Trigger Warning: sexual assault, abuse, and harassment
Right now, the name on everybody’s lips is ‘Harvey Weinstein.’ He has sexually assaulted and harassed many, many actresses over the course of his career as a movie producer and co-founder of the production company Miramax. He gained access to an endless stream of victims as he produced one blockbuster hit after another. Finally, after all these years, some of his victims have felt safe enough to come forward.
This news is horrible and disturbing, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. After all, jokes have been made about auditions from the “director’s couch,” or other such distasteful things. We all knew it was there, just no one did anything about it. Which, in itself, is a small example of a greater problem in our culture.
See, I’ve heard a lot of people dismissing this as a Hollywood tragedy. “Yeah, that’s bad,” they shrug, “but it’s Hollywood.” The truth is, it isn’t just Hollywood. It’s everywhere. An article from Huffington Post estimates that 1 in 3 American women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. That’s just in the workplace. Remember, most women endure fairly constant harassment on the streets, on public transportation, at events, or when driving in their own car. It’s pretty clear that sexual assault and harassment are not just Hollywood problems. They are everywhere problems.
Of course, as these reports come out, so do people wondering, “why did they wait so long to report?” People like Lindsay Lohan who use the defense of: “well, I worked with him and he never did that to me, so it must not be true.” Or those who echo this statement made by designer Donna Karan that maybe they were “asking for it” with how they were dressing. All of which, places the blame on the victims.
These are fairly common statements made in the media, while hanging out with friends, and even at your own dinner table. Whenever a woman is harassed, assaulted, or abused, society comes in to question what exactly it was that she did to deserve it. As a survivor of multiple cases of harassment, assault, and abuse, I can tell you that not only is seeking justice an uphill, often impossible, battle, but facing blame for your own attack is a psychological weight that no one should ever have to carry.
The first time I was harassed and assaulted, I was only 15. I worked as a hostess in a barbecue restaurant. I had a co-worker, let’s call him Grossman, who was in his mid-20’s and would regularly let me know how he felt about me. I don’t mean he would bring me flowers or write me notes. I mean, he would corner me behind the hostess stand and press his body against mine. He would come up behind me, grabbing me, touching me, and whispering that he wanted to steal my innocence. I would tell him ‘no’ often, but it didn’t matter, his behavior persisted.
Eventually, I had a friend come in and pretend to be my boyfriend, as Grossman respected me as another man’s property more than he respected my rejections. My family came in, as well, and made a snide underhanded comments to Grossman, just to let him know they knew, and that’s when the touching stopped and the hostility began. He would scream at me and berate me in front of fellow employees and customers. He became so angry and volatile that I feared for my safety. That’s when I finally went to my boss.
My boss, let’s call him Mr. D-bag, sat me down and told me that I was misunderstanding Grossman’s behavior. That working in a restaurant was different than other places, and that Grossman was just being friendly. He told me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for it because I was too sensitive. Mr. D-bag laughed and shook his head as he told me that I just didn’t understand. For a moment, I believed him.
Yet, I persisted. Once I regained my resolve, I decided to call the Department of Labor. I told them my story, my age, Grossman’s age, and Mr. D-bag’s words. I was told that I didn’t have a case because maybe Grossman was sorry. I was told that there was nothing that I could do except quit my job.
That was the first time that I learned what most women know, which is: when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse, the system is against you. This was by no means the only time I was assaulted and harassed. Nor was it the only time that someone grew hostile with me once I refused their advances. Yet, I only attempted to report one other person. I was, again, met with the same excuses and blame.
If you are someone who wonders why more women don’t report assault, that is why. It’s because rarely does it ever work out in our favor. It’s because we end up putting a target on our backs to receive hostility and blame. It’s because we are so programmed to believe that it is our fault that we are the very first person that we blame.
I once had a therapist tell me that I was a magnet for assault and harassment because I smiled too much and was too friendly. She went on to say, “just look at how you’re sitting now and what you’re wearing, if I was a man I’d have a hard on.” By the way, I was wearing a knee-length skirt and form fitting off the shoulder shirt. Still, her words struck me to the core. Was it really my fault that I’d been through so much pain? I wanted to throw up, sob, and pass out, all at the same time. Before that session, I never knew that smiling could be considered risky behavior.
I was in a 12-step program and, for those no familiar with it, one of the steps is taking an inventory of your life and admitting any wrong doing. I remember trembling as my sponsor ‘helped’ me find where I was at fault for my assault. Her intentions were good, but for someone with PTSD who has already had society tell me over and over again that all of it was my fault, it was the last thing I needed to hear. I didn’t want people telling me to smile less, wear loose clothing, stay in groups of friends, don’t stay out late, watch your beverages, don’t flirt, or any of the other various things people tell us women to do in order to prevent being assaulted. What I needed to hear was that it wasn’t my fault. Because it wasn’t.
Being blamed for your assault, or told that it’s up to you to prevent future assaults, is like being told that your body is not your own. Because, if your body was truly your own then people would automatically understand that it’s not ok for someone else to touch it without your permission, no matter what you’re wearing or how you’re acting. Carrying the weight of that blame means you are constantly on the lookout for potentially dangerous situations, because it is up to you and you alone to protect yourself from attacks. It means not accepting help from a supposedly well-meaning stranger when I was pulled over on the side of the road by myself. It means avoiding eye contact with men I don’t know when I’m out in public by myself. It means that I constantly have to analyze everything I say, do, and wear in fear that I could unknowingly be sending out signals that say: “hey, I’m open! Assault me, please. No matter what I say.”
I am a friendly person. I’ve always been a friendly person. But, that doesn’t mean I was asking for it. I’ve been a little top heavy since I was 12, so even loose t-shirts can look form fitting on me. That doesn’t make my ‘no’ any less valid. I have a fairly good sense of humor and love to laugh. That doesn’t mean I have to pretend unwanted advances are jokes. I always had guy friends growing up. That doesn’t mean I owe them sex. And I am a strong, outspoken, independent woman. But, that doesn’t mean that I, alone, am responsible for preventing my own assault.
We need to change the way we talk about assault and harassment. We need to demand that men be held accountable for their own actions. Even if I was walking down the street naked, that doesn’t mean I am asking for someone to assault me, nor does it make it ok for someone to assault me. Men have the power to resist the urge, I assure you they do, in spite of what our culture tells us.
Assault, abuse, rape, and harassment are NEVER the victim’s fault. Never.
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