*Warning: Explicit content about sexual harassment/assault and women's rights*
My Facebook feed has been full of women, near and far, posting a status of “Me Too”. In solidarity, they are sharing the status if they have ever been victim to sexual assault or sexual harassment. Visually witnessing how many of my sisters are bravely standing up and acknowledging what they’ve endured has had me thinking about my own experiences over the years.
It began when I was 15 years old while I was working at a jewelry store in the small town that I grew up in. Instead of teaching me fascinating facts about gemstones, my boss focused his initial teachings on how my looks and interactions with men could help make him money. He taught me that sex sells (his exact words) and my job was to flaunt it so I could entice men to impress me with their wallets.
He taught me how to compliment the men who came in, to flirt with them, and then go in for the sale. And, it worked. I was the best saleswoman they had.
I knew it was wrong. I knew it didn’t feel right. But, I honestly loved my job. I needed my job. I felt important there. So I played into it and would turn off my real self and become someone else when I clocked in. I learned that the real me wasn’t what was wanted or expected there. That my looks were valued more than my intelligence.
Fast forward a decade and I learned about another kind of sexual harassment. This time it wasn’t about how sexy I was (or wasn’t), it was about my assumed “role” as a woman.
I worked with a man who seemingly valued my intelligence and work ethic. That is, until other men were around.
As a part of my job we travelled together to conferences and meetings in the government sector. Often times in the sea of black suits, I was one of the only women (if not, the only woman) present. I was also decades younger than many of the men there.
There is one meeting that specifically stands out in my memory. Prior to the meeting, my colleague had asked for my thoughts and advice on the topics that were to be discussed. I shared my opinions and viewpoints. I was incredibly passionate about our work so had a lot of thoughts to offer and ideas for improvements.
As we prepared for the meeting, the men all talked and I stood quietly by myself. Being left out or blatantly ignored in this crowd was not new to me. During the meeting, my colleague shared my views as his own and anytime I would attempt to speak up I was interrupted and shutdown.
Following the meeting I more aggressively attempted to be a part of these mens conversations. Until I realized what had happened. One of the older men came over and started flirting with me (as if that’s the only way he knew how to interact with me?!). And then he asked me how I liked being the secretary to my co-worker.
Without missing a beat I shared that I was his colleague, not secretary, and wondered where he had heard that. Was it an assumption? Was it a story my co-worker told to make himself feel more important? Was it that these men didn’t believe a woman of my age, or a woman at all, could have a seat at this table?
I’ll never know the answers to those questions but I can tell you it gave me more fuel for my fire. It forced me to work harder, to make sure my work was no longer taken by someone else as their own. I also learned not to trust men at face value. I learned they had to prove themselves and their integrity to me first, before I had any faith that their intentions were good.
I have also worked with and for some amazing men over the years. Men who have helped me get a seat at the table and be recognized for my hard work. Men who have helped me better navigate the politics and understand who will help me move ideas and projects forward and who won’t. I am eternally grateful to these men as they have restored my faith in their gender.
As I reflect on these earlier experiences, I realize they have impacted how I see the world, how I trust, how I’m constantly seeking validation, and I how I’ve learned that some people value my “looks” over who I am on the inside.
I don’t want to devalue my experiences as they have certainly influenced who I am, but I also know that many of the woman in my life have experienced much, much worse than the harassment I endured.
Studies have shown that 1 in 4 woman experience attempted rape or are raped. As I look around at my beautiful friends, I know this to be true. And, it breaks my heart.
I know women who have been sexually assaulted as teens, on dates in college, and as grown women. I know women who have been assaulted more than once. You know these women, but you don’t know them. You don’t know what they have gone through or are going through. They are my hero’s.
When I think about the impact of my experiences on my life, I can’t even begin to fathom their pain and suffering. I have witnessed first hand the after effects of sexual assault. I have held these women in my arms, wiped away their tears, and rocked them to sleep.
Some of these women no longer trust the male gender, understandably so. They now live in a fear-filled world as there is danger everywhere they look. They are often left alone to do the work of rebuilding their lives after trauma. The work of learning how to protect themselves but some day, somehow, open themselves up to try to love again.
I’ve been a witness to this work and it sucks. These women shouldn’t have to go through this silently and alone. It rocks their entire world, and for what? For some hateful man to feel powerful? Because he somehow feels like he can take whatever he wants, from whomever? Forgive me for sounding harsh here, but I’m angry.
I’m angry that we live in a society where so many of my dear friends have been the victim. Where I have to worry for my nieces and daughter and teach them that they can’t trust boys or men - for their own safety.
My saving grace is that I also get to teach my son to be better than this. To stand up against it and to honor and respect the female gender. To stop the locker room talk, the cat calling, the sexualization of women. Because that’s where it starts.
Knowing that I can help impact our future generations of men gives me hope. Hope that my daughter can live in a world where she is safe from sexual predators. Hope that she is respected for her intelligence, where she isn’t encouraged to use her looks to get ahead in life. Hope that people will see all of who she is and not be defined by how she looks in a swim suit.
Hope that when she is my age she doesn’t look at her sisters and say, “me too”.