I’m sure you remember the #yesallwomen Twitter campaign of last spring, where in the wake of the Isla Vista, California killing spree, women posted their experiences with misogyny, violence, harassment and discrimination. At the time, I couldn’t think of a specific story or event in my own life that was worth sharing, although I absolutely remembered that feeling, especially in my teens and twenties, of discomfort tinged with fear that came as the result of unwanted attention from a male. I just couldn’t pinpoint a particular experience that stuck out in my memory.
A few months go by. Here I am in my 40’s. Much more confident in myself than I was back then, although still hesitant to speak up on my own behalf. I was always a “good girl”, who generally liked to please the adults in my life and, more than anything, not raise a big fuss. Today I’m more likely to raise a big fuss–but mostly in my head. When it comes to actual confrontation I’m still a big wuss.
I work at a library. I love it. So much of my job fits my personality and skill set. It’s a mile from my house and across the street from my kids’ schools. My hours are flexible and work nicely with my kids’ schedule. The women (and couple of men) I work with are friendly and kind. And I’m surrounded by books all day, which for me is pretty much heaven.
I’d been working there for a few months when I started training on the front desk. I was working one afternoon when this man who is at the library every day came up to the desk to buy a book from the book sale. (There are a lot of older folks who congregate at the library regularly. They sit by the newspapers and chat–loudly–about the world in general and their (usually negative) opinion of the way things are.) This gentleman is probably in his early 60’s and spends many hours sitting in the library, occasionally reading the paper or going on the computer, socializing with other old folks, and staring at people, staring at women, while they walk by. He always places himself where he has a good vantage point so he can see everyone who passes by.
I ring up his ten cent book and tell him to have a nice afternoon. He leans in close and reads my name tag: “Your hair looks very nice today Jennifer. You’re very smartly dressed.” Flustered I say “Um, thank you?” and he goes on his way. The woman training me, also in her 60’s smacks me on the arm like my teenage friend “Oh my god. He likes you. You’ve got to watch out for him. He latches on to the young, new staff all the time. He’s creepy!” (I don’t know that I qualify as “young,” but I guess comparatively…) I’d already figured out the creepiness. In fact, I’d actually seen him at the Walmart a few days before. I was going down one of the aisles and looked up to see him standing at the far end, just watching me. I recognized him as “That Guy That’s Always At The Library” and was immediately uncomfortable by the way he just stood there, staring. I turned my cart around and went the opposite direction.
For my next few shifts he wasn’t in the library when I was working. Then one Friday, I’m pushing my cart of books past him and hear him make a comment about me…softly, but just loud enough that I could hear him. Did I just imagine that? I felt sick to my stomach and yet pushed on and completed the task I was working on. Because of where he likes to sit, I had no other choice but to walk past him on my way back to the staff area. I braced myself and sure enough, as I walked by him again, he muttered the same “compliment.” I was shaking when I went back behind the desk. I tried to find things to do that kept me out of the main library area. I had a silent battle with myself in my head, thinking all of those things that so many women think when they are victims of harassment:
“Did I just imagine that? Did that really happen?”
“Am I making too big a deal over this? He didn’t really say anything bad.”
“What am I wearing, is this too ‘revealing’?” (Incidentally I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.)
“I need to just tell him to shut the hell up and leave me alone! I need to stand up for myself. I’m a feminist, damnit!”
Eventually I had to go back out there to shelve some books. As I did, he got up from where he was sitting and came around the corner where he could see me and stood there, just watching. I stopped what I was doing and went in the back and found my co-worker (who had warned me about him) and told her what was going on. She immediately went to talk to the supervisor on duty for the day. My colleagues jumped into action and were very helpful. They intended to confront him but by the time they went out to find him, he’d gone for the day. (He does that, he just appears and disappears suddenly. It’s very weird.)
The comments happened once more when I was working another day…this time I didn’t hear them but another one of my co-workers did and reported it back to the supervisor. She and the branch manager were able to confront him that day. Predictably, he denied it. He said that person was lying. He asked to know who was making these claims against him (obviously they didn’t tell him). Other women I work with talked about things they’d heard him say to them and other women. They threatened to kick him out of the library if the behavior continued. Since then, there hasn’t been a problem and I’ve been able to go about my business and not be bothered. He still creeps me out and I do my best to avoid him, but I don’t feel as anxious about it anymore.
The thing that really got me was how paralyzed I felt by all those questions running around in my head, all the ways society had told me to keep quiet, to not rock the boat, to just accept the “boys will be boys” mentality, to wonder whether any of it was my fault. And this was just a few comments and staring! Imagine how debilitating actually getting touched inappropriately, or assaulted or raped or stalked would be! If I felt this way about such a “minor” incident, it’s no wonder that all those violent acts get unreported. We have been conditioned to accept the blame and shut up.
I thought back to a job I had a couple years ago. I worked in a restaurant with mostly 20-something young guys. They were crude and vulgar and talked about sex a LOT. They were flirty and inappropriate. For some reason, it didn’t bother me. Maybe some of it was my ego…having just turned 40 it was maybe flattering to have admiring comments come my way. Maybe some of it was they were young and cute (not old and creepy). Maybe part of it was I knew that if I told them to shut the heck up that I knew they would. Maybe I just knew them better and trusted them because we had some sort of a work relationship…I have no idea. But it was like a lightbulb went off–that was the whole POINT. Their attention didn’t bother me. It doesn’t matter why or why not. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Creepy library guy did. And THAT was what mattered. Even if it wouldn’t bother anyone else, if it bothered me and made me feel bad, then it needed to STOP. Period. We need to stop blaming women, stop telling them how to feel, to suck it up and get over it, to just deal. Even if it makes no sense to us, if a woman feels threatened or uncomfortable or unsafe or objectified, we need to listen, pay attention and make. that. behavior. stop. My co-workers did a great job of making me feel heard, supported and protected. We need to do that for all women, in every situation where it is warranted.
I was able to use this situation to have a serious talk with my girls about unwanted attention from men. I could tell the 9 year old was kind of confused (she knows nothing about sex) and the 12 year old was very uncomfortable. She is well aware of the fact that when it comes to sex there’s a lot of grey area…I don’t want her to fear male attention, I don’t want her to avoid it. I just want her to know that if it is unwanted? If it makes you uncomfortable in ANY way? It needs to stop. It needs to be told to someone. My fear is that she’s even more shy than I ever was, and much more of a people pleaser. I pray that I can make her a strong woman who can stand up for herself when she needs to but it is a hard thing to do.
This morning when she left the house for school, the trash guys were arriving. As she walked down the street with her friend I was standing at the window watching them head for the bus stop. I watched the trash guy look after her once. Twice. Three times. I have no idea what he was thinking but I know this. She’s almost 13. She is young. She is cute, much cuter than I ever was at that age. And men and boys are going to look at her inappropriately. And say things to her. And make her feel uncomfortable. Because yes. All women. Even women who aren’t really old enough to be women yet.
Where does it end? Thankfully we can look at the world today and see the amazing strides women have made over the last 100 years in battling misogyny and discrimination and harassment and violence. But there is much work to be done. We need to teach our sons to respect women. To give them appropriate attention and admiration. To not objectify them. We need to teach our girls to be strong and protect themselves. To stand up for themselves and seek support from the men and women who care about them when they need it. To not blame themselves for someone else’s behavior. To shut down those voices in their heads that make them question their worth, their value, their own intelligence and their intuition. So that maybe one day “#yesallwomen” will be just an interesting footnote in our history.
*one of my favorite resources for empowering my girls is amightygirl.com. it has great resources for all ages of girls…and boys too!