I was blown away by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s recent speech excoriating Republican representative of Florida, Ted Yoho, after he had verbally assaulted her on the steps of the U.S. Capital. It’s in all the European papers: on the front page of Le Monde (her searing words translated into French), The Guardian and elsewhere. It blows me away that some mature men need to be (publicly) scolded by a 30 year old, as if they were recalcitrant children.
And did you hear Yoho’s feeble apology? After denying that he accosted AOC, he went on to say “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.” Huh?
Here’s what a lot of men don’t know: women of all ages experience harassment and incivilities from men all the time, mostly from complete strangers as we go about our business in our daily lives. As AOC said – “this is nothing new”. But why don’t men know about it? Because we don’t mention it. Why bother? It’s so widespread and commonplace, most of us prefer to just carry on and put the hurtful words behind us (and not take it personally.)
As I sit here at my kitchen table editing my soon-to-be-published memoir, it seemed fitting to print an excerpt, here on my blog, of my first assault at the age of 18, my first physical assault, that is. As for verbal assaults, sexual innuendos, pestering and wolf whistles, all that started at around the age of 13.
To be frank, I wasn’t even going to put this in my book, I stuck it in at the last minute. I had viewed this type of behavior as so ordinary, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be noteworthy or interesting. But since the MeToo movement and the unfurling of thousands and thousands of sexual misconduct stories, I figured “What the heck, I’ll throw my story onto the heap.”
But I want MEN to read this blog post (as well as women.) I want them to know what goes on in the daily lives of their daughters, sisters, wives, aunts, mothers, etc. Please pass this post on to men who you know and love. MEN (good men, not the creepy kind): we need you to step in, stand up and speak out. We need your support!
I was eighteen and seeking a summer job. My mother told me that her best friend, Anne, who ran her own public relations agency, had a client who was hiring for the summer season.
“What does this client do?” I asked.
“It’s a husband and wife team who own a lakeside resort in Algonquin Park.”
Two hundred miles north of Toronto, Algonquin Park is a vast swathe of pristine forest, lakes and rivers dotted with campsites, cabins and inns. The husband and wife, according to Anne, were upstanding members of the Toronto community and well-known in the hotel and lodging industry. She set up a meeting. A few days later I made my way to their house, not far from ours, and knocked on the door. The man who opened it – beefy and silver-haired with bushy eyebrows – looked to be in his mid-sixties. He introduced himself as the resort owner.
“Come in, come in,” he said, ushering me inside and guiding me down the hallway with a hand on my shoulder. “My wife is up at the lodge, opening it for the season. I was just making coffee, would you like some?”
It happened fast, one minute we were sitting on the couch chatting, the next second he lunged at me. With sheer brute force he shoved me backwards onto the couch, slithered on top of me and pinned me down. Then he groped my body all over while trying to kiss me. I guess I weighed around 100 pounds compared to his undoubtedly 200 plus. Utterly repulsed by the grotesque thing on top of me – minutes ago a cordial man, now a grunting beast – and all the while struggling and yelling at him to get off, I somehow managed, in a surge of adrenalin-fuelled superhuman strength, to push him off of me and onto the floor. Then I ran out of there.
“How did the meeting go, dear?” my mother asked when I got home.
“OK,” I said, grabbing a bag of jellybeans and heading to the living room to flop onto the sofa, cuddle with the cat and watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show on TV.
I had just been violated, but it didn’t occur to me to tell anyone. For weeks afterward, I’d have bruises all over my body. I was confused and conflicted, and didn’t have a word to articulate what had just happened to me. The word is ‘assault.’
There was a muteness back then, and little awareness. We had never had a conversation about rape or harassment or how to react in the face of physical male aggression. There was no handbook or instruction manual, so we had to deal with things as best we could on our own. I was too naive to understand that I had been preyed upon, and did not know the words that are common parlance today: abuse. domination. molestation. sexual violence. impunity. victim shaming.
The summer before, on a night train down to Marseilles, I was stretched across four seats in an unoccupied compartment, sleeping. I was on my way to Aix-en-Provence to learn French at the summer school there. In the middle of the night, as the train clacked and rumbled through shuttered towns and across dark swathes of countryside, I awoke to find a well-dressed man sitting upright on the seat directly across from me. He must have crept into the compartment while I was sleeping. In the semidarkness I discerned some jerky movements going on. It took me a few seconds to comprehend his actions: while watching me stretched out and sleeping, he was pleasuring himself. Enraged, I sat bolt upright and screamed at him to get out. If he didn’t, I threatened, I’d pull the emergency alarm. He fled the compartment. I was seventeen years old. I never told my parents.
I never told them either about the tree-men, the Arabs who gathered at dusk in the olive trees that ringed the women’s residence hall on the Aix-en-Provence university campus. It was the oddest, most unforgettable sight. Climbing the tree trunks like monkeys, they’d perch on the higher boughs, intent on spying on us before we lowered the shutters at nightfall. My roommate was an older girl from Illinois. One evening we stood stock-still in the half-light of our room, watching them through the window.
“But what on earth are they doing?” I said, my voice betraying the naivety of my teenage self.
“They come to look at us,” she said.
“Us? You and me?”
“All of us. All of the women in this building.”
The next night we were startled by screams coming from the communal bathroom at the end of the corridor. All the women on my floor, myself included, tore down the hall to find one of us wrapped in a large towel and standing outside a shower stall. She was semi-hysterical, her hair sopping wet and still shampooed. Blobs of lather fell onto her shuddering shoulders.
“What happened?” we cried in one voice, instinctively forming a protective circle around her.
She had been taking a shower, she told us, when one of the Arab men strolled in.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that,” she said, shaking with fright.
“And what did he do?”
“He stood outside the shower door and watched me through the glass.”
But what was equally revolting was the reaction of the French administrators who laughed in our faces. A group of us marched over to the main office to complain, not only about the presence of the men on the premises, but the overall absence of security. We feel unprotected, we told them. They just laughed, or rather sneered, as if we were the foreign intrusion, and not the tree-men.
So why did I never mention these transgressions to my parents? Why did I, and most women back then, keep quiet?
Because it was the 1970s, and that’s what it was like back then.
Because it was becoming clear to me that the life of a female is full of peril, the peril being predatory men. And navigating such a life was like crossing a grassy field studded with land mines.
Because I loved my mother and father, and didn’t want to upset them.
Because I intuited that women have a price to pay, just for being women.
Because it was a given, the way of the world. Pestering, molestation, assault, as if our bodies were public property; a violation so trivialized and normalized back then (joked about, even) that it wasn’t worth mentioning. And so we dealt with it alone, while protecting both the perpetrator and our parents.
Here’s yesterday’s front page of Le Monde. If you scroll down, you’ll hear a portion of AOC’s speech with French subtitles. This is important because male chauvinism, abusive behavior towards women and anti-feminism is rife in France. French people need to hear this. Only recently, President Macron nominated a man to be Minister of the Interior. His name is Gérald Darmanin and he’s been accused of rape. But Macron protects him and, prior to any investigation, goes so far as portraying him as the victim.