This week on Facebook, I’ve seen a lot of posts saying “Me, too.” The movement started ten years ago but has gained momentum lately in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s long-awaited public shaming for being a sexual predator, protected and enabled by many for decades.
The language we use to talk about sexual harassment and sexual abuse is generally passive (ie, “she was harassed” instead of “a stranger harassed her”). However, sexual harassment and abuse are not things that happened to women because they’re women, like menstruation. They happen because men do them to women. Men, not exclusively but most widely, are the actors in this. They harass and abuse, and other men don’t do anything to stop it. Instead, they laugh or dismiss or ignore or excuse or look embarrassed and turn away. (Don’t say, “Not me.” You’ve done it. You may or may not have noticed when you enabled another man’s harassment or abuse. You know so many women saying, “Me, too.” We aren’t all getting harassed or abused by the same five of men in the world. You know harassers and abusers. You may or may not have noticed.)
As a woman, you learn very early that every man can be a threat. And there are plenty of women who abuse and harass, and victims are not only women. I don’t want to belittle that violence, and I don’t want to erase the victims. But masculinity is toxic and a constant possible threat to my happiness, my contentment, my safety. I could talk about a lot of harassment experiences but I only want to tell one story.
So I’m not going to tell you stories about the rocks and gum and vulgar words that have been thrown at me while I’ve been driving my car. I’m not going to talk about the man who rubbed his erect penis against me in a crowd at a parade. I’m not going to talk about the man who pushed against me and tried to kiss me at a circus. I’m not going to talk about the guy who stood in my driveway and screaming my full name for five minutes when I wouldn’t go outside to see him. I’m not going to talk about the high schooler in the stairwell who touched my breast as he ran past me, or the professor who put his hand high on my thigh during a class field trip. I’m not going to talk about the men who shouted and whistled and whooped at me as I walked to class, into the grocery store, on my way to church, in my own front yard. I’m not going to talk about the kissy faces and shouts about my body that have been cast at me for more years than I can count. I have no idea when it started. Men were looking at me, and leering at me, and saying things I didn’t understand when I was so young. All I knew was that I was uncomfortable and sometimes afraid. I didn’t know what they were doing or thinking. I didn’t know, yet, that I was being harassed.
The story I will tell happened six years ago, still affects my actions, and can still deeply upset me. I was driving from my best friend’s house to my parents’ house, where I was currently living. I was on a familiar stretch of interstate about three hours into the five hour trip when a man in a green truck, with a landscaping company name and number on the back blew the horn at me. I thought something might be wrong with my car, so I slowed down a little and looked over the driver. He was grinning, leering, and started making kissing faces at me, licking his lips and running his hands along the wheel as if it were my body.
My automatic reaction was disgust, and I know it my face distorted with it. I hit the gas and zoomed away, my heart hammering fast, shaking and angry and feeling vulnerable. He was pulling an ill-attached trailer with a picnic table strapped in upside down. I knew a trailer should not be driven at high speeds, so I thought my burst of speed would leave him far behind, but he sped up, too. And up, and up.
For 20 minutes, he chased me, pulling alongside me, cutting me off then slowing down, and every time he thought I could see him, whether he was in front or beside me, he made those same licking, kissing faces at me through his window.
He was in a landscaping truck. The number was on the back. I was going too fast—more than 90 miles an hour—trying to get away from him and I was too afraid to take a hand off the wheel to pick up my phone in the cupholder. Not to take a picture, not to call the number on the back of his truck that he was harassing me in, not to call 911 or anyone else. It went on so long, him driving so recklessly through all the other cars to chase me down the interstate, that I realized he might cause me to wreck. I could die, or I could be injured and trapped, and what if he was the only person who stopped? What if he made someone else wreck? We were going too fast and he was driving too recklessly. He didn’t care about my life. He didn’t even see me as a human or he wouldn’t be going to these lengths to harass me. He wouldn’t be harassing me at all if he thought of me as anything more than an object for his lewd appetites, someone to have power over.
Finally, I decided I couldn’t keep running from him, that it was too dangerous, so I scanned the other drivers as I buzzed past them. When I got to a black Suburban driven by a couple who looked to be about my parents’ ages, I slowed down and wedged myself in between them and a car driven by two men. I tailgated the couple for two miles so that when the harasser pulled alongside me again, I would have witnesses, including male witnesses. Or, maybe he would leave me alone. Maybe he wouldn’t cut me off and actively threaten my life again, if he thought might hurt these other people—other men—too. Any woman alone in public (and maybe not even alone) could have been the one he targeted, so I didn’t expect him to have more respect for the women in the cars around me, so I had picked cars with men and a woman in them to wedge my car between.
The harasser did pull alongside me. He rode in my blind spot so he could see me but I couldn’t see him unless I turned my head. When I didn’t, he pulled forward, our windows side by side, so he could see my expression when he blew his horn at me.
I didn’t look at him. I stayed exactly on that black SUV’s bumper and I looked at the heads of the couple, the woman’s swiveling toward the man in the green truck.
And then my harasser pulled onto an exit ramp.
Relief drenched me, but I didn’t trust it. He might get back on. He might still come after me. And maybe this time there wouldn’t be any other cars around. Maybe this time he’d run me off the road. Or maybe this time I wouldn’t see him and he’d follow me off my exit, and I wouldn’t let myself think about what might happen then.
I backed off a little but stayed exactly behind that SUV for another mile or two, checking my rearview and side mirrors constantly, looking for the harasser’s truck and trailer to come back at me. When it didn’t, I got in the other lane and slowed down just enough that the other two cars could get ahead. I felt embarrassed that I’d been targeted, that I’d driven so seemingly erratically, that I’d risked their safety too by trying to shield myself with them. But I also felt vulnerable without them. I was terrified that the same harasser, or even someone knew, was going to come up behind me and this would all start all over again.
Another ten or fifteen minutes passed before I forced myself to let those two cars out of my sight.
I called my best friend, told her what happened, and asked her to write down the name of the landscaping company so I wouldn’t forget it. But I was so adrenaline high that my brain had already garbled it. When I got home, after telling my parents what had happened, I couldn’t find an exact match to the company name. I wanted to call and complain to the owner of the company. Although it might have been the owner of the company who had been harassing me. I considered calling the police, but I’d crossed state lines. I never did report it.
If it were to happen now, I would have done some things differently, but if your inclination on reading this is to criticize my actions, you are part of the problem. You are why harassment and abuse happens. Because it is not my fault I was harassed. That man is the only one at fault. He should never have harassed me. He should never have endangered me and every other driver on that stretch of road for those twenty minutes. He harassed me because I am a woman who exists in public. Criticizing my actions blames me for his harassment, recklessness, and utter lack of respect for the autonomy of another human being. And please don’t wonder whether he has a wife or daughters or a sister. Men shouldn’t have to have close relationships with women to see women as people.
This incident hasn’t stopped me from driving or taking long trips, but it has forever changed how I drive. For instance, after six years, I still don’t meet other drivers’ eyes. Friends say that they see me in my car all the time, but I don’t ever see them because I never, if I can at all help it, meet another driver’s eyes. That’s not why I was harassed, but it was the first action I took in that incident. He blew the horn, and I looked. He blew the horn so that I would look.
The number one rule for dealing with street harassment, which women learn at a young age, is do not engage. Do not engage with the man or men harassing you, shouting at you, cat-calling you, trying to provoke you. They want a reaction. They want to feel powerful. And not engaging won’t stop the harassment, but sometimes they’ll get bored, and sometimes they won’t take the harassment any further than shouting. Maybe they won’t throw anything. Maybe they won’t follow you.
I’ve taken lots of long trips since then. Some alone, others with friends. I learn detours and alternate routes everywhere I go. I’ve learned to use my cell phone while under pressure, especially when driving. I have the ability to call hands-free if I need to. I’ve even trained myself not to look around at a blown horn at a stoplight. I’ve developed plans for what happens if someone starts following me in my neighborhood, in a place I’m familiar with, or in a place I don’t know.
Sometimes, like earlier this week on my way home from work, I can still feel terrified by what happened and what could have happened that day, and mostly by what could happen to me now, at any moment. Even if the drivers around me have done nothing wrong, or seem to have made no notice of me at all, I don’t look at them. They could men or women or tigers, but I don’t look, and I can still feel afraid of them. After all, at any moment, some bored or power-desperate man may pick me out, simply for being nearby and for being a woman.
I shouldn’t have to revisit such painful, frightening memories because painful, frightening instances should never have happened, to me or anyone else. I shouldn’t have to change my behavior in hopes that a future harasser will pick some other woman instead of me.
That’s what the “What was she wearing?” question means, by the way. It means, “You should have dressed differently so the harasser/abuser would have picked some other person to harass or abuse.” And I hate that question. I should be safe to get into my car in my front yard or drive to the grocery store or walk out of a movie theater without being shouted at, gestured at, touched, or followed. It doesn’t matter what I wore while I other people harassed me. I shouldn’t hear laughter from enablers while some man is harassing me. Most women know this inherently, and will do what they can to help another woman while also trying to avoid being targeted. I’m so sorry to those women I was too afraid to try to help.
I shouldn’t have to say “Me, too” for men, and many women, to understand how widespread and serious the problems of sexual harassment and abuse are. But people don’t realize. And women need to know they aren’t alone. And some need to say it for the first time.