When, in the shadow of the Harvey Weinstein furor, the #MeToo hashtag started taking over my social media feeds last year, my first thought was #WellDuh. I’ve got a million #MeToo stories. The high school basketball star who tried to stick my hand down his pants, the college boys who thought I owed them, the editor who threatened me and called me a c-nt when I refused a date, the flashers and gropers, and catcallers. #MeToo? Of course. I don’t think I know a single woman who isn’t a “Me Too.” Even women who say they’ve never been subjected to any harassment or discrimination probably have been.We’ve just become so inured to it that we don’t even think of it as abuse. Boys will be boys. Men will be asses.
In the aftermath of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s credible allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there’s a new hashtag: #whyIdidn’treport. And I’m thinking #wellDuh all over again. We don’t report because we don’t think we’ll be believed. We don’t report because we worry about our jobs, or seeming like a trouble maker. We want, like Dr. Ford, to be helpful, even in the face of the most devastating events of our lives. We want to erase it. We want it not to be true.
We don’t report for a lot of reasons. About a dozen years ago, I went to a new hairdresser. It wasn’t just raining that day, it was torrential. So it was just the two of us in his small salon. He talked about his wife, how she was pregnant and on bedrest. He was exhausted, he said. And sex deprived. We chuckled. And then it happened, on the pretense of checking my foils to see if my color was done, he leaned in, stuck his tongue down my throat and his hands down the front of my robe, grabbing my breasts under my bra.
Did I scream? No. Did I yell? No. I pulled back and said “Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that.” quietly, quickly and repeatedly. I was horrified. I was terrified. I was alone with a stranger wearing nothing but a robe on my body and foils on my head. I was shocked, paralyzed. Was it the chuckle that made him think that was OK? Was it something I did? Something I said? He tried twice more to grope me during that visit, and as soon as my color was done, I left, wet head and all, mumbling something about how the rain would ruin my hair anyway.
I was almost as shocked by what he did as I was by my (non)reaction to it. I had always thought of myself as a woman who would fight back. I was tough, I thought. But when he grabbed me I froze. I felt guilty and ashamed. I didn’t do a damn thing. This wasn’t a guy with any power over me. This wasn’t a guy with the ability to destroy my career or my reputation. He was a hairdresser. But I said nothing. Worse, I said “please.” Please don’t assault me? Jeez.
In the years since, I’ve discovered that he does it to everyone. I’ve heard about 70 year old women he’s groped, and 20 year old girls. Once, when I asked a friend who did her hair, she said his name. Something in my face must have given me away. “What’s the matter?” she asked with a smirk. “Did he grab your tits or something?” Everybody knew. Everybody who’d been to him, it seemed, had been groped. No big deal, evidently. None of us said anything. No one went to the police. He is still in business, so it seems no one ever has.
Oh, not that I hid it away and didn’t talk about. I talked about it all the time. Right after it happened, I went home and told my husband, presenting it less as an assault and more as a “you’re not gonna believe this” story. As if I were telling him that the hairdresser cut my hair while wearing a clown suit. “Isn’t that crazy?” Ha Ha Ha. I can’t count the number of times I’ve trotted out the story at cocktail parties and girls’ nights out. I’ve honed the tale to perfection: I set the scene (rain, pregnant wife); I build up the suspense (he leans in); I drop the bombshell of the attack as if it were a punchline. I’ve shared the ribald tale with every hairdresser I’ve ever had. It always gets a big response from them. “NO!” they say, titillated and shocked. “Yes!” I reply, with a smug knowledge that I’ve shocked and titillated them. Instead of reporting it, I turned my story of sexual assault into an amusing little tidbit.
What the hell have I been doing? Why didn’t I report?
This week, watching Professor Christine Blasey Ford talk about her own long-ago attack, I finally fully understood #whyIdidn’treport. I minimized my experience to protect myself. By turning my attack into a pithy anecdote, I diluted its horror. I wasn’t a victim, I was a funny raconteuse! In my telling, there was no harm, no foul. Only it was harmful, and demeaning, and most definitely foul. In minimizing my experience, I also minimized the truth of what happened: I was attacked by a strange man, and it was terrifying. Twelve years later, I can still remember the sour taste of his disgusting tongue.
I understand how Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes, and Les Moonves, and Bill Cosby, and Bill Clinton, and Bill O’Reilly, and so many more less famous, but no less foul men get or got away with harassing — and in some cases raping — women for so long. If it was hard for me to call out my hairdresser, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to call out the most powerful man in your industry…or in the world.
I understand why Dr. Blasey Ford did not want to think of herself as a victim,to spend her remaining years in High School as “that girl who was almost raped.” She didn’t want to pit herself against an older, popular boy who was captain of the basketball team, played football, was first in his class. (So he tells us. Numerous times.) She didn’t want to fight that.
During her testimony, she told the Senate Judiciary committee that she told herself that she wasn’t raped, so it didn’t matter. Think about that. She was attacked, held down, feared for her life, and yet it it barely seemed worth a mention until 35 years later, when the lives of millions of women might be within her abuser’s control.
Do men get abused and harassed too? Of course they do. But it’s not the norm for them. It’s not embedded into the culture. (White) Men didn’t have to fight for the right to own property, to vote, to eat alone at a restaurant. Men aren’t still fighting for control over their own bodies. Men aren’t so used to abuse that it’s the norm. They aren’t so used to abuse that it doesn’t occur to them to think of it as abuse, or to turn it into cocktail party banter.
And while #WhyIDidn’tReport is a useful hashtag, to help men understand the reality of being a woman in a man’s world, it’s also a sad hashtag. Sad that it has to exist. Sad that after a year of #MeToo, after a lifetime of witnessing women get dismissed, and disbelieved, and dishonored — they still don’t get it. Even plenty of good, decent men, still don’t fully understand #WhyIdidntreport.
#MeToo says this is not normal. #MeToo says I’m acknowledging it for what it was. Abuse. Assault. Harassment. Rape. #MeToo says I’m not going to take it anymore, or excuse it, or laugh about it, or bandy it about for the amusement of others. #WhyIDidn’tReport says: you still haven’t heard me. Listen.
#MeToo #MeToo #MeToo.