Ahh, social media, you’ve done it again… the Harvey Weinstein story has started a hashtag trend, and it’s good, great in fact. I am not surprised at all by the number of women posting #metoo and if you are then, wow, open your eyes.
I have not posted a status update that declared #metoo. And I want to be honest about why. The encounters with sexual harassment and assault haven’t been as traumatic as the post-encounters. And friends, that is a bold statement.
I have not posted #metoo because I wouldn’t be able to handle one more shred of “are you sure?”
Let me say, I keep my Facebook friends tight, I don’t think one of them would ever say to me, “Are you sure?” (however, they have in the past) but I will not have that discussion one more time. I won’t. (and yes, it is far more dangerous putting it here. I know.)
I detest when people say, “You are not a victim, you are a survivor.” (BTW- if that makes you feel powerful, great, really, I’m glad) I have been a victim, trust me, I survived it, but not without a very high cost. That cost is so high that I can’t type #metoo in a status update without feeling physically ill. Am I only a victim, no, absolutely not, but I cannot deny that part.
But every encounter of sexual harassment or assault I have experienced has also been gaslight. Gaslighting is not a term I particularly like because of it’s definition: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. I don’t like the use of the word sanity, I don’t know why particularly, but there it is. The people who have questioned my stories are sometimes really good people trying to understand, and yet, in that moment, I cannot be your teacher. I don’t like the idea that I have bought into the idea that other people know better than I, but I have. Over and over and over again.
Very rarely it was the abuser themselves, since I do not usually feel safe enough to confront them, very often, it is the people around me who are well intentioned and well meaning.
When I was in college I was sitting with my sister and two of our closest girlfriends, a few male friends were sitting near us. The steps of the School of Music at UofL are shaped like an amphitheater, we would spend hours at that building and take breaks from practicing or studying to sit in the sunshine on those steps.
One of the boy’s pass times would be to sit on the steps, watch for attractive women to walk by and they would yell “Go Cards!” at them if they liked what they saw. I’d watched them do it a hundred times, yet, the four of us sitting there felt powerful enough in our group to call one of them over and told them how offensive it was. I believe there was even a justification of “what? it’s a compliment?” As the discussion went on he exclaimed that sexual harassment or assault was very rare and it just gets “highlighted” often. I asked of the four of us sitting there how many of us fit into that category. All of us raised our hands.
I was about 21 years old at the time and was just beginning to find my voice on this subject.
Our dear, “innocent” male friend was appalled. He knew us, trusted us, we weren’t lying and he couldn’t make any “she was asking for it” kind of excuses.
A few years later I told my rape story to one of my closest friends in seminary. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I mean, sometimes my wife says she ‘doesn’t want to’ but does anyway, and that’s not rape.” Seriously dude? You just compared my rape to your committed, trusting relationship with your wife, whom you are married and have children with?
No. Not okay. You don’t get to ask me if “I’m sure” it was rape.
This kind of encounter with gaslighting was not unusual, to the point that I did question the word I used “rape”. Was it “rape”? Maybe it was “date rape”? Maybe it was “mixed signals”? I spent so much time and energy around what to call it that I went years too long not dealing with it.
In therapy I learned to call it what it was, I was raped. I was raped by a man I let into my house, who I did not trust, who I had previously dated, who did not stop when I said no.
Are you sure? Damn right I’m sure.
The effects of that night haunted me for years, and on a very, very rare occasion still do.
Because of other people’s gaslighting I took the fear of sex into my marriage. Was it okay to like it? (Conservative evangelicalism didn’t help with that one either). Was it okay to say no? And if I said yes, but only kind of wanted to, what did that mean?
Let me pause to say my ex-husband never hurt me, not once, he never pushed or forced and he was patient and kind. But there is no way the issues around sex didn’t effect our marriage and it was another thing I mourned during the divorce, that man, was still fucking me over.
I once tried to bring it up, very early in our marriage, with our couple’s therapist. I told her that I was afraid sometimes, that even though I know my husband is safe that I still get scared, I was afraid to want sex, that sometimes in the middle of it, I would get flashes of my rape and have panic attacks. (this is called PTSD friends) She told me, in front of my husband that I was being ridiculous, that I needed to get over it and freely have sex with my husband.
I relived my rape in dreams and flashbacks during sex for months. I would cry, silently in my pillow, either because we had sex, or because we hadn’t.
Eventually I got a therapist who specialized in childhood sexual trauma and rape, the story changed, I began to heal. I began to tell my story to other male clergy in safe groups to help them understand what the women in their pews lived with, they looked at statistics but people hadn’t really told them stories and guess what? “Are you sure?” was the first question out of their mouths. “I mean sometimes…” they would say.
I realize now that the “are you sure” is a need for absolution, “that time” when they made a woman uncomfortable and desperately need to justify it because they “would never do that”.
But this isn’t just about being raped. Sexual harassment is far more common and an almost daily occurrence. I have been blatantly harassed by men who are my superiors, unwanted advancements from my peers, I have been felt up by men who felt that my body was okay for their hands since the sixth grade. I’ve been cat-called and stared at, and even in what was the most polite ways, made uncomfortable by unwanted advancements.
“Excuse me ma’am,” he said from his pickup truck, “I don’t want to be rude but you are looking very nice today.” Man at gas station, last spring. Was that harassment, are you sure?
Just a few weeks ago I was gaslight by someone who said that because they “weren’t attracted to me” it’s not sexual harassment. Grow up.
In full discloser, I want to say, I have also sexually harassed, both explicitly and implicitly. There is no question that they are amongst the most shameful and deeply sorrowful moments of my life. I am so sorry, I really should have known better.
The #metoo hashtag is not surprising in the least and I’m sorry to see it, but it in no way is a new revelation. However, if you have even spent one second questioning these women then I need you to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror. Because yes, we’re sure.