When we talked about doing an issue around sexual assault, there was a collective head nod. So many of us have experienced incidents in one form or another. Now in our 30s, 40s and beyond, we may have shrugged off the minor incidents, worked through the more egregious attacks with our shrinks or kept them locked up in a secret brain vault. But we’ve never, ever forgotten.
We asked a few of our contributors to share their stories — reading them we find a common theme of confusion and shame that lingers. Collected here, these vignettes remind us we’re not alone and that there’s power in sharing.
I’m 20 years old in Europe traveling with a girlfriend over the summer. We’re in Pisa, having pizza at a cafe after the requisite tower viewing. My friend is an extrovert; I’m an introvert. At the cafe, she’s talking and laughing with our waiter. She even asks him for a cigarette. This mortifies me, but I can’t tell if it’s because it seems potentially dangerous — he doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy vibe — or if it’s just so different from what I would do. So I ignore it and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. While I’m in the ladies room, the waiter comes in the bathroom, locks the door. He starts coming at me for a kiss with hands out ready to grab my boobs. I’m shocked. I freeze. His gross, smoky mouth invades mine, and that’s when I come to life, duck under his arms and get out of there. He acts like, hey, what’s the big deal, mi dispiace. I grab my friend, and we high tail it out of there — but not before I mentally blame her. That was at the start of our trip, and honestly, our relationship never recovered. And that’s the worst part: I blamed her instead of him. He was ‘just being Italian.’
Manners and the Men Who Abuse Them
Although I try not to frame it like this, at times I can’t escape the fact that my last completely unencumbered moment was one in which I placed a man’s feelings above my own. I was 10, and it was the first day of summer. I’d gone out to celebrate on my purple three-speed with the sparkly handlebar streamers — just me, the sun, the wind and whole-hearted freedom.
After flying through the hills of a nearby park, stopping to explore cattails and rotted tree stumps, I left my bike on the roadside and climbed down an embankment to rinse the mud off of my feet in a stream at the end of the park. The streambed ran through an arched stone bridge beneath the road — cool and quiet.
I wasn’t at all alarmed when a man appeared and began chatting amiably. At that point, I’d never heard of sexual assault or pedophiles or molestation. My body was my own then, and it had never occurred to me that it might be a source of pleasure or power for anyone but me. I chatted back happily while I rinsed my toes in the rushing water.
At one point, I looked up and noticed a leafy expanse of sloping stream bank, which suddenly came into focus. From nowhere, the notion hit me that this was an escape route, and if I ran — quickly — I could reach the road and my bike in just a few seconds time.
When I look back on that day, my most vivid memory is of that sunlit pathway.
I didn’t run. Why? It just seemed extremely…rude.
Within moments, the man had taken hold of my body and forced his hand down my pants. He grabbed my girlhood and asked roughly, “Do you have any hair down there?”
I won’t encumber you with the rest of what happened that afternoon, other than my horror at understanding that I was powerless. That my fingers were useless twigs and my muscles were weak as water and that the monster who now hovered over me could crush my head with a rock at any moment.
My life is marked by a heavy black line: Before. After.
“After” brought years of PTSD, paranoia and self-doubt. It brought isolation, a deep yearning for safety and a constant watchfulness for escape routes. My attacker was caught, which gave some solace, but it could never help me un-know what I had learned: that I belong to a sisterhood that moves through the world in danger of being raped, strangled, bludgeoned — annihilated.
The 30 years since have brought other episodes of men who grabbed, insinuated, stared and stalked. But now I know better than to be polite.
Now I run.
I was 12, and a friend and I were walking into town a few miles away from home. We noticed a car that kept driving past us, apparently circling the area. We didn’t think much of it until the driver pulled over to ask us for directions. As my friend was telling him where he needed to go, I noticed his fly was unzipped and he was moving his hand. I didn’t know what he was doing, just that it was very wrong. I hit my friend in the arm and told her that we had to go. We got away from that car pretty fast. I never told my parents for fear they wouldn’t allow me to walk into town again or that somehow I had done something wrong.
— Shelly Rabuse
From Bra Straps to Pussy Grabs
Dredging up all the times someone has groped, pinched, grabbed and nudged me without permission has been unpleasant. Upon reflection, I realize that it is sadly so much a part of women’s daily lives that we just kind of patiently take it — because just as one thing happens, another is surely to follow. Little boys snapping bra straps early on just acts as a setup to the rest. There’s nothing cute or funny about it, and behaving that way sends the wrong message to boys and girls. Boys: It’s okay to touch a girl without permission. Girls: It’s not a big deal! It’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humor?
As a preteen and teen, I had random boys and adults — men and women — grab my crotch, slap my ass and pinch my butt. A doctor grabbed my breasts once when my mom left the room. I was young, stunned and ill equipped to defend myself. Out with friends once on Ft. Lauderdale Beach, a cop looked me over in a bikini and remarked, “That ought to be illegal.” Hilarious, in a way, but I was probably 16 or 17. We all laughed about it after, but it was not something an adult — no less in an authority position — should say to a minor. I remember thinking later that he was probably the same age as my dad then.
Later, older and wiser, in my early 20s when I was in Europe, some teenager grabbed my breasts and ran. That time I chased him down, yelling like a banshee, but he got away. Bastard. I wanted to pummel him. Some man tried to “rub” himself on me in a crowded subway in college. It took some maneuvering, but I got away by almost dropping to the floor and crawling. At work, I walked in on an older male coworker watching porn. I had knocked. He had told me to come in, and there were some woman’s privates on full display across the screen. Nice, right? On behalf of the women in the office, I told him to stop. He never admitted to anything — but he stopped.
Recently, I had to explain Trump’s ugly remarks to my young son. He overheard it from kids on the bus and came home to ask me what it all meant. I did my best. “You just don’t treat girls and women like that. Anyone,” I told him.
“But, Mom, how can he be running for president?”
— Jennifer Bensko Ha
You Don’t Own Me
I’d bought a velvet and tulle A-line dress for the presidential election. I was 20, interning on Capitol Hill, and we were watching the returns come in. It was 1996, and Bill Clinton was running for a second term. I had a rhinestone barrette and a party dress, and, though it was before we all had cell phones, we got the world to move the party to the bar across the street.
I was a Democrat and had watched Bill Clinton get elected the first time while in high school, and it felt so adult to be sitting shoulder to shoulder with the senate aides and lobbyists in the wood paneled bar.
I was going to be his date to a party later that evening, in a ballroom or on a rooftop. But that’s not what happened. I had too much to drink and was stumbling and slurring my speech. And, like the gentleman he was, he walked me home.
I don’t want to talk about what that boy did, just that he was the first and not the last to think I was an object there for his pleasure, even if I was unconscious. The next day, I could not walk and I crumpled up the party dress, a symbol of the shame I would wear for the next 20 years.
At 40, I tell a friend what happened. “If you were too drunk to say ‘no’ then it was a ‘no,’” she tells me, and the weight begins to lift.
Now there’s another Clinton running for president, and may she win. Please, God, may she win, shutting down the vitriolic buffoon who too thinks women are his property.
The Shame File
At 11 years old while walking down the street, focused on mastering my paddleball skills, I was stopped by a boy who demanded that I give my paddleball to him. I fiercely responded “No!”, but he still insisted. When it was apparent that I was not giving in, he walked up to me, pulled open my shirt, looked inside and said, “What’s in there?” Physically shaken, I dropped the paddleball and ran home crying. My grandfather was sitting on the porch. I told him everything — everything except the part about the shirt. I felt ashamed and responsible. I was an early bloomer physically, and I wasn’t wearing a bra. At that moment, I started filing things away in the shame file.
It’s the early ‘90s. I’m 32 years old and living in downtown NYC. After a night of clubbing and drinking, I stopped for pizza in the East Village. I ran into a male friend of mine who wanted to show me some of his latest finds from Patricia Fields. Not feeling any danger, I accepted. In his apartment ,he pulled me on his lap. I laughed, thinking he was being funny, but he got more forceful. That sick feeling rushed over me again. I knew what was coming next: Although I put up a good fight, he raped me. I ran out of his apartment disheveled, half-dressed, with a mascara-stained face, stumbling down the middle of Second Avenue. An NYC cab driver offered to take me to the police, but I asked him to take me home. I was drunk and felt that I was at fault because I was too trusting. Into the shame file this experience went.