“These are the highlights, not every instance of sexual entitlement by others, that I have ever experienced. I don’t tell my stories for attention or pity. Many more and much worse things have happened to so many other women and femmes. Engaging in some kind of attention or pity campaign would be pointless (and shame on anyone who thinks that that is why any woman is participating in the ‘me too’ wave). I am sharing because I keep encountering people who are surprised that these things happen to women and AFAB —assigned female at birth— people that they know. That they care about. They can’t believe that the men they know—their friends and neighbors—are harassers and assaulters. I’m sharing because I hear people saying that they don’t believe the high numbers of ‘me too’ experiences. They can’t comprehend that these problems are so widespread. Well, believe it.
I’m sharing because shame keeps so many survivors quiet when we have nothing to hide. But this culture that tolerates sexual harassment and sexual assault, that victim-blames and hesitates to believe the testimonies and experiences of women and GNC (gender non-conforming) people, that criticizes those who share their stories more than the men who made those stories truth—that culture tells us we should be ashamed and that we should hide, and that’s not okay. That culture tells us not to complain. To keep quiet. To not make accusations against these ‘nice men.’ But the reality is, these problems are systemic. They are deeply rooted in how men are socialized. ‘Nice guys’ harass women and femmes, make us feel unsafe, dirty, used. ‘Nice guys’ assault, often causing trauma and changing lives forever. ‘Nice people’ blame survivors, or tell us that what we experienced wasn’t harassment or assault at all. This culture silences us. And that’s not okay. Our words (and our silence) should be our choice and ours alone. I don’t share this without anxiety. Will people believe me? Will they blame me? Will they see me differently? Will they think I’m overreacting? Will they judge me for ‘airing dirty laundry?’ I do share this with hope, though. That, by adding my small voice to the many who have already spoken, I can help push forward the awareness of these issues and the impact they have on so, so many women, femmes, and girls. And that maybe with enough voices, over time we can create a change.
I am seven years old, wearing my first two-piece swimsuit at the pool. A thin strip of my stomach is all the ‘extra’ that is showing, but my parents had barely consented to let me wear it because two-pieces were ‘immodest.’ Even at seven, I knew that meant it tempted boys and made them behave badly. But it had sparkly ruffles, and I begged. After all, it was just Grandpa’s pool, with my cousins and some of their friends. When we arrived, a few boys my age chase me, yelling ‘Get her! Strip her naked!’ As I run from them, I feel embarrassed and dirty, ‘immodest’ and afraid. ‘Kids, don’t run around the pool!’ is all an adult yells at us from the deck close by. I don’t wear a two-piece again until I’m 21 years old.
I’m fourteen, on a trail ride alone with a boy I work at the stable with, who is also fourteen. ‘Have you had sex?’ he asks me. ‘No,’ I blush. ‘What if you had sex with me?’ he leers. ‘No thanks.’ I nudge my horse further away from his. ‘What if I held you down and made you do it?’ he says, guiding his horse toward mine. ‘I’d punch you in the face!’ I say, trying to act tough as I glance around the open country around us. We’re about a mile from our stable, and the only buildings in sight are a couple of dilapidated hay barns on other properties. ‘Nah,’ he says flippantly, kicking his horse into a trot and riding a circle around me. ‘I could beat you up.’ ‘Yeah, right,’ I say. My face burning, I turn my horse in the direction of the stable and long-trot briskly all the way back—not something one is really supposed to let a horse do—occasionally glancing behind at my coworker, who is following at a more leisurely pace. I never go trail riding with him again, but I don’t tell anyone. I feel dirty and embarrassed. Besides, it’s probably my fault anyway. Your two-piece makes the boys chase, threaten, and humiliate you. They’ll only be told not to run around the pool.
I’m sixteen, getting an x-ray of my hip. I’m draped in a thin hospital gown and lying mostly on my side, bottom leg straight, top leg bent, hips tilted toward the table. ‘Okay, now hold still,’ the tech, who looks to be in his early 40s, says as he finishes positioning the equipment above me. Before he turns to head toward the control station in the corner, he drums my upturned butt cheek four times in quick succession with both hands. He does this so boldly, casually, flippantly, like he wasn’t even thinking about it, that as I drive home from the hospital, I question my perception of the event.
I’m seventeen, and I have a long-distance boyfriend—my first boyfriend. I haven’t been taught much about healthy dating, about boundaries, about standing up for myself. I’ve been taught by the fundamentalist Evangelical church that all people with vaginas are women, so I am a woman, and women are nurturers. Women take care of their men. That tearing ribs from our bodies and giving them to men was what we were designed for by God. So when he begs me for phone sex and I say no over and over, and he keeps begging until I hang up on him… I feel incredibly guilty. He’s lonely in the Marine barracks in California, with no friends or family. I’m all he has. He needs me. He suffers from depression and struggles with self-harm. I can help him. He needs me.
He calls back an hour later and I answer. He describes to me, in detail, how he cut himself, how close he was to suicide after my rejection. I say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m just not comfortable.’ He says it’s okay and I think it is, until we are talking a few nights later. I am describing my project for my art class and I pause. I hear his heavy breathing, muffled moans. ‘Are you…?’ I ask. ‘Don’t stop. Keep talking,’ he pants. Feeling sick, I hang up the phone. He calls back a couple of hours later. I answer. He describes to me, in detail, the blood, all the blood from his new cuts. How he barely resisted the veins in his wrists because he knew that if he died, he’d never hear my voice again. He’s sorry, he says. He’s just so lonely, and being in the Marines is hard, and he misses me so much and he loves me. ‘Do you love me?’ he asks. ‘I…I don’t know,’ I mumble. ‘Please tell me you love me, ‘ he begs in that voice he uses. ‘Please. I can’t keep going out here if you don’t love me.’ ‘I don’t know yet. Maybe,’ I say, torn, sick, guilty, angry. He takes a deep breath. ‘Soon though.’ Not a plea, that time. Not soon enough. More graphic descriptions, more almost-suicides, more muffled moaning over the phone.
I don’t hang up anymore. I worry about what will happen if I do. I pretend I don’t notice. I feel trapped. He knows where he can get pills, he says. Guns, of course. He’s a marine after all. Do I love him yet? I tell him I think so, and I hate myself for it. In two months, he is coming home to visit. I cut myself and tell no one. I struggle silently with intense anxiety, shame, disgust, self-loathing. One day I bring myself to say I think we should just be friends. ‘I can’t do long-distance. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Guilt and relief alternate in waves.
I’m seventeen. A boy—a young man—waits for me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon outside of the women’s locker room at the gym at the community college. I never see him before my workout, but he is always there after my shower. He is tall and the hallway is long, with not many doors. He is the only one there every time, sitting right outside the locker room. He says hello to me, asks me how my workout was, my shower. He stands too close. One day I call a friend. She meets me in the locker room after my workout for the rest of the semester. The young man still waits for me, but with my friend there, he doesn’t stand so close.
I’m eighteen, visiting a friend at her college. As I walk to her dorm building, a male student—a senior, he tells me—asks me if I’m from around here. Each time I pivot away from him, he pivots toward me. I tell him I’m visiting a friend. ‘Staying in her dorm?’ he asks, stepping closer. ‘Yeah, for a couple of nights,’ I reply. My back is up against a tree now. ‘So do you two, like, shower together?’ He leans toward me with a leering grin, looking me up and down. I brace my foot against a large tree root and push off to the side, out from under his looming presence, and walk briskly toward the dorms.
I’m twenty-one. We’ve been together for several months. He’s nice, sweet. Everyone thinks so. I think so. We do things I’m uncomfortable with sometimes. I say I don’t want to. I say stop and I even physically resist at first but he moves my hands out of his way, over and over, and begs until I give in. I’ve learned the consequences of rejection. Of course, I am responsible. ‘Men will only go as far as you let them,’ I’ve been told. So I must have let him. ‘Any time a boy touches you, it’s like a permanent red handprint on your body that never goes away,’ I remember the youth pastor saying. ‘You’re soiling what should be pure for your future husband.’ Already soiled, I guess I don’t have any right to insist it stop now. There’s no going backward. He’s so nice though, my boyfriend. He writes me little notes, he supports my interests, he’s understanding of my health problems. ‘He has such a heart for God,’ the New Testament professor says. ‘Such Christ-like love for people.’ Besides, he’s had a hard past. He doesn’t know any better. He just needs help. He has potential. I just need to do better. ‘Men will only go as far as you let them.’ On the sofa at my parents’ house where we are staying the night—in separate bedrooms—we decide to watch sitcom reruns and cuddle until I get sleepy. I have insomnia and take an Ambien every night. I pop my pill and we start an episode. I wake blearily to him doing things to me. I mumble and push him away. He shushes me. The next morning, I remember, and I am confused, angry, hurt, guilty, ashamed. I tell him not to do it again. Not when I’m sleeping. He does, though. I don’t know what this means. Except that I don’t feel good about it. But men will only go as far as you let them. So I must be letting him. He is so sweet and considerate about all other things that I question my perception of events. Events that continue. Over a year later I break up with him. ‘It’s not you, it’s me. I’m so sorry.’
I’m twenty-six. A friend waits until my husband has gone upstairs to bed. We are alone in the living room finishing our conversation. The friend kisses me suddenly and I freeze. I fumble. I say it’s late. I reach for dishes to start cleaning up. They catch me on the turn and kiss me again. Not everything is clear. I have flashbacks to previous instances of unwanted touch. A wine glass breaks, the ‘friend’ leaves, I go upstairs crying. I have panic attacks for weeks after. My therapist says it’s a PTSD response.
I’m twenty-seven, picking up some wine at a liquor store one night with a friend. She’s at the front. I’m toward the back, realizing that a man in the nearly-empty store has been in every aisle I’ve browsed so far, but he hasn’t picked anything out yet. I look at him pointedly, making sure he knows that I see what he looks like. ‘How do you get your hair that color?’ he asks, approaching me. ‘Bleach,’ I say, glancing around for an escape route. The man is standing between the exit (and my friend) and me. ‘Then dye.’ I notice there is a dark hallway behind me with an ’employees only’ door, then the emergency exit. One I could get pulled into, the other I could potentially escape from. ‘So pretty. Think you could do mine like that?’ He leans in. I change my grip on the neck of the large bottle of Chardonnay I’m holding in case I need to take a swing. Am I in danger, or does this man think he is just harmlessly flirting? I don’t know. There is no way for me to know until I either leave safely, or something happens. I catch the eye of a man behind the counter, pretend I have a question. The other man disappears. I ask the employee to walk my friend and me to our car. ‘Yeah, that guy does this sometimes,’ the employee rolls his eyes. ‘Probably high again.’ I check the dark back seats before we drive away, double-checking that the doors are locked. Hyper-awareness. Always on the defensive. Something that women and AFABs have hammered into them from a young age.
Our protection is on us. Boys will be boys. Men will only go as far as you let them. Men will go every bit as far as you technically, physically let them. Men will go as far as they can until you kick and scream. Why bother doing that because you were probably asking for it anyway. That’s just how it is. That’s what is expected and accepted. This is what the societal narratives teach us, this is what our experiences teach us. This culture needs to change. Its tolerance for harassment and assault needs to change. What we teach children and adults needs to change. The way we socialize people needs to change.
Start with listening to women and femmes who tell their stories. Believe us. Believe the harm that is done. I’ve seen people be teachable. I know it’s possible. And I have hope for upcoming generations as the Me Too movement has opened up more of a dialogue about how to raise boys into men who see women and femmes as whole human beings, how to raise girls and young femmes into adults who are confident in their boundaries and their worth. And I’m proud of other survivors, whether or not they’ve chosen to share their stories.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Elise Huther. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Learn more about Elise’s art on their website and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read Elise’s powerful backstory on their mixed-orientation marriage:
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And their struggle with an eating disorder:
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