What I’ve written here is uncomfortable to think about, let alone have posted on my website. But sexual harassment is normalized when people don’t talk about it. So, as uncomfortable as I am, here goes–
I knew that writing my #metoo statement would be an emotional roller coaster and it has been. The writing forced me to face a truth about my mental health. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from something called fear of the marketplace, also known as agoraphobia. I experience it as a fear of leaving my home when I’m going somewhere by myself. I am usually, but not always, able to talk myself out of the house, but only by talking, and I mean talking out loud, to myself as if I’m a toddler. “OK, Cheryl, you have your clothes on, now let’s get the shoes on.” And, “Did you pack a snack?” And, “Good job! Let’s get in the car and go now”. It always struck me as a quirky personality thing that I couldn’t shake. But writing this statement helped me see that it isn’t a personality quirk at all. It’s my brain trying to get me to stay inside, where there is no chance of sexual harassment.
Since my #metoo stories are not the worst, it makes me wonder how many other women and men live with mental health problems because of their experiences with sexual harassment. How many other people are afraid to just walk out the door?
My good news is this: now that I have forced myself to look at the experiences that follow (and I keep remembering more, but had to stop somewhere), I have felt my life-long agoraphobia going, going, almost gone! It has also helped that I’m in my mid-60’s, so sexual harassment happens to me much less than it did when I was young. But it still happens.
1. My orthodontist touched my breasts through my clothing whenever I went to have my braces tightened. Clever guy—he more than likely molested thousands of girls in the course of his practice, while earning a terrific income.
I had no memory of any of this for over 40 years. The morning of my son’s first orthodontist appointment I felt angry and agitated for no apparent reason. Then I remembered. I was 16 years old when it happened.
2. I was 17 years old when I went out on a blind double date. The three people I was with knew each other quite well, which made me the only newcomer to the group. At one point someone suggested going home and asked if I wanted to go along. I pictured an hour or so of drinking coffee and chatting, so I said yes. When we got there, the other couple quickly disappeared. My date got on top of me and tried to undress me. He was probably 6’ tall and weighed, I’m guessing, twice as much as me. It was only after I told him I was going to scream that he let go of me He was probably afraid that I would have awakened the adults in the house. I feel frightened for my young self that I let him drive me home.
4. The husband of a friend, and at this time I was in my mid-20’s, would wait until my friend and her baby were out of the room to tell me how much I wanted to have sex with his repulsive, alcoholic self.
3. While I was in college, I had a part-time business cleaning houses. Homeowners sometimes left a key under the mat and money inside the house so that I could let myself in, clean, and get paid while they were away. One day a regular customer let me know in advance that her husband was home sick and that I should not clean the master bedroom because that’s where he would be. I was partially done cleaning when I saw him, naked on the bed with his butt in the air. Although I never again cleaned for that family, I stayed and finished the job and ignored my feeling of being at risk. I was 18 years old.
4. Walking in my parent’s quiet suburban neighborhood one day, a car pulled up and the driver asked me for directions. He said he couldn’t hear me when I answered and asked if I could come closer. Then I saw that he was masturbating. I was 21 years old.
5. While I was in graduate school, I had a job of updating looseleaf law books. I was alone on an elevator with a co-worker, a quiet young man who had always been polite to me. The doors closed and he told me that we could “do it” on the elevator. I was terrified that he was going to assault me. I was 26 years old.
6. Another day, same job. We usually worked in teams of two, but one day my work partner was out sick, so I did the job myself. One of the law librarians grabbed me by the shoulders and told me how much he wanted to have sex with me.
7. I was on a subway at rush hour, going home from that same job. It was very crowded and I felt a hand on my behind. I moved away as much as I could and the hand followed me. I said nothing.
8. It was a cold fall morning and I was wearing my brand-new, beautiful, bright red wool coat, waiting for the bus to take me to work. I saw a man walking towards me, and I thought, “he’s about to expose himself”. Seconds later, just as the bus arrived, he did. I got on the bus and told the bus driver what had happened, hoping that he would call it in to the police for me (this was decades before cell phones were common). The bus driver and the passengers who heard me laughed. I was 31 years old.
9. Like all women, I have been subjected to a countless grab-bag of men yelling both insults and compliments about my appearance. And then there’s the leering. It even happens when I am holding my husband’s hand. I have considered doing something revolting to get them to stop it, like pretending to vomit. Anything to get it to stop.
10. While traveling with friends in West Virginia during the Kavanaugh hearings, I got to the hotel dining room and was eating breakfast alone. The news was on, and as I listened, I felt heartbroken. It reminded me so much of the Clarence Thomas hearings, which I’d watched from my hospital bed while recovering from giving birth to my baby daughter.
This particular morning, as I watched clips from the Kavanaugh hearings, there was a large, tall man staring at me from a few yards away.
He eventually told me, in a booming voice, how hilarious he thought the hearings were. I answered that it wasn’t funny to me. He said that he was a salesperson, so he spent his days talking to lots of different people with different opinions. After telling me more about his work, I said that I just wanted to listen to the news and eat my breakfast, at which point he hiked up the waistband of his pants as he said that we could settle this with a fight. I told him that I am 65 years old and 5’1” tall and asked him to please stop talking to me. I had to ask him 3 more times before he finally stopped trying to engage with me. Fortunately, a friend arrived then and I asked her to sit with me until the rest of our group came.
There was a woman sitting not too far from me who, after the harasser had moved away, said that he probably thought I was cute. Wonderful. I imagine that I hurt his feelings by not wanting to talk to him. Did he somehow feel that physically hurting me would make things right for him?
Just like so many girls of my generation, I was taught to be be submissive and to keep quiet. I have long since found my voice, and I used it to get this idiot to stop.