As I find myself simultaneously reading Roxanne Gay’s Not That Bad, while seeing the news flashes on my phone that Bill Cosby is finally being held accountable for his decades long transgressions against women by being sentenced to prison, and listening to Christine Blasey Ford ripped to shreds as she testifies against her alleged assailant while he vies for a position in the highest court in the land, I have so, so many thoughts. They’re horrifying at worst, and merely uncomfortable at best.
This last weekend I was honored to be able to lead an amazing group of women in a day-long workshop through my Rise Women’s Community initiative. The juxtaposition of this event, fueled by each woman’s desire to support and encourage one another, with the current climate we live in is akin to the struggle I see we women facing each and every day. While all of the Rise leaders have endured a personal hardship of some sort, at least two of the women there had experienced sexual assault or rape as a child, and here they were, publicly telling their story. Shining light on the private burden they’ve carried for so long. Releasing the secret weight it put on their shoulders, and opening the door for others to share with them as well.
I have said it before, and I will again and again, I don’t think I know a single woman who couldn’t raise her voice and scream, “me too”. The fact that the idea of sexual assault is not novel is as terrifying as it is telling.
I also say, so often to my male counterparts, acquaintances, and even my own dear husband (who is the epitome of support, of genuine love, of comfort, and who would be so frightened and disgusted by the idea of his advances being unwelcome by any woman that it was I who asked him out on our first date eighteen years ago. He, in turn has never asked a woman out on a date.) that fortunately (for them, unfortunately for us women) they have no idea what it means to walk down the street and fear harm from passersby for no other reason than the fact that you were born with a vagina between your legs.
Not attending the party, not drinking too much, not wearing skirts above the knee does nothing to prevent sexual assault. We want to live in a world where if we are ‘good girls’ harm will not befall us. Sadly, it’s just not the reality of the world we actually live in. Tell it to the women in business suites cat-called on their way to work; tell it to the women whose homes have been broken into and they’ve been raped while wearing sweatpants; tell it to the little girl whose swimming coach offers “private” lessons; tell it to my fourteen-year old daughter who has been the owner of a triple-D cup chest since the tender age of twelve. Tell them. Tell them they should have been better girls. I dare you.
For me, an unfortunate revelation has come to mind through these recent unfoldings. I realize that my first kiss at the age of fourteen was indeed an unwanted sexual advance; which technically could be classified as assault. At the age of almost thirty-five, I had never even considered this before. It’s one of the ways Roxanne Gay and the other essayists explain, that we as women, often gauge our experiences against others, and in relation to the horror itself, tell ourselves that perhaps because we weren’t children, or because we weren’t raped, or because we went held for years in a torture chamber, that our experience wasn’t that bad.
It is ALL that bad. All of it is bad. And, unacceptable.
I refuse to extinguish my voice. I refuse to live in a world where it’s normalized and expected. I refuse to nod along knowingly when one more woman says, “me too”, and the conversation ends because it’s understood that it’s just what we as women have been prescribed. Our voices are our swords and our shields. I want to hear, “WHAT NOW?” and “NEVER AGAIN”.
I was sitting in the nurse’s office in ninth grade not feeling well. A sophomore boy was apparently sitting on the other side of the curtain. When the nurse stepped out he pulled the curtain back, leaned in, and kissed me hard on the mouth. It happened in a flash. I was shocked. I didn’t even know him. I did nothing. I sat there and blushed. “Oh, I guess he likes me”, I thought with all of my fourteen-years of life experience, unknowingly marginalizing myself by my complete acceptance of this act. And the message here is this: That is not how you show a girl you like her. You don’t touch her or grab her. You don’t punch her in the arm. You don’t run away and tell your buddies stories about her. You don’t not rape her because you remember that you have a mother, or a sister, or a daughter; because her value in relation to you as a man has nothing to do with why you do not rape her. You do not rape her because she is a human being; all on her own.
Yes, I do feel that my experience, in this case, was indeed Not That Bad. Honestly, I had not ever even considered it as an event until recently. In the loss of my youngest daughter to a rare genetic terminal illness I’ve wrestled with immense grief over the last seven years. As it ebbs and flows, and changes shape you learn over time not to compare your grief experience to that of others. Some may not have lost a child, but for them, their loss, be it of a parent, sibling, or even pet could be as unbearable to them as your loss of your child is to you. You don’t get to quantify someone else’s grief or tell them that it is not that bad. For them it is. And likewise, for you, don’t compare your unwanted sexual advances to the unwanted sexual advances of others either, because for you, it also is that bad.
There are good men. Kind, decent, trustworthy men in the world. They are our allies as much as any of us are each other’s. Find them. Tell them. Ask them to speak up. The only way for us to change the tides is to ceaselessly cry out how bad it truly is. Through Rise, I hope to do my small part to work on creating the necessary structure of supportive sisterhood amongst all women we come into contact with. We each have a duty to be there, to listen, guide, and to hold the hand of anyone in need. When my daughter was alive she had no voice. Robbed of the ability to speak by the relentless progression of her disease she never spoke a single word in her Three Short Years of life. I speak out on the topic of Tay-Sachs disease because I felt then, as I do now, that I was charged not only with her care, but in the end of being her voice as well. Find your voice. Be a voice for the voiceless and help them find theirs.