It was a day like any other. I woke up, slothed around, and then decided to take advantage of a free morning and trek to a bookstore. I immediately found a book that appealed to my inner political science junkie, found a fairly secluded section of the store, and started devouring geopolitical predictions for the next 100 years.
Out of nowhere, a gentleman sat down next to me, and immediately started his lame flirting game. I tried to blow him off with talk of a boyfriend, but he persisted in trying to engage me in conversation. I buried my head in my book. Rather than walking away, I had made a conscious decision to assert my autonomy and stay where I was. After all, I was there first. I felt I had an inalienable right to read wherever I wanted to.
While talking to me, the man laid his hand on my knee and I flinched and glared at him. This didn’t deter him. He then asked me if I wear thongs (hello, flashback to AOL chatrooms in the ’90s), and proceeded to elaborate on his freaky sexual proclivities. During this, he slid his hand up and down my leg, and I completely froze. I was shellshocked. I knew that I was being violated, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. He then asked me for a handjob – “it would only be quick,” he sleazed. I died inside. He touched my thigh for what felt like an eternity, though it could have only been a few seconds, and then he left me.
I started to shake. I felt vulnerable, and powerless, and infuriated. I was angry with him for his non-consensual touch, for devaluing me and the word “no,” for looking at me and seeing a sexual object and nothing more. For assaulting basic human boundaries just to get a cheap thrill.
Moreover, I was angry with myself. A barrage of questions inundated my head. Why didn’t I remove myself from the situation? Why did I sit there in silence, an act of passive approval? Why didn’t I try to get someone’s attention/assistance? Why didn’t I kick him/key him/dismember him in any way?
Then I felt profoundly guilty. I may not have been the first woman he had ever talked to and touched inappropriately, but I will also not be the last. Though he ultimately didn’t get what he wanted, he was in no way punished or hurt. He wasn’t degraded in any way. He has no reason to not approach another unsuspecting female and completely violate her. This made me angry all over again. He got to walk away from that experience unscathed, while I was left desperately need of a shower, with a whirlwind of negative emotions consuming my soul.
This man was fully grown, and presumably did not crawl out of a cave five seconds before our encounter. Consequently, he must have been aware of the rules and norms that govern civilized individuals, including the unspoken one that states “do not molest nor solicit sexual favors from a complete stranger in the middle of a bookstore ever.”
In order to regain some semblance of sanity and to feel less alone, I placed what happened to me in a larger societal context. Existing as a female is challenging. Our society is, as anyone who is remotely interested in the study of gender know, intrinsically misogynistic. Women are socialized to recognize this and act accordingly. We’re supposed to keep ourselves out of compromising positions to avoid “tempting” potential predators. But since when is being in a bookstore alone in the middle of the day at all dangerous? I refuse to live a paranoid, fearful life. It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything. Why can’t men, just, you know, not harass women?
While many men are legitimately disturbed and sexually deviant, many others do inappropriate things because they can. Because they’ve grown up in a society that constantly excuses egregious male conduct by saying “oh, boys will be boys.” Because society doesn’t expect much from boys. And society doesn’t value girls. And those realities collide regularly – for me, it was gropage in a bookstore. For another woman, maybe it’s when she’s hooking up with someone she knows and he goes further than she told him he could. Or maybe it’s when she’s at her favorite band’s show and some random fondles her. Those women weren’t at fault, and yet, in the discussion surrounding sexual harassment, inevitably it becomes an issue of what the women did or didn’t do to prevent it from happening to her. Instead, the question should be, “Why do men degrade women, and how do we stop them from doing so?”