In the wake of the explosion of #MeToo, I find myself more and more reflective and aware of not just my experiences of assault and harassment, but how more conscious of it I am becoming when it is presented in my life. For instance, this past weekend, I was asked by a friend to come with her, and her group of companions, to a nightclub to dance. I reluctantly said yes. It’s a place where I’ve never really felt comfortable, which I have found rare in my small city. But I allowed myself to be cajoled, and off we went to Skylight, where drinks are poured into plastic cups and music was pumping into the street.
From the second we entered, I knew I wasn’t going to stay long. I had been to a performance by John Waters earlier in the evening, and was sporting fishnets, a fitting skirt, and a tank top with the words “Nerdy, Dirty, Inked, and Curvy” down the front. I don’t really give a shit what people think about how I dress, because I will wear what makes me feel comfortable and happy until the day I die. But I don’t like when people (i.e. men) use it to objectify and assume. I had a bunch of eyes on me from the moment we entered.
Aside from the main dance floor where men formed a ring around those moving in the middle, a balcony runs along its edges, with more men gawking from above, because evidently that circle of eager men surrounding the dance floor was just not enough testosterone. I hit the dance floor with the group, but didn’t feel at home, and felt myself holding back in my movements, like hearing a small whisper in ear that says, “don’t be too sexy, you know what will come of it.”
My friend and I made some offhanded jokes about how ‘rapey’ it felt, but it wasn’t funny that places can have that sensibility. I felt like a fish in barrel encircled by guns. As I was dancing, one guy approached me with exaggerated swagger and asked me if what was on my shirt was what I was looking for in man. I turned to him coldly and replied, “Not really, because I’m not looking at all,” before dancing myself away to another section.
A couple of other men shimmied in my direction, and I intentionally glided over toward my friend to avoid having to say ‘no’ over and over. Clearly this was not the type of place where I could just be myself and cut loose. It began to feel overwhelming, the glances and intensity, and my anxiety kept climbing, so I hugged my friend and told her I was leaving. I grabbed my coat and was out the door in a flash.
The level of discomfort was palpable in every cell, and it took me walking around a bit in the cool night air to feel my flight or fight hormones begin to subside. It is a strange world to live in where something as pleasurable as dancing can feel like a situation of life or death, because our bodies sometimes know what we do not: that even people who are ‘decent’ on the daily, when infused with alcohol and lust, become other creatures all together.
I can’t acknowledge this fully without coming to terms with the fact that I, myself, have been that aggressive person under the influence. It’s the hardest part for me reflecting on #MeToo, knowing how much I have endured in the realm of assault and harassment, yet having full awareness that I once hurt someone in a similar way that I still regret enormously.
When I was in college 20 years ago, I think I was a junior, in the heyday of my party years, I was cast in a scene with another theater major, “John”, whom I didn’t know very well, for a student directing class. We were a small department, which I loved, because some of class sizes topped out at four people. But it also meant all hands-on deck for projects and productions. Outside of academics, I had a very small, core group of friends from different majors, but I also spent time with a very diverse group socially: I wrote for the hockey team, I was part of several organizations on campus, I was in a coed, academic fraternity and went to Greek parties, etc. The theater department was more insular, and most of the theater majors hung out together very frequently. I was, as I have been most of my life, an anomaly, because I’ve never had the desire to be pigeonholed and fit into a nice, round hole. Because I didn’t solely hang out with my fellow thespians, some people were always on the periphery, such as John.
The scene we were cast in was romantic, and we were to kiss in it. As soon as I read it, I felt enormous anxiety about the performance, and it began to dominate my thoughts. I had never done such a scene before, and I didn’t know how to process it. I was just beginning to unravel the sexual abuse from my childhood, and was drinking a lot in the process to not drown in that sorrow. The idea of publicly being intimate with someone I didn’t know, nor was attracted to physically, began to weigh on me heavily, and still being a young adult in college learning how to navigate on my own, I didn’t really know where to go with my discomfort.
One night shortly thereafter, in our local Chinese restaurant watering hole, I ran into John and two other theater friends who I was better acquainted with, and sat with them. I had been drinking steadily, and was feeling quite tipsy. Eventually the discussion veered around to our scene, and we began discussing the kiss. I asked John if he was nervous, and then I began, out of my anxious thoughts and feelings, to pressure him to kiss me on the spot, ‘to get it over with’. He politely shied away. My own perturbation grew and grew with his backing from me. I continued to push, and then, out of my own discomfort, leaned in and kissed him without consent, because my uneasiness was too much for me to bear, my clouded mind not considering his comfort or feeling. Shortly after, he left, and the incident was a hazy memory come the next morning.
The following Monday, I was asked to talk to two of my professors, who gently sat me down and told me that John had come to them because he felt violated, as he should have. I gave my account, which mirrored his, and openly admitted to what I had done. I never intended harm, but I realized in that moment how quickly our own desires can replace the consideration of, and for, others. Our scene was axed as a project for the student director, the consequences of my actions rippling further, and I felt horrible. I consider myself very fortunate that graver repercussions were not handed out.
I still feel incredible shame and guilt about the fact that I made another human being feel physically uncomfortable, as I did in that club, especially since it is something I have grappled with internally for most of my own life as a victim at various points. But despite intention, I did what I did, and I own it, because it has served as a catalyst for my own growth and reflection, and it is one of the main reasons consent has become an essential part of my interaction with others.
Despite apologizing (and John-I am still deeply sorry for any hurt), I can’t erase the past, nor the pain I created, but I will always hope for forgiveness. Maybe it will come one day, maybe not. The discomfort forever serves a moral compass. But I also can’t wave the banner of #MeToo without stating that I have, in my life, been such an aggressor.
I carry the promise that in the aftermath of #MeToo’s tsunami, that men can not only look inward, reflect, and recognize the moments where they have contributed to devaluing women, but publicly come clean about the moments when they have faltered, without defensiveness or resistance. It is not enough for so many women to merely say we have endured these collective experiences. We need your atonement, and we need to know how you plan to change for the better in concrete action steps. Maybe you will be forgiven, maybe you will not. But we’re all savvy enough to know that’s not the point. By saying things out loud or publicly, we evoke accountability.
For myself, it has meant some hard soul searching about the person I wanted to become, and evolving into someone who is sensitive and conscious to the physical and emotional needs of others. It also means raising my children to understand that actions have definitive consequences, and that respect for self only starts when you respect others with the utmost regard for their comfort and safety.
It’s not just about the big issues such as rape and abuse, but about the small moments we let slide that give permissiveness to those larger moments, and learning to tackle them one resistance at a time. It’s about learning to say ‘no’ to friends and family who use other men to give themselves permission to exploit women, or to validate their own exertion of power. It’s about the jokes, the comments, and being willing to change the objectification of women by realizing that they are not yours for the taking. Perhaps, if we can initiate this honest conversation not only within and amongst ourselves as a society, but particularly among men themselves, we can start to retool what masculinity means, and recognize its capacity for abuse and hurt. Maybe feminism will seem less like an oppressive word, but more like an aspiration. Then, maybe instead of #MeToo, we can begin to collectively move forward and finally demand, altogether, #NotOneMore.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...