I always used to pride myself on being the kind of person who does not attract trouble. My three brothers were in hot water routinely for things I got away with, clean as a whistle. I never got too much negative attention for anything, and being an average white female, that innocuousness grows with age. An old white lady becomes more and more invisible, and that’s not a totally bad thing.
But recently, every time I see a woman’s face on TV forcing herself to go public about the most uncomfortable and sometimes most traumatic times of her life, I am grateful to her for reliving those worst moments in our deeply sexist culture, telling her truth for the common good. To remind me of a few times in my own life—long held in a kind of secret shame—were trouble and troubling. To people who think this whole sexual misconduct thing is overblown. Let me assure you, it is NOT.
I can count my events involving sexual misconduct by men on one hand. Aren’t I lucky? Of course, this does not count the catcalls, the uninvited groping at college parties, the misogynistic jokes among male co-workers, the terror of walking in front of a group of men on the street and hearing them judge you as if you were a farm animal at the state fair. Or the fear every woman experiences while walking to her car alone at night, anywhere.
No, my big bad moments are few, only four, but they are indelible in my memory and in my body. They were life-changing moments, the terrible kind. The kind that girls and women of my generation were often shamed, ridiculed, and even threatened out of telling.
ONE. Dateline: Gainesville, Florida, late 1960s. My family took part in many tailgate parties before football games as my dad was a Gator through and through. I loved these events, until one Saturday as I trekked with the rest of the mob from the grassy parking area to the stadium, a man behind me put his hand up my skirt and between my legs. I froze but somehow kept walking. At 14, I never imagined anything like this happening. Broad daylight, tightly packed crowd, my mother two steps ahead of me. I felt his breath on my neck. He eventually stopped when I slightly turned my head to see his hat down as he turned away. A full-grown adult man. I trembled through the entire game and never told anyone. Hadn’t I been told it was up to me to keep boys’ hands off my body? And to respect the authority of adults? In my confusion and shame, it was impossible to speak for hours. And I made up my mind to try to forget. I did not understand the feelings that would follow me for years after this shocking, personal, and sick intrusion. Who would do that? Why? This was my first touch by a male on a private area, and it made me sick every time I thought about it. It still does.
TWO: Under duress from the first national bank of my parents, I found a job as a sophomore in college that fit my schedule. It involved cold calling potential insurance buyers in an office full of women for 20 hours a week. The boss, a middle-aged guy named Dick (not kidding), sat in his office nearby with a door that closed. Starting the very first day, Dick began to call me into his office frequently. The reasons were various and stupid. Finally he just started asking me about myself, my life. I hemmed and hawed as I stood in front of his desk. The next day he called me in and closed the door. He asked a question that I guess any boss needs to know about an employee. He tilted his head to one side and said, “You don’t really have to wear a bra, do you?” I turned and walked out the door and back to my desk, my face burning with confusion and shame, the other women staring, as if they knew.
That night I mustered the nerve to call my parents while they were in the middle of dinner and told my mom that my boss was making personal comments about me and kept calling me in to talk to him about nothing. I told her about the bra question. She said just stay away from him and as long as there are other people around, you’ll be OK. But if he touches you, run. Two minutes later my dad called back and said “Don’t ever go back there. I’ll give you some dough until you find a better job.” I never went back, never even called, but the creepiness stayed with me from that day to this.
THREE and FOUR happened on the same day. The first a fluke of timing and bad luck, the second a serious and devastating violation that I realized later was a real crime. I was a single mom of 28 with my first master’s degree in hand, and had landed a great job at Tupperware World Headquarters in advertising and PR. One of my first fancy business trips was to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I was to give a presentation to a gathering of factory managers on how the product they make is sold. When I arrived by taxi from the airport at the event hotel late morning, I realized I didn’t have any stockings with me—a must for the 80s business suit. We had a dinner meeting that night to coordinate all the events the next day, and I really wanted to make a good professional impression. I asked the desk clerk directions to a convenience store within walking distance. On my way back, a nightmarish thing happened. A big truck containing three large men pulled up next to me, at high noon on A1A. They cruised as close to me as they could get, saying unspeakable things. But I kept my eyes forward and ignored their catcalls and orders to get in the truck. My lack of eye contact enraged them. They turned the truck in front of me to stop my progress, now angry and calling me even more unspeakable things. I ducked around the back of the truck and ran across the street, hoping a cop would come by and stop them. My heart pumped at convulsive speed, and they seemed to enjoy the look of terror on my face. They were laughing and yelling now. I got to the hotel a few steps ahead of them—two had jumped out and were chasing me—and ran gasping through the glass doors of the lobby, where they did not follow. I breathlessly asked the clerk to call the police, that I had been pursued on the road by a truck full of creeps. He glanced up, looked out the window and mildly said “Where? I don’t see anything. What’s the license number?” I said never mind and ran to the elevator.
When I got to my room, I called the man I was dating back in Orlando and hysterically sobbed out the story. I could hear the helplessness and outrage in his voice as he tried to calm me. I tried to put the whole trauma aside, but every hour or so a wave of absolute horror would hit me as I wondered what might have happened if those monsters had caught me.
Joining me on the trip were other executives from the headquarters, mostly men, including Jack T., Tupperware’s vice-president in charge of human resources, which we used to call “personnel.” After the dinner meeting that night, Jack sat next to me at the hotel bar where we had gathered for drinks before turning in to rest up for the big day. I had one glass of wine and announced that I needed to get some rest, especially since it was my first time in company presentational mode. Jack said he would walk me to my room since he wanted to call it a night too. He was a soft-spoken, southern accented, paternal type who had offered encouraging tips during the meeting that night. After the mid-day adventure, I was actually touched by his old-fashioned gesture to see me safely to my room. There were kind men in this world after all, I reminded myself. Men who would provide safety from harassment on the street, who respect women because we are half the human race.
After we exited the elevator on my floor, he put his hand on my back to kind of steer me down the hall. I realized he had had quite a bit to drink and was slurring his words just slightly. When I got to my door, I was now nervous about a possible weirdness, but all mystery ended when I put my key in the lock and he leaned hard against my back, pushing his crotch against me. As the door opened I jumped inside and pushed the door back against him, but he shoved right past me. He pulled me onto the bed and laughed, like it was all a big joke.
“Mr. _______. You need to leave right now.” I tried to sound authoritative but I think I was just squawking. He got right on top of me and ripped off my cheap L’eggs pantyhose I had bought hours earlier. My skirt was no protection whatsoever. What happened next was rape, pure and simple. I was amazed at my lack of ability to stop it. I always thought I could, if it came to this. He left quickly afterward, me chalk-faced and shocked, my arms bruised where he held me down.
The next morning at my presentation he sat in the front row, grinning like an idiot. I was nauseated and shaky, but this time I did not call my boyfriend and cry. I think I was in a daze of shame and fear. How could those two terrible things happen on the same day? It was incredible, ridiculous, and something must be wrong with me.
As I got to know more people in the company, I found out that Jack had quite a reputation for coming on to female employees, especially when traveling, which was a big part of our jobs at Tupperware. I don’t know if any other women were actually assaulted, but nobody ever raised a formal complaint, because his was the department you would take your complaint to, and frankly, nobody believed women when a powerful man was involved. Oh, and bonus, he told racist jokes. Funny how sexist creepiness and racism often go hand in hand.
I needed this job. I had a career to build and a little boy to teach how to be a much better man than I saw around me a lot of the time. I told my friends about the sudden attack, but for years I told it differently. In my revised version, I won. I closed the door on his face and he never got in. “That bastard,” everyone said. “Thank God you prevailed!” But now I realize the power the truth holds, and the power that secrets can have over you if you don’t get the poison out. I have never told the true story until now, because I didn’t want anyone I love to live with this knowledge. Nobody wants to think about their mom getting raped. And I wanted to forget it myself. Good luck with that. I ended up leaving the company years earlier than I might have if not for him. I stayed clear of him much of the time, but he was always there, leering and lurking. I hated him. He’s dead now.
I tell this story finally because I am so f-ing sick of it. I cannot believe we have a president who brags about grabbing women’s genitals and I cannot believe the state of Alabama may well elect a known sexual predator. I don’t want harassment and abuse to happen to my daughter, my granddaughter, or all my beautiful, hopeful female students of the last 20 years. But guess what—it already has, to many of them. This problem is common as dirt, and we have to face it. Good men out there, we need you to help change this culture. I know many of you are soldiers of this cause already, but if you are a guy imagining this has nothing to do with you since you are not a predatory creep, listen up. We need you in our corner, on our side. We are your moms, sisters, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, friends. We need you to speak up for us, to get in the way of those predatory creeps and be a role model to other men that might be confused about what is not cool where aggression toward women in concerned. Help us.
Categories: Susan's Voice