This past Fall, I was walking downtown Grand Rapids to meet a friend for coffee. Although it was a nice day with the sun shining in a cloudless sky, it was still brisk and chilly, so I wore a coat over my dress, cardigan, and leggings to stay warm. As I stopped at a crosswalk to head across the street, a group of seven men started saying loudly, “Hey there, pretty lady. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” I glanced over at them and realized it was me they were talking to. “What are you up to?” “Wherever you’re going, can I come with?” I had glanced away and was ignoring them, but it only encouraged their catcalls. “Sure lookin’ good today.” “You should really slap a smile on that face.” “Hey, look over here when we’re talkin’ to you.” Now they were angry. “Why are you ignoring us?” And finally: “Slut.” “Stupid whore.” “Bitch.” “Cunt.”
Dear Men: Just so we’re clear, I am not expected, as a woman, to respond to your advances or catcalls just because I am in your male presence. I do not exist for your pleasure, visually or otherwise. And really, how do you expect me to respond to this behavior? Walk across the street, thank you for calling me a “pretty little bitch” (another term of endearment said to me on a different occasion), and ask you to take me home with you? Or are you not really wanting any other response than for me to stand there, continue to “look pretty”, smile, and maybe bat my eyes at you if I’m feeling generous – passive and quiet, but still obviously there for your satisfaction? Patriarchy: Teaching men from a young age that this is normal behavior, and teaching women that they should accept it quietly.
This was not the first time such harassment has happened to me before, and certainly will not be the last, as this common behavior and prevalent attitude that women and their bodies are strictly for male pleasure is normalized in our society. This is an aspect of Rape Culture: The concept that we accept as a society through attitudes and practices that sexual assault and rape can be excused, condoned, trivialized, made fun of, and tolerated. This culture is rife with the most incredible victim-blaming – She was drunk; she clearly wanted it because of what she was wearing; she has had sex before; she has had many previous sexual partners; she is in the sex work industry, so she obviously cannot be raped when she has sex for a living; she never said no, so of course that means yes; we are in a relationship and sex has always been a big part of our relationship, so she cannot turn it down when I want it; we started having consensual sex but if she decides she wants to stop halfway through, she shouldn’t be allowed to because she already said yes.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will report that they have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. If this statistic doesn’t shock you, it should. There is a wildly prevalent belief that sexual assault is a rare occurrence or only happens when the perpetrator is a stranger. In reality, the 1 in 6 and 1 in 33 statistics are only based on what has been compiled from actual reports; sexual assault is severely underreported due to shame or personal guilt; and fear of not being believed, being inflicted with further violence, victim-blamed for what happened to them, fired from a job, or outed as LGBTQI+. Furthermore, the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows.
I could go on with story upon story of sexual harassment and assault against me and my body. In middle school, “friends” of the opposite sex invented games which resulted in the loser (which, coincidentally, was always me or another girl) having to lift their shirts up to reveal their bare chest. In high school, I had my ass slapped and grabbed, the back of my bra snapped open in the hallways, and was pressured to engage in sexual activity even with no hint of enthusiasm or consent on my part. Walking downtown Grand Haven one day with my best friend, we noticed a large black pick-up truck had been following us down the street. It would slow down next to us as we walked down the sidewalk, the man’s penis visible on the other side of his rolled-down window as he masturbated for us – and any other passerby – to see.
I have had a former male co-worker follow me in the walk-in cooler of the restaurant we worked, stick his hand up my shirt, and grab my breasts. I’ve had multiple men grab my ass at work, including both co-workers and customers. One male customer, a well-known Dentist in the area, told me that I had great teeth – but stared directly at my breasts while “complimenting” me. As a restaurant server, I’ve been called pet names by customers, such as Babe, Sweetheart, and Pretty Little Thing, all in the same breath as being told that I would make an excellent wife someday because I can serve so well – while these men check out my body from head to toe, with an extra long look at my behind. I have been massaged by a former manager at my job, right on the floor where customers could see, as I was casually bending over a table talking to another co-worker.
For a couple of years, an adult male in my life had inappropriately made jokes and asked probing questions regarding sex, masturbation, my body, and my (perceived) sex life; touched and groped me with the complete and utterly privileged assumption that there is nothing inherently wrong with the unconsensual touching of another human being. I was young – just beginning high school, and unsure of what everything really meant or how to deal with it. These particular instances are why I consider myself a sexual assault survivor, and what propelled me into activist work.
I must ask: How many examples must one person give to get others to listen and realize that sexual assault is absolutely not a joke? That as survivors, we are not making it up or “crying rape”? That we need to be believed, supported, and helped if and when we choose to seek justice? That we are never guilty because of what happens to us? That it is never our fault, even if this victim-blaming Rape Culture tells us otherwise? That if it’s my body, it’s my rules? Rape and sexual assault are not trivial. It matters, damn it – a lot. Thinking back now on the opening paragraph of this piece, I had described what I was wearing prior to mentioning the street harassment I endured. I felt like I had to excuse any part of my behavior and dress in order to “prove” I actually did nothing wrong to deserve the slurs that were hurled my way, even though it didn’t matter what I was wearing, nor would it have mattered if I was in a tank top and mini skirt. As survivors, and women in general, we are constantly having to prove we didn’t choose, welcome, or encourage harassment or assault. Which, I hope we can all agree on by now, is complete bullshit.
Sexual assault is not black and white. It refers to any unwanted sexual activity that is against another person’s will and consent. It is considered an umbrella term, meaning that it covers many types of unconsensual sexual activity. It crosses all racial, sex and gender, class, and ethnic boundaries. It victimizes people of all ages, to those in relationships and marriages, to those in the military and in prison, and in the LGBTQI+ community. It is violence, even if not inherently physical, that strips victims of bodily autonomy, choice, independence, and control over their own bodies and consensual sexual choices. It is a hate crime that leaves victims with a host of effects to deal with throughout the aftermath of the harassment, assault, or rape; the recovery from being a victim; and the transition to becoming a survivor.
If we were truly honest with ourselves, we would speak up more about this issue without embarrassment or hesitation. If we were truly honest with ourselves, we would hold campaigns and rallies and walks as huge as the national efforts to combat cancer, Alzheimer’s, and alcohol and drug abuse. It’s not an unfair assumption to believe that everyone you know would attend Relay for Life, but even less would go to a Take Back the Night or Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event. We wouldn’t stop organizing, creating awareness, educating, passing laws, and following through to uphold them. If we were truly honest, we would recreate a society with true bodily and sexual autonomy, enthusiastic and unwavering consent, comprehensive sex education, sexual assault education in schools, and accessible crisis centers. Of course, in order to do this, we also need to continue to dismantle sexism, transphobia, racism, homophobia, Rape Culture, misogyny, and patriarchy. That being said, this isn’t impossible, but we have some work to do – and I hope you passionately join in on the fight.
If you are interested in learning more about sexual assault, please join NOW GR and the Center for Women in Transition (CWIT) at our Sexual Assault 101 presentation on Wednesday, April 23rd from 6:30 – 8:30pm. Holly Wilson, the Clinical Coordinator at CWIT, will be educating the community on victim blaming myths, bystander intervention, myths and facts, statistics, and consent. NOW GR is asking for a $5 donation if you can, and/or a feminine hygiene product that will be donated to CWIT. Visit our Facebook event for details and to RSVP.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek out these resources:
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN): https://www.rainn.org/
RAINN National Phone Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
RAINN Online Hotline: https://ohl.rainn.org/online/
YWCA (Grand Rapids, MI): http://ywcawcmi.org/
Center for Women in Transition (CWIT) in Holland, MI: www.aplaceforwomen.org
Children’s Assessment Center: http://www.cac-kent.org/