Note: No room in the title to say this, but there's a section at the end about what men can do to help.
So what's dominating the news as I write this -- Oct 9, 2016 AD (AD, you're reading correctly) -- is a presidential candidate talking about grabbing random women by the genitals. A lot of people are confused and think the dirty words he said are the problem. No, you see, the grabbing is the problem. Let me explain in 140 characters or fewer:
But this has turned out to be a good moment for a super-common wrong assumption to get spotlighted and debunked: the assumption that the physical sexual harassment of women is an unfortunate, rare, freak occurrence, like fatal chihuahua attacks.
In light of the Trump story, Kelly Oxford posted a tweet calling for women to share stories of their first assaults:
This opened the floodgates:
Two days later, she had almost 10 million responses -- more than the total number of chihuahuas in the United States. I think even she was a little surprised by the volume. A lot of other people sure were.
I thought, "I hope some of those poor women feel safe enough to share," and then after reading some stories, went, "Oh wait, that happened to me," so I chimed in. I surprised myself even more when I remembered two other incidents later. Even after experiencing it three times, I still thought of sexual assault as a rare, outrageous crime that happens to an unfortunate few at a similar rate to being struck by lightning. Let me be clear: I didn't forget the incidents happened. I just filed them into the "Life sucks for me sometimes" basket, and not the "Sexual assaults which many other women experience" basket.
Two of the incidents were on public transit. One was on a bus in Rome and one on a train in the Bay Area, but I'm sure every city has a proud tradition of public space molesters. In both cases, I didn't do anything until it was too late, because I thought it must be an accident or misunderstanding. The bus guy pretended he was looking somewhere else. The BART guy pretended he was sleeping. I kept making excuses for why what was obviously happening couldn't be happening. It's crowded. He thinks he's grabbing his girlfriend. He's sleep-grabbing. He's got some weird condition that 60 Minutes probably did a story on.
I felt this weird compulsion to be absolutely sure the guy was groping me deliberately before saying something or pushing him -- otherwise, I would be the bad guy. I felt like being rude or overreacting if the guy was innocent would be a worse offense than groping. Which is insane. It's like a carjacking victim timidly thinking, "Well, my face will be so red if he just really honestly thought it was his car!"
Moments like these are why you should always carry a spare bullhorn in your purse.
By the time it finally sunk into my brain that the bus guy was actually deliberately groping, we got to our stop. And I found out afterward that my friend, in another part of the crowded bus, had the same thing happen to her at the same time, and had the same deer-in-the-headlights reaction. The odds it was an "accident" were starting to look like the odds of [insert bad sports team] winning [appropriate championship].
We felt both violated and dumb. Why didn't we do anything? Why didn't we slap the guys? Or just tell them to stop? We weren't, like, high-powered Iron Lady types, but we also sure as hell weren't docile submissive doormats who never stood up for ourselves. We had enough attitude to fill a Dodge Caravan (with rear seats removed). Where was it then?
The popular misconception of how an unwanted groping incident goes is that the bad man grabs an unwilling woman, and the woman immediately gets mad, gets away, and responds with a scold or an insult. He probably laughs. She walks off, angry. The lasting harm to her is a sense of injustice that this pig gets away with it, and that's all. If she worries about anything it's whether he'll get punished and whether he'll do it to another woman. (If she has any regrets, it's that she left her pepper spray in her other purse.)
The answers are yes and HAHAHAHAHA no, respectively.
Maybe that's how it goes with some women, and I envy them. But much more of the time, the bad guy isn't just violating your body; he messes with your mind. That's probably part of why they do it. You're not just angry; you're guilty, humiliated, confused. Is there some way it was your fault? Why did you let it happen? Maybe it was a misunderstanding, and it wasn't as bad as it seemed? This is stupid. You're not stupid. Then why are you having these stupid thoughts?
The third time it happened was with a co-worker. He was a new employee, and everyone decided to go drinking to celebrate his first day. I wasn't a big drinker, so I met up with them late in the evening. I put on a new "going out" satin halter top I was pretty excited about, because I'm not a big party/club person and this was my first chance to use it. (My idea of classy was usually a T-shirt without a logo on it.)
When I got there, everyone was pretty plastered. The new guy got handsy right away, and I just kept politely pushing his hand off and trying to move away, but I felt obligated not to say anything rude because he was new in town and I should be welcoming.
In retrospect, I should have realized that nothing says hello like a good crotch grab.
And he wasn't acting like the creepers in the stereotypical "no means no" video or illustration, leering and talking dirty and negging or whatever. He was talking like a nice guy trying to compliment a girl at a bar, but he was moving like a a rapist. Like the bus and BART guys, everything except his hands was pretending that something completely different was going on, and that he had no idea what his hands were doing. These guys think plausible deniability applies to different parts of your body.
Later, everybody walked home and he was too drunk to walk, so I had to support him, which went just as well as you would expect. I wanted to get away, but I was afraid if I left he would just fall down on the sidewalk. In retrospect, that seems like a great idea, but at the time I felt (again, insanely) that letting him fall on the sidewalk would have been a worse thing to do than the groping.
This is happening to the next guy.
The next day I talked to my bosses about it. It was a very small company, like a family. We all lived in the same house, including the groper. The CEO (female) said it sounded terrible and suggested I talk to the founder (male). He was extremely sympathetic as well, but then gave me a confusing speech about alcoholism. As a recovering alcoholic, he talked about how blackouts work and how people aren't themselves, and seemed to simultaneously be saying this was inexcusable and that it wasn't the guy's fault because he wasn't himself. The final thing he said was that the guy probably wouldn't remember any of this, and would probably be mortified and ashamed if we told him.
And so my boss asked if we could just put this behind us and move forward, and I was so confused that I just assumed he knew better (I didn't know anything about alcoholism and blackouts, after all) and decided to trust his judgement. So we never talked about it again.
But every time I looked at that halter top, it felt gross, and I felt stupid for wearing it and thinking I looked cool in it.
Funnily enough, he turned out to be a crap person in many other aspects, and eventually got let go for other reasons.
SHOCKING, I know.
The worst thing about it was the way it messed with my mind. I can see so clearly right now that I should have just said, "No, that's not okay, are you kidding?" and asked for him to be fired, or at the very least, have them tell him he was on thin ice. It seems crazy to me now to worry about how "mortified" he would be if we told him.
I've realized two things since the outpouring on Kelly Oxford's thread. First, pretty much all women are going to get an unwanted groping. If it can happen to a pretty reclusive, churchy, stay-at-home, sheltered hermit person like me three times, it's probably going to happen to just about everybody. Hoping to avoid it is not realistic.
The second thing I realized is that almost nobody is prepared for their first unwanted groping. (I know "sexual assault" is the correct term, but sometimes people get a very theatrical or narrow image in their minds about what that means, and I want to be clear: I'm talking about when a dude grabs your boobs, butt, or privates and you did not want it. That's right, I said the P word.) Over and over, I hear about this whole "deer in the headlights" reaction that I had and my friend had, where you have this belief that "This just doesn't happen to people like me," so therefore it can't be happening. And it's so strong that your own mind makes insane, implausible alternative "innocent explanations" for what it could be instead.
© Leah-Anne Thompson/iStock
"They sure are teaching things differently in medical school these days."
Added on top is the way women are taught that the worst thing you can do in public is "make a scene." So if you go "Hands off!" and a guy responds, "Oh, I'm so sorry! I thought that was my backpack!" this makes you a deluded narcissist who mistakenly thinks she's so hot that a stranger would want to touch her. (A deluded narcissist with rough, backpack-like skin.) We are taught to be so afraid of being seen this way that it is better to endure something we are 90 percent sure is a deliberate groping.
I want so much to talk to girls and young women who haven't yet encountered their first groper and make sure they know that all of this is bullshit. You don't have to be "100 percent sure beyond a reasonable doubt" to push a guy's hands off of you or say, "Hey!" It happens a lot more than you think. If you think it's happening, it's probably happening. And if not, an innocent guy would be happy you removed his hands from a wrong place they accidentally went. Think of it as removing his finger from the button that dispenses pepper spray into his face. It's a kindness.
And I want to tell them that a guy feeling you up against your will is multiple times worse than any meanness or coldness caused by you calling him out or getting away from him. Do not even take a second to weigh these two things against each other.
Here, I did it for you.
If there's a safety issue -- like you're afraid the guy will get violent -- obviously, I understand that you might want to keep quiet until you have a chance to make a break for safety. But if you're only afraid of embarrassment or making a scene, then make a scene! Make a whole movie if you have to.
Finally, as promised, how can guys help? Obviously, don't do it, but if any guys reading do this, they probably won't be dissuaded by me telling them not to. The best we can hope for those guys is jail. Or, you know, whatever the appropriate legal or karmic consequences are for their specific situation. (Karmic: peeing their pants while participating in a nationally televised presidential debate.)
For the guys who don't grope or rape or harass, and hate sexual assault, there are a few things you can do.
Besides continuing to be decent human beings.
1. Believe and support victims. There's a lot written about the details of this elsewhere, and probably better. Search and discuss.
2. Watch for signs it's happening right now. Mass transit isn't just a convenient, affordable way to get to work late. It's also apparently a favorite place for predators, according to Kelly's responses. One of the worst things about being groped in a public place is being surrounded with people who are doing nothing. Not everyone's in the right time and right place to do something, and you certainly don't want to be that guy who says "Is this guy bothering you?" to every woman within five feet of another man, but don't be the guy who awkwardly pretends to browse Instagram when some lady is obviously trying to get away from a guy.
3. Let guys who brag about it know that they're pieces of shit. The society-wide version of "everyone on the train doing nothing" is men keeping quiet and allowing creepy gropers and rapists to loudly proclaim that their behavior is normal guy behavior which all the other guys secretly think is cool. (And allowing any listening victims to believe that, too.) That this is how "real men" act when they don't have to pretend to be nice for women. And they'll keep up that delusion as long as other men smile and nod, or mumble noncommittally, or say nothing, or browse Instagram.
Would this guy do that? Remember, this guy gets laid.
Both men and women can support victims. Both men and women can help "see something and say something" on a train. Convincing these guys that other men really think they're losers and creeps is something only other men can do. (Or women cleverly disguised as men? Contact me to option this screenplay.)
So men, if someone brags about sexual assault after the fact (like Donald Trump), holy crap, don't be Billy Bush (good general advice). Don't laugh awkwardly or change the subject. Tell them they are a piece of shit. I mean, if you are not a swearer, use the language natural to you to convey that the person is a piece of shit. It's also good to explain why, but the first step is letting them know they are a piece of shit. (If they are sorry about it now, confirm with them that they agree their old self was a piece of shit.)
The final part of the Rome bus story is that later, we told our guy friends who were on the bus with us, and they were outraged. They wished they had known what was going on so they could have dealt with those guys. And I wish we'd been able to tell them during the act. Two of them were pretty big, and one was one of those martial arts dudes, so I don't think it was all talk.
Plus, this translates to any language.
It did feel really good to get their support afterward, though. Their outrage about what happened to us did make me feel cared about and valued, and shook off the lingering fog of doubt over who was to blame or whether I should feel embarrassed.
But ideally, if someone takes what I'm saying here to heart, maybe the story will play itself out again, but instead of freezing and second-guessing, the next woman will angrily wrench a groping hand away and exchange a meaningful glance with her good-at-martial-arts friend nearby, and passersby will shortly after see a would-be groper flying out a bus window. That's all I'm really asking for.
Disclaimer: Look, I'm obviously joking about the violence. Just scare the guy off, or restrain him and wait for police or whatever.
Learn to see the pain behind the smile in When Rape Victims Get Caught Smiling (We Won't Believe Them), and learn how powerful predators sometimes get away with it in Some Unnerving Facts About Bill Clinton Democrats Ignore.
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