I was nineteen the first time it happened to me, standing in the coat check line of one of those seedy eighteen-plus clubs that reeks of smoke, too much cologne, and spilled booze. The music was still pulsating through both the club and my body and the “ugly lights” had yet to come on when it happened. My body went numb when I realized what was happening. As his hand made its way up the back of my shirt and around to the front of my body and eventually my breast, I stood completely still and silent; too paralyzed with fear to even look back at who the hand belonged to.
Thankfully, my ever-loyal and always protective best friend was quick to notice exactly what was happening and swiftly reacted. Before I knew it, she was screaming and yelling all while pushing my assailant away from me, eventually punching him square in the face. A gentleman who was waiting in the same coat check line soon caught on and took over where my best friend left off. My assailant was thrown out of the club and that was that.
I never spoke of it again, I never reacted, I never even realized I had just been sexually assaulted and, unknowingly, had become part of the group of females aged 16-19 whom are four times more likely than the general population to become a victim of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. According to The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Shamefully, the same source cites that only six of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault will end up in prison. It turns out I was in good company by staying silent all those years ago.
According to RAINN, it is estimated that two of every three sexual assaults go unreported. The reasons for not reporting sexual assault include fear of retaliation, the belief that the police won’t do anything to help, feelings of shame and embarrassment, and the belief that the incident wasn’t significant enough to report (as was my belief), among other reasons.
My first brush with blatant sexual assault would not be my last, and as it turns out, I’m once again in the good and sadly too plentiful company of countless other women. Since the now infamous Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October, thousands of women have broken their silence, telling their own stories of sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment by starting the hash-tag #metoo on social media that almost immediately began trending. Since the Weinstein story broke, the Hollywood Executive Producer now has nearly 100 accusers, with 14 claiming he raped them.
Harvey Weinstein isn’t the only A-List celebrity to have been accused as of late. Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey and famed comedian Louis C.K. have both recently been accused of sexual assault. While Weinstein unequivocably denies all accusations of non-consensual sex, both Spacey and Louis C.K. have issued public apologies. Because Spacey claimed to “not remember” the incident in which his accuser reported and came out for the first time as a gay man during his apology statement, many say his statement was nothing short of a copout. It’s interesting to note that each of the accused men referenced here is accused of assaulting victims who either worked for him, with him or were attempting to gain employment (or casting) from him (as in many of the Weinstein cases).
With all of the recent allegations, confessions, and apologies, it should come as no surprise that the rates of workplace sexual harassment are sky high. A 2016 study performed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Coalition (EEOC) showed that one in four women will be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. The EEOC states this may be a conservative statistic though, as there are estimates as high as 85 percent reporting women as the victims of workplace sexual harassment. Like many sexual assault incidents, many incidents of workplace sexual harassment also go unreported, with the EEOC estimating up to 75 percent of women NOT reporting being sexually harassed at work. The reasons are eerily similar to those of unreported sexual assault: fear of retaliation, feeling ashamed or embarrassed, fearing future professional repercussions, and minimizing the incident. For the record, of the 12,860 reported incidents of workplace sexual harassment in 2016, only 2,134 (or 16.6 percent) of victims were men.
It is here where I can once again relate. When I was 27-years-old, I applied for a position I was well qualified (perhaps even overqualified) for at a group home for men. I interviewed for the position and after passing the necessary background checks, was offered and accepted the position. I was told by management they would soon be in touch with my training schedule and start date. After some days passed, I began calling the manager who was to be my direct supervisor. For over a week, I left messages inquiring as to the status of my training schedule, start date, and finally to the actual status of my position. When he finally did return my call, he informed me that he “regretfully had to rescind my offer,” because, and I quote, “I can’t have a girl that looks like you do, working in a house full of men.” I hung up the phone shocked, saddened, embarrassed, and angry. College educated, experienced in the field, and maintaining a 4.0 GPA in my graduate courses I was enrolled in, I wondered how and why what I looked like mattered? It was 2013 and naive as I was, I believed the days of women being denied positions they were qualified for because of their appearances were behind us.
Perhaps the worst part of that ordeal was the doubt, though short-lived, that the manager was able to instill in me. I wondered if I had dressed inappropriately for my interview or if I came off as “too flirty”? It wasn’t long until I realized it had absolutely nothing to do with me and was purely reflective of both the manager and the company he represented. Too embarrassed to tell my story, I never reported the blatantly illegal sexual discrimination I had experienced.
As time went on, I again experienced sexual assault, this time on a crowded subway during rush hour. Confused and disorientated by the commotion of rush hour and the shock of what was actually happening, I once again froze. I was so angry at myself for not yelling, pushing, fighting back, or screaming “NO!” as loud as I could have. Surely, other subway riders would’ve helped me.
The thing is though, you just don’t know how you’ll react until it happens to you. I was always the girl who adamantly claimed I would never “lay back and let someone rape me.” I swore I would “fight back as hard as I could,” and scream, “NO! NO! NO!” before I let that happen to me. Then it did happen to me and I didn’t fight back or scream “NO!” or even move.
I tell my stories and report these facts not because I believe there’s any shortage of available information or articles in today’s media. Instead, it is my goal that in telling my stories and reporting these awful statistics that maybe we can recognize the common theme among both of my stories and many of the statistics. Silence, inaction, fear, and embarrassment are all prevalent in both of my stories and in so many of the facts reported in this article. Perhaps if we, as women, continue to come out, freeing ourselves of our fear and embarrassment and tell our stories, these incidents wouldn’t be so rampant. If more perpetrators feared exposure and legal ramifications, perhaps they’d be less likely to commit these heinous acts. Either way, we owe it to ourselves to be free of any shame, fear, or embarrassment that we may feel.
What has happened to so very many of us was not our fault. We didn’t ask for it and we didn’t have it coming. We were victims of criminals who consciously chose to violate our bodies, minds, and souls. We owe it to ourselves to speak our truths and take back our control. And, to all of the women who have already bravely shared their stories, my hat is off to you. Let’s hope in continuing to do so, #metoo never trends when our young daughters reach young womanhood.