Trigger warning: sexual harassment, sexual assault
When my daughter was in fifth grade, I remember her sitting in front of me, warming her body by the wood-burning stove. She fidgeted with an old flip phone and picked up Legos with her toes. Her polka dot socks were cast aside, two inside out orbs next to a gently fluttering pile of cat fur and floor fluff. Under her staple winter hoodie, she wore a brown t-shirt with pink ice cream cones. Her body was strong and lean, but petite and resembling that of a third grader. She was a child, approaching her 11th birthday. She had just experienced her first “MeToo” moment. And I doubted her.
Inspired by the assertive and bodacious musician Pink, she had a burst of teal in her shaggy amber pixie cut. And on this day, she came to me, relaying that while getting a drink at the water fountain at school, a male teacher commented that her new hair was “sexy.” I went over every detail with her. Where was she? Who was around? How far away from her was he? Could she have misheard him? I wanted to get the details right so I peppered her with questions, over and over. I informed her that once we reported this, it would be taken seriously and we couldn’t take it back. “I understand, Mama,” was her response, over and over. But I doubted. And she heard it in the slight uprise of my voice; she felt it as suddenly as the words escaped my mouth.
“Are you sure that’s what you heard?”
In the moments leading up to this question, I was skeptical. I wondered if anyone else had heard in order to confirm her story. When I saw the sad look on her face, I knew what I had done. In one brief moment, I passed on a legacy. I passed on a history rich with, “no one will believe me”, “perhaps I led him on”, “it’s not really that big of a deal”, and “he didn’t mean anything by it.” I infected her with a virus where catcalls and lingering touches become assaults and rapes. I supported her silence with my doubt.
When I was in eighth grade, my manager at Dunkin’ Donuts continuously sexually harassed me, delighting in the onslaught of vile, disgusting sexual acts he whispered into my ear. When I found out that he had been molesting my friend, I closed up shop and called the police.
A few years later, I reported my own assault and harassment to a woman close to me. She doubted — called me a liar, in fact. We never spoke of it again. In the aftershock of one doubt, I became a girl who stopped reporting. I became a girl who had a lifetime of MeToo moments. I became a girl who was raped at 17 and 18 years old, by two different men, and didn’t report it. I became a 19-year-old girl whose older boyfriend attempted rape but was stopped by another man who heard my muffled screams. I became a woman who was in a violent marriage for nearly ten years before I started believing in myself. I became a woman who didn’t say any of this to a soul until I was in my late 30s.
If you’re reading this and you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had your own MeToo moments. You want it to stop. You don’t want women to be afraid of nighttime parking lots, of meeting professors in their offices, of wearing short skirts. You don’t want women to have that rock-in-the-gut feeling of having to report a coworker. You don’t want women to worry about drinking too much. You don’t want women to keep laughing at “jokes” that aren’t funny. You don’t want them to feel like complainers or sluts or bitches.
The immediate doubt I had in my daughter made my job clear. Here’s how we stop this culture of men who do things without premeditating, but who do it just because they can. Here’s how we raise a culture of girls who don’t shrink inside of themselves. We share our stories. We tell them about the father at school pick-up who winks, touches our arm, and “accidentally” brushes past our breasts. We tell them about the co-worker grabbing our inner thigh, right in the middle of a staff meeting. We tell them how these interactions made us feel; like we have trouble catching our breath, like our bodies are not our own. We tell them we are scared to speak up. And then we tell them what we did about it.
We put on our shit-kickers and strangle our doubts to the ground. We tell our stories, our daughters’ stories. We form e-mail chains and coffee shop clans of women who report it all to our schools. We start the conversations. We demand action. We create safety.
We become warriors for our girls so that they can become warriors themselves. We believe. Without hesitation, without doubt.