Imagine you are eleven years old and sitting in the back of a car with your friend in a mall parking lot while her mother runs in to return something at J.C. Penney. You’re chatting about innocent, eleven-year-old type stuff — maybe what hilarious gag Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable pulled on The Cosby Show last week — and suddenly your friend’s eyes go wide as she looks past you, through the window on your side of the car.
“Oh my god! Oh my god!”
As she shouts and points, you hear something beating up against the window and you turn around to see a blur — definitely a person — looming less than six inches from your face. Why is he knocking on the window? you think as you try to process what’s happening. Your friend lunges forward over the seats to lock the front doors of the car and yells at you to lock the back doors, and just as you realize what the man outside the car is doing, your friend lays on the car horn, and he runs away. But not without leaving a smear of — what is that exactly? — on the car window.
That was the first time a strange man masturbated in front of me, but not the last.
The second time, I was sixteen and working my summer job, forty hours a week at a beachfront hotel on the coast of Maine. I was the “Parking Lot Girl” — charged with keeping interlopers out of the hotel lot, which barely had enough spots for our guests as it was. A few days in a row, a man stood just inside the sliding glass doorway of his first-floor room — overlooking my station — naked from the waist up, which was all I could see, and moving his arm up and down for, oh, let’s call it three minutes at a time.
Eventually I gathered the courage to tell my boss (a wry old salt, improbably named Johnny Darling), “I think that guy is…you know…and looking at me.”
Johnny marched over and hoisted himself up over the balcony (which had thus far been blocking my view of the main event), and saw for himself that the guy was naked from the waist down, too. Upon interrogation, the guest claimed that since he was technically standing inside his room, albeit behind transparent glass, he had every right to be completely nude, and doing whatever he liked. He was back at it the next day, and then I guess he checked out, because I never saw him and his sad flailing arm again.
That same summer, a car driven by a young, attractive guy who had a young, attractive girl next to him, pulled into the parking lot. I walked up to the vehicle to check for the hotel guest sticker, which they didn’t have, and performed my sixty-times-daily spiel about how they would need to turn around and park in the public pay lot across the street. The driver crinkled his eyes at me, begged and cajoled, “We promise we’ll just be half an hour. I want to take her to get a lobster roll and we’ll come right back. Swear to god.”
As I occasionally did when someone was nice to me (as opposed to when irate New York tourists cursed me out for not letting them park their $60,000 Mercedes for free instead of having to pay $2/hour next door), I said okay and hoped the hotel wouldn’t suddenly fill up with arrivals in the next thirty minutes.
Three hours later, the guy returned, sans girlfriend, and cast me a sheepish look from about forty feet away. I stood up from my post (a beach chair behind a sawhorse with the hotel name painted on it), shook my head and gave him my best Seriously, dude? Although lacking his original passenger, he seemed to be getting in his car to leave, so I sat back down. But then he stood again and waved at me. I could only see him from the shoulders up because he was parked in between two cars. He said something I couldn’t quite hear.
“What?” I shouted.
“Come here for a sec,” he said, still waving. “I’m sorry!”
As I walked toward him, he sat back down in his car seat, hand still in the air, beckoning me.
“I just need your help for one sec,” he said. “I’m really sorry we parked so long. Don’t be mad!”
I got to within about ten feet and just as I was rounding the bend of the car between us, I thought I heard him say, “Do you know how to sew?”
“Do you know how to sew?”
And when I stepped between the cars that had separated us, he was sitting in his seat, door open, legs splayed, feet planted on the pavement, with his penis hanging out of his shorts.
“I think I lost a button,” he said, and laughed at me.
I spun around and walked purposefully toward the hotel to find Johnny Darling, but of course the Parking Lot Dick was gone when we got back.
So that’s three. Would you like to hear some more? Okay, no problem!
He grabbed me harder and said what I imagine all boys sexualized by movies and music videos and television shows think is an appropriate thing to say to a girl they are touching without consent: “Come on, I know you want it.”
In high school, a guy I was friendly with cornered me one day when I was leaving the girls restroom. He put his hands on each of my shoulders and tried to pull me in for a hug. It was weird because there had been no previous sexual tension between us and I didn’t really understand why he would want to be hugging me, especially at this particular moment in an empty hallway in the middle of the school day. I playfully pushed him away. (I wasn’t remotely interested in being hugged by him, but I didn’t want to offend him.) He grabbed me harder and said what I imagine all boys sexualized by movies and music videos and television shows think is an appropriate thing to say to a girl they are touching without consent: “Come on, I know you want it.”
Twenty years later, according to his wife’s rapturous Facebook posts, he’s a really great dad to their daughter.
In college, I met a hot guy at a club. He was with a friend who creeped me out, and I said many times, very clearly, “I am not interested in your friend. If I leave with you, I don’t want him coming with us.”
“No problem,” he said. “I don’t want him coming either!”
We took a taxi to his apartment and while we were naked and fooling around, guess who walked in the door looking to participate? Turns out it was actually Creepy Guy’s apartment and Guy I Danced With was visiting him for the weekend from another school somewhere. So this was a premeditated fake out — they both knew full well that we were all going to end up in the same apartment, and Creepy Guy was hoping I would change my mind about including him in the fun.
I sobered up right quick, panicked, looking around for my clothes while simultaneously trying to cover myself with my hands like some clichéd movie meet-cute-gone-awry. They both tried to talk me down, using the soothing tones you might deploy on an angry cat, as I said, louder and louder, “I want to go home. You need to call me a cab. I want to go NOW.”
To their credit, they did. Guy I Danced With even gave me $20 for the taxi. No harm, no foul, right? WRONG. I made an adult decision to have consensual relations with one man and he and his friend deceived me into trying to get the other one involved, after I clearly, repeatedly, specifically said “I am not interested in him.”
Guy I Danced With gave me his email address as I left, and the next day I sent some simpering message about how I was sorry I had freaked out and ruined the night. (As one does.) I never heard back.
Once when I was on the New York City subway, a sleeping guy’s hand fell onto my thigh. I rustled him off, and a minute later, it happened again. I elbowed him in the ribs, he straightened up, and the hand returned to my leg almost immediately. At that point I got up (it’s always such a sad moment when you have to give up your hard-won seat on the subway), moved over to stand by a pole, and warned the next woman who got on and eyed that empty seat.
“Don’t sit there. He’s a groper.”
The guy “woke up,” looked at me, and winked.
Another time, while standing on the train, I felt a hand cupping my ass. It seemed like an intentional grope — not an “Oops, sorry I brushed against you.” But the car was pretty packed. Maybe it was an accident? I waited to react because I was afraid of wrongly accusing the man behind me. I shifted around, and felt it again. Distinctly. When a bunch of people got off at the next stop and a lot of space opened up, I moved a good foot-and-a-half over to fill that empty spot. The man and the hand followed.
I summoned every bit of courage I had, turned around, and said loudly, calmly, “I don’t know if you realize that you are touching me” [because I was still a little worried that I might be wrong], “but you need to stop. There are plenty of places you can stand on this train and not be touching me. Please stop touching me.”
Reader, he didn’t deny it.
And yet another time, I was reading (again, on the subway) when I heard a guy verbally assaulting a woman seated across from him. Apparently she had nodded off for a minute and her legs fell open — and she was wearing a skirt — so naturally this man thought he was justified in calling her a slut (and several other unsavory epithets that my poor parents who are no doubt already cringing their way through this essay don’t need to be reminded exist in this world).
At first the woman tried to brush it off. It obviously made her uncomfortable that a stranger was telling her he could see up her skirt. She sat up and crossed her legs. He could have let it go then, but instead he continued to inform her that she was a whore and a tease and she shouldn’t be sitting around like that with her pussy on display.
(Sorry, mom. Sorry, dad.)
She yelled back, telling him to stop looking at her if he was so offended. He wouldn’t let it go, and nobody — including many able-bodied men — on the train was coming to her defense, so with my heart pounding out of my chest like the “Kali Ma” scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I walked over and stood between them and looked him in the eye and I said, “Enough. That’s enough. You made your point, now you leave her alone.”
He looked up at me, with my raincoat and my sensible shoes and my pixie cut, and he said, “Shut up, dyke! I speak the truth. I’m happy with my spirit at the end of the day.”
So at this point he’s sexually harassed one young woman and is now leveling a homophobic slur at another — all in the name of “the Spirit.” I told him I thought my husband might have something to say about that and he just kept right on rolling: “So what? Just because you got a husband doesn’t mean you ain’t played for the other team.”
(Doubling down, huh? Why does that remind me of a certain Cretin-in-Chief?)
I mean, guys, he literally said “She’s asking for it.” Just like my old high school buddy said “Come on, I know you want it.” It would be funny if it weren’t so repulsive.
Things got much, much worse when a real fucking crazy-eyed motherfucker stood up and started shouting, “He’s right! He’s right! She can’t spread her legs and expect us all just not to look. She’s asking for it!”
I mean, guys, he literally said She’s asking for it. Just like my old high school buddy said Come on, I know you want it. It would be funny if it weren’t so repulsive.
The original “the Spirit moves me” guy actually seemed ashamed that Crazy Eyes was on his side of this debate and tried to distance himself. “Look, man,” he said, “I speak the truth, I’m a good man. My sister got raped so I know, guys can’t control themselves. Someone could have followed her off the train after she teased them like that. She’s lucky I said something!”
Guys can’t control themselves! Who knew?
Finally, a couple of other women spoke up and Crazy Eyes yelled that he “wouldn’t touch their ugly cracker asses” so they “didn’t need to worry.” (Then he threatened to murder an elderly man who asked me if I was okay, so that was a nice change of pace.)
Even though the next stop was not mine, this seemed like a good time to exit stage left. As I waited on the platform for the next train, so I could continue just trying to fucking get home from work, two different women came up to me and said the same version of “That was so brave what you did. I was rooting for you.” I told them that I’d been in that position before, being attacked and abused in a vulgar way, and that nobody had helped me. I just couldn’t watch it happen and not say something. (Even though it was really scary and as I was doing it, I was thinking WHAT ARE YOU DOING BACK SLOWLY AWAY DO NOT GET INVOLVED.)
Then I waited for the next train, tingling with fear and fury, and was glad I had stood up for the right thing — but also glad that I didn’t get followed off the subway and assaulted because, you know, guys can’t help themselves.
I told this story on Facebook right after it happened, which a check of the ol’ timeline tells me was three years ago.
One year ago, after Donald Trump’s pussy-grabbing comments made the news, writer Kelly Oxford asked women to share the story of their first assault on Twitter with the hashtag #NotOkay. Her original tweet has more than 14,000 responses. Mine are among them.
Just a couple of months ago, I wrote about street harassment in my upcoming book, You Do You (in a chapter called “You Should Smile More”):
I’d like to begin this chapter with a shout-out to any readers who have been urged to “Smile!” while walking down the street minding their own goddamn business. Raise your hand if you know what it’s like to unnaturally contort your face in order to avoid being singled out, criticized, or retaliated against. This happened to me approximately EVERY DAY when I lived in New York City. No, I’m exaggerating. Every other day. On public transit, in a crosswalk, at a bodega — you name a locale and a stranger has told me that I should be smiling in it.
(This doesn’t happen quite as much now that I live in the Dominican Republic, although a lot of people who definitely did not come out of my hoo-hah nevertheless address me as “Mami,” accompanied by a distinct hissing/clicking noise that might mean “You should smile more” in a local dialect with which I am not yet familiar.)
I wasn’t going to sit down and spend a couple hours of my day cataloging eight of the countless times I’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted so that you could relive them with me, but then I had a conversation with a gentleman friend who was irritated about all of the “me toos” going around his Facebook feed. He said it felt like some women were just jumping on the bandwagon, that it was hard to believe almost all of his female friends have been victims of harassment. Like, really?
I don’t know what to say to that, except, well, all of the above. Me too. Her too. Us too. All the time, since the beginning of time. Long before Harvey Weinstein, before Trump, before stories of sexual harassment and assault became trending topics on Twitter for a few days and then disappeared and we all got back to the business of being women in the world.
I’m not sure why it’s so hard to believe.