while my parents were alive, in order to spare them the hurtful knowledge that these things had happened on their watch. My parents are dead now, and I realize that this was just another excuse not to speak up, not to exorcize past demons. The online #MeToo movement has been a liberation for many women like me, and some men too, who have been doubly damaged by secrecy.
And the damage is significant. When you have a toxic or confusing sexual experience, especially at a young age, it affects your capacity for intimacy. You build a psychic wall around your deepest self, so that nothing bad will ever reach into your core again. The problem is that nothing good can get past your wall, either. You feel an emotional distance from the people you know should matter most to you. You don’t know how to confide in anyone. You feel like a spectator in your own life. I was lucky enough to fall in love with a sweet, nurturing, accepting man who loves me like crazy. With his help, with God’s grace, with my own work, over time, I got well.
For you, gentle reader, this must seem like too much personal information, but I believe we help each other by dragging the burdens we are ashamed of into the light, by examining them from a healthier perspective, and by realizing we do not have to carry these things alone. It’s lonely to feel you are a singularly dirty and defective human being. It’s heartening, however, that a hashtag can loosen tongues and bring terrible memories tumbling forth and hold the perpetrators, the ones who really are to blame, accountable.
There will surely be more revelations, more accusations, bigger numbers of us who can finally talk. But there will be healing. And perhaps there will be a better way forward, a way to forge a culture and a world in which we treat each other with respect and dignity, understanding and kindness. #NoMore.