Never, not once, does it occur to me that other humans should police their appearance in accordance with the behavior, or possible behavior, of my sons.
I love my sons. With my entire body and soul and heart. I love them more than I love myself.
But fuck all of that. Entirely.
A mom wrote a letter to the editor of the Notre Dame student paper decrying leggings. She feels women should stop wearing them. Because men.
In the interest of transparency, I’ll share with you that I was assaulted while wearing leggings. By two men. (Boys really. They were teens.) Two men I thought were friends. And while they assaulted me, they told me it was my fault.
Because I wore leggings.
I will be goddamned before I tell my sons that they are free to act like predators because of the way someone else dresses. That they are free to act like assholes because of someone else’s appearance. That they are free to act like an orange faced bag of shit because of how someone else’s body moves.
Recognizing and eliminating injustice begins with bodily autonomy.
Again. For the people in the back.
Recognizing and eliminating injustice begins with bodily autonomy.
If we are ok with women being ridiculed for their clothing choices, it is easier to accept their assaults.
If we are ok with transgender people being ridiculed for looking different, it is easier to accept their assaults.
If we are ok with the disabled being ridiculed for their body differences, it is easier to accept their assaults.
When we other them, when we place human beings into categories that are different from the categories we find ourselves in, and when we begin to think of those categories as less than our own, we chip away at their humanity.
We chip away at our humanity.
We are all human beings. And we need to unpack this bullshit. And fast.
This is why black and brown bodies are in danger. Why the police are called on them for just existing. This is why women are taught, from the time they are kids, to always be on the defense from sexual assault. Rather than men being taught, from the time they are boys, what active and enthusiastic consent looks and sounds like. This is why transgender and nonbinary people struggle to just safely fucking pee in public bathrooms. Why the disabled have to battle every day through an existence that is designed around limited access for them.
It is all rooted in bodies. How we treat them. How we view them. How we shame them.
We learn at the feet of our own selves. We learn to hate our own appearances. And it’s a trauma that we perpetuate every time we shame someone else. No matter how small it seems.
We are perpetuating some toxic garbage on the bodies of fellow humans every day.
This isn’t about leggings.
It will never be just about leggings.
And I will never entertain the notion that I should be out here teaching my children that what another human being wears is a signal of entitlement. That the clothing another human being chooses gives my sons access to that human’s body.
I’d spent that summer working for a small veterinarian. Cleaning cages. Feeding animals. Answering phones. Light cleaning. I’d come in on Saturdays to help out. Then on Sundays to work alone. They were technically closed but someone had to be there in case of an emergency.
One Saturday, they needed assistance while putting a dog to sleep. And I knew then the job was not for me.
My father brought me up to the local pet food store. This was prior to the national chains really taking off. We owned several dogs, and the store was just blocks from our home, so he’d become good friends with the owner. I had a brief interview and was hired, at the age of 15, for my second job. One that would accommodate my school hours and not ask me to deal with euthanizing animals.
I was trained on the register. On signing people up for a rewards program. I was taught about all the various products the store carried. The owner believed in natural products, and really pushed people to invest in higher quality food products for their pets. He kept a huge list of rescue organizations specific to different breeds at the front of the store because he believed in adoption and refused to sell animals. He taught me about restocking and inventory and providing exceptional customer service.
He also taught me how he liked his shoulder and back massage.
The stock room was in the basement of the store. He showed me where everything was kept and was clear that I was not expected to pick up or carry the fifty pound bags of dog food up the stairs to the store when they needed restocking. He would always take care of that.
And then I would give him a massage.
He always restocked at night. When the store was quieter. Customers were less likely to come in. But even if they did, the massage took place in the back of the store. Back behind all the shelving. Back where there were no windows. He’d hear the bell above the front door as it opened and stood up quickly from his chair to go attend to the customer.
Nobody ever saw.
And I never said a word.
I hated every second of it. My skin would crawl. I’d get nauseous. I hated the scratch of his sweater beneath my fingers. I hated the skin between his collar and the base of his hairline. A constant fear that my fingers might slip and touch that skin, might cause him to think I enjoyed this or wanted to provide something more than a back and neck rub, ate away at the air in my lungs. I loathed the back of his head. There were nights I went home with my face aching from cringing and my fingers aching from squeezing.
I thought at times that if I really was good at it, if I really made his shoulders feel better, it might end quicker.
I stood there almost every time that I had to work until closing and, when I could no longer stand to look at the back of his head, I stared up at the ceiling willing someone to come into the store with the power and energy of every single cell in my body.
But I never said a word.
Because I needed that job. I was young. I thought maybe this was just what one had to do in order to keep a job. I’d spent my life being silent and quiet and shy and working at keeping my father, my abuser, from getting angry. Or angrier. And this guy was his friend.
I didn’t always stay silent, though.
Three jobs later . . .
This time I’m nineteen and working at a motorcycle shop that contained a clothing boutique. My father was gone. My boyfriend had left me. I was free and single and surrounded by men on a daily basis. I started experimenting sexually with a much older man I worked with. A man everyone there warned me against, but who did things to me none of the boys I dated previously had ever done. I was feeling bold and brave.
I wore short skirts and tight shirts. Thigh highs and high heels. All of which were encouraged. This was a motorcycle shop, first and foremost, and sex would help sell t-shirts and leather jackets to all those guys who sidled over to say hi and ask my name while their hogs got oil changes.
My stock was stored back with the parts behind the parts counter. All of it on shelves. Some of which were seven feet tall. I needed a ladder to reach that stock. And Ben always managed to appear when I sneaked back there to restock. Just to see if I needed help.
The only help he provided to me was when I had to climb the ladder.
“I’ll keep that steady for you,” he’d say with a smile.
Though he never held the ladder.
His hands always landed on the backs of my legs. Upper thighs. Not quite all the way under my skirt.
But not quite below the hem of it either.
it took a few weeks, but this time, I felt more empowered. I felt braver. This time, I said something.
I went to the general manager. A man who’d always been kind to me and made me laugh. I told him what had been going on. I told him I didn’t want it happening anymore, but that I didn’t feel comfortable telling Ben when the two of us were alone in the tightness of a stockroom aisle. Hidden behind high shelves.
I told him I wanted him to speak to Ben. And that I didn’t want to have to discuss it with Ben.
The general manager seemed sympathetic. And concerned. He would take care of this, he assured me.
The next time I worked a shift with Ben, he cornered me in the stock room.
He wasn’t loud. But he was adamant. I was wrong about the whole thing. He was a married man and he needed this job and I misunderstood the whole thing.
He kept at it until I apologized to him. Only after I apologized was I allowed to pass him and exit the stock room to get back to work.
With the eyes of Ben, and all the other parts guys he took turns whispering to, watching me from across the store.
We keep telling these stories. We keep responding to cries of, “Why now? Why is she only speaking up now?” We keep explaining what it means to be at the mercy of a man who holds power. What it means to want to keep your job. Not just keep your job, but keep it and be able to work in relative comfort and safety.
Harvey Weinstein is a high profile example, in an industry I can bet is teeming with examples just as horrific. Or worse.
But sometimes Harvey is the guy in the pet store. Or the bike shop. Or the local accounting firm.
Harvey Weinstein attacked and threatened in pricey hotel rooms around the world.
But often the attacks and threats and gropes and grabs take place desk-side. In musty stock rooms. Beside frying oil.
We go home tired and wrung out and sometimes those feelings have nothing to do with the physical labor of the job itself and everything to do with the fight to maintain our personal space and our dignity and our safety.
This is not an issue for women to resolve.
Men need to answer some questions.
Like, why they think this is ok. Why they aren’t recognizing how inappropriate and abusive this behavior is. Why they think they are entitled to treat women like this.
Years later Jacob hired my younger male cousin. And years after that I worked up the nerve to ask if he ever gave Jacob a back rub or shoulder massage. The look on his face prior to him responding verbally was enough to let me know he’d never been asked.
I’d like to ask Jacob why.
And when they’re done answering all the questions that begin with, “Why . . . ,” men need to answer all the ones that begin with “How?”
How are they going to confront this in their communities? How are they going to ensure it doesn’t happen to any woman?
Not just their daughters, wives, sisters.
How are they going to work on this issue?
Because this is not an issue for women to resolve.
It doesn’t feel like sexual assault. Not right away. Because I knew those two guys.
I’d seen them almost every single day of my life since we started in Kindergarten together. Here we were in high school. So yeah, I knew them. I called them friends.
At first it feels like flirting. You find yourself in a room alone with them and they’re chatting, just the two of them. You take a seat and sit quietly until they start talking to you. You look up and find their eyes on you and their smirks so familiar.
They tell you how cute you look today and you blush a little and feel embarrassed because neither one of them has ever said something like that to you before.
It starts to feel like teasing when they zero in on the leggings you wore that day. When they start asking what the leggings look like against your ass if they were to lift your shirt and have a look. They wonder aloud to each other if they could see the outline of your pussy if you just lifted your shirt for them.
You think they’re just being jerks now and roll your eyes. They keep engaging you in conversation and you still think it’s all jokes and teasing, even as they start moving. Even as they get closer.
You even giggle when their fingers start pulling at your shirt. Tickling under the hem. The giggle sounds ridiculous to your own ears, that high nervous one you hate, and you hop up to move away. Still thinking they’re being ridiculous and playful.
It still doesn’t feel like sexual assault when you turn and realize you’re in a corner and they’re walking toward you, one on each side. You don’t have the sense yet to feel nervous, because you know these two guys. Have known them since Kindergarten.
You think this is still a game and that the fluttering in your stomach is from having so much attention on you. You’re young and naive and brainwashed enough to think this is just how guys are around girls. They get loud, and show-off, and grab.
But the fluttering starts to feel like dread when the two guys don’t stop coming at you. When they walk all the way up to you, one on each side, so you feel sandwiched. When they pull at your shirt and one grabs your wrist and your shirt is up high enough now that your skin feels the breeze coming from the air conditioning vent above your head.
You still don’t think it’s assault, though. That isn’t the word that comes to mind in that moment. No, in that moment, when their hands seem to be everywhere . . . on your side, and brushing the underside of your bra, and on your ass, and then . . . yup . . . grabbing your pussy . . . the word assault doesn’t come to mind.
You wonder if you’d get in trouble for screaming. You wonder where your voice went because the general physical area from which your voice emits feels very dry and all you can manage to get out is an occasional breathy no or stop.
You wonder if you really know these guys at all and if they’ve changed over the years or were always like this and you were never unfortunate enough to be alone with them before now.
Even when you manage to push one away, and they’re laughing at you as you pull your shirt down and the teacher who was stuck on the phone in the office next door walks in, you don’t think assault.
You just quietly take a seat and smooth down your hair. You pick up your viola and start your lesson next to your teacher, all the while your heart hammering because when you glance up at them . . . they’re still smirking.
No, you don’t think assault. But those smirks no longer look friendly. Or even recognizable.
You don’t think assault, but you make sure, for the remainder of your time in high school, that you’re never again alone with either one of them. Especially if they are together.
You must not really believe it assault because you never tell on them. Never admit what happened. You convince yourself it was just flirting. Just boys being boys. They didn’t do any lasting damage, right?
I mean, the worst thing they did was just grab your pussy through your clothes.
So here’s the deal . . .
If you’re still defending that sick piece of shit, and still voting for him, and still thinking that his words have no bearing on how he’ll be in office, look around you.
Look at every woman or young girl you know and love.
Look your mother in the eye. Your daughters. Your best friend. Your wife or girlfriend. Your sister. Your play partner. Your business partner. Your co-worker that you joke is your spouse because she’s the shoulder you lean on at work. Look at your grandmother if you’re lucky enough to still have her around. Your niece. Your cousin. The woman who rings up your groceries.
Even if you yourself are a woman and still defending that douchebag, take a good long look at the women around you.
They’ve been grabbed by the pussy.
It’s happened to at least one of them, if not most. They’ve been touched in a non-consensual way and talked themselves out of the word assault.
Because the guy who did it was a friend, was a co-worker, was kidding, was flirting, etc.
Now tell her why you think this fucking waste of space assbag of a human being should lead our country. Tell her his words don’t matter and won’t affect how he’ll lead or the person he’ll be in office. Tell her it won’t matter that girls and boys around the world will hear the disgusting things he says.
Go ahead. Tell her.
You’ve said it to Muslims, Mexicans, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants, veterans, the mentally ill, women in general, but you never had to look them in the eye. Those are abstract concepts to you, I’m sure.
Tell HER. Then let me know how you still sleep at night.