I was eight years old when I realized the truth. My mother and I spent that summer at the pick-your-own strawberry fields near our town and I remember loving those days. I mean, what eight-year-old doesn’t love an unlimited supply of strawberries and raspberries at their fingertips! The owner was a man in his early 40s and I don’t remember much about him other than that my mother was very wary of him.
On this particular day, I remember running up to her, mouth full of berries, as she was talking to him. He looked over at me and his eyes narrowed. I guiltily stopped chewing the handful of raspberries I’d shoved in my mouth and waited for him to say something about gluttony (which is what my mother always mentioned when I complained about a berry-induced tummy ache). Instead, he looked me over from top to bottom.
The words he said next are forever burned into my memory: “Well, don’t you have a pretty little mouth. You’re going to have the perfect little body when you grow up, won’t you.” He made an hourglass shape with his hands and playfully slapped the imaginary bum he had just made. “Mhhhm, yep, you’re going to be a looker. I only wish I were a few years younger.” He laughed and winked at me as he continued to look me up and down.
All at once, I felt a little bit relieved……and incredibly ashamed.
Relieved because there was no mention of the bulge of raspberries still in my mouth but ashamed because the way he looked at me somehow made me feel dirty. I remember looking over at my mom, searching her face for a clue on how to react and I vividly recall seeing a look of fear flash in her eyes.
That was the first time I realized what being a woman really means.
It means realizing that a man, older than my father, felt he had the right to comment lasciviously on the body of a child.
It means having ‘the talk’ with my mother soon after the incident all about stranger danger and the prickly feeling you get when something feels off.
It means getting mercilessly teased and bullied by a boy who “just has a crush” on you.
It means getting catcalled and whistled at.
It means having a coworker push himself against you and threaten you with a knife and your boss dismissing it as a harmless prank.
It means having a complete stranger stop you while on a run to ask for your number and then follow you in his truck until you pretend to call someone on the phone.
It means factoring in the statistics for rape and sexual assault for each college on your maybe list.
It means men you look up to as father figures telling you your looks are a “stumbling block”.
It means that when a family friend says he’d rather rape you than look at you, he’s still invited to your wedding.
It means that at least one of you, while you’re reading this, have asked yourselves if I dressed or acted too provocatively.
It means that these are just the highlights and there are many more incidents I could recount of my personal experience with sexual harassment.
It means crude words for your body parts are used to shame others as weak or not up to standard.
It means that no matter how you dress, you feel ashamed of your body because it’s made you a target.
It means having your reproductive rights be a topic for debate.
It means that if you’re raped or sexually assaulted, the way that you dress, the amount of alcohol you consumed, and the general “vibe” you give off will be turned against you.
It means that hundreds of thousands of women have stories like mine and even more have ones far more horrific and heartbreaking.
In years past, I’ve felt ashamed to tell my own story. By comparison to others, my experiences seem trivial. I’ve even been told and vaguely considered that the kind of routine sexual harassment I’ve experienced since that day 19 years ago should be something I should just “get over”. That it’s a normal part of being a woman.
And then I realized something–all those ‘insignificant’ events add up. And it’s my silence during those little insignificant moments that give men the idea they can take a no as a yes. That their vulgar actions don’t have consequences. It is my silence, and yours, that empower depraved men to rape and sexually assault our sisters.
My voice will not be silenced. I refuse to continue excusing behavior as ‘boys will be boys’. I refuse to allow the kind of behavior I experienced, both in the workplace and out of it, to be condoned. I refuse to live in a world where rape and sexual assault are commonplace. I refuse to let my daughter or yours or the generations after them be victims of sexual harassment and violence.
Our voices will not be silenced. We will not let our children grow up in the world we did. We will not sit complacent when we can make a change.
Today I stand.
Today I say Me Too.
And to all those who have these #MeToo stories, whether you choose to share them or not, know that you are incredibly brave and unbelievably loved.