The Harvey Weinstein scandal and its ensuing social-media chorus of “Me, too,” has brought up painful memories for many women. If you missed out on this particular hashtagged declaration of unity, it goes like this: “If women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed tweet 'Me, too,' it might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem." So, women did.
As a result, many men have expressed astonishment, horror, sadness, anger, or some combination of the above. Others have asked why men are being left out of the conversation, since so many have harassment and assault stories of their own. Sometimes, when you’re a woman, it’s hard to believe men still don’t understand “the magnitude of the problem”: that they’re still surprised to discover it’s all around them, it always has been, and that they, in expressing surprise, are complicit.
But rather than explain the institutional nature of sexual assault and harassment, here’s a personal story that, I believe, illustrates it just fine.
Boys will be boys
When I was in my 20s, I worked in an all-woman office filled with lesbian, bisexual, and straight women of all ages. The place was a kind of sanctuary; not for nothing, I was never sexually harassed there.
We worked a few doors down from St. John's Hospice, a men’s homeless shelter, and leaving or arriving at work meant passing a gauntlet of hands grasping up my skirt and grabbing my ass, and voices, both lowered and loud, saying what they’d like to do to me. Once I was inside, I laughed it off. Occasionally, if any of us reported an uptick in harassment, one of my coworkers, a proudly massive woman (she’s at least 6’2”), would head outside and scream in their faces on our behalf. By the way, this isn’t even the story.
This is: At that time, the Pennsylvania Convention Center was still under construction. Because I usually ate lunch at the Reading Terminal Market, I had to walk past the construction workers, ignoring their regular hoots and hollers. But this day, I was wearing a new dress. It was the ‘90s, it was summer, and I had a date that night with my now-husband.
Most of the construction workers were on the building’s roof, and I heard a catcall as soon as I turned the corner. That worker alerted another, who also catcalled, which alerted the next. Every step I took for the entire length of a city block was met with a rolling wave of men, maybe 30 or more, perched above me like Hitchcock’s birds made flesh, screaming, whistling, laughing, and hollering vulgarities at me. People on the street looked up to see what the commotion was, and a few joined in. I kept my head down and walked as quickly as I could without running, feeling utterly naked and vulnerable. Still the screams and laughter kept coming, until I was inside the terminal. They enjoyed every moment of it.
I have never wanted to completely disappear and die the way I did that day. I couldn’t escape, couldn’t hide, and my husband still remembers how upset I was when I returned to the safety of my all-woman office and called him. I never wore that dress out again — not because I thought it was to blame, but because it was now inextricable from the memory of that incident. I have a million stories that say “Me, too,” and this is just one of them.
Women can be people
Here’s another tale.
A few years ago, I was on my way to review a show alone, leaving the top floor of a parking garage. I stepped into the elevator and inside was a tall, muscular man. If you’ve grown up a woman in the United States, you’ve most likely been conditioned to fear nearly every part of that description. (As an aside, Questlove tells a heartbreaking story about realizing a woman on an elevator in his own apartment building is afraid of him. “Me, too” takes many forms.)
The man took his side of the elevator and I took mine. After a few seconds, he looked at me and said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you look beautiful.” He flashed a kind smile, and I smiled back and thanked him. Then he looked away, leaving the moment open for me to offer more conversation. I remained quiet. The elevator opened, he wished me a good evening, and I wished him one back. We went our separate ways into the night, and I remember thinking,"That was pleasant."
I don't want to conflate what Weinstein did with flirting, and plenty of women might feel uncomfortable about being accosted in a parking garage elevator, no matter how politely. Even outside the workplace, the balance of power between men and women is generally unequal (as evidenced by that line of groping men who owned almost nothing themselves, but still believed my body belonged to them more than it belonged to me). I’m just saying this man, this stranger, offered a compliment and didn’t make me feel like I wanted to disappear or die. It was such a rare experience and I was grateful for his ability to see my autonomy and respect it. It’s certainly the very least men can do.