What a strange time. I find myself obsessed with the reporting about the Kavanaugh confirmation. I am stunned at the flood of revelations from women about their unreported sexual assaults. I have started wondering what in my own life could be classified as "assault." I know I've never been raped--thank goodness. I used to only think of one incident as very troubling and I also felt ashamed and sometimes when I told the story, I would leave the part out where the strange man touched my breast. But why? I hadn't encouraged him. I had been plotting an escape from him the entire encounter. Here's that story:
I was 21 and traveling alone in Europe some months after graduating from college. I was spending a few weeks in Barcelona, staying in a pension. This the same place where I met my Dutch friend but I think possibly before he moved in. That night, I went to see a movie a couple of miles from where I was staying. I planned to walk back via the long straight blocks of Barcelona to the old part of town where I was staying. Why was I walking? Was it a weeknight and too late for the bus? Did I just want to walk? I can't remember. I didn't even consider taking a taxi. It was after dark and I knew walking alone mean some risk. At some point, a man started walking next to me and talking to me. I was always keen to practice my Spanish, so at first I was ok with engaging with him, though my guard was up. I don't know what he asked me but the standards would've been: where I was from, if I was married or had a boyfriend, if (or why) I was traveling alone. I don't remember how I answered--during that trip I often told men I was married and at least some of the time I wore a ring that looked like a wedding band. I think he wanted me to go somewhere with him to get a drink. I kept saying no, I had to get home. I expected him to give up and break off at some point, but he didn't. He stuck with me during that entire walk. As we approached the old part of town, I started coming up with a plan for how I would escape him. I don't remember seeing anyone around so calling out for help was a no-go. But there was a bar right next to the entrance of my pension; I'd been in there at least once and they were friendly. I decided that if he was still with me when I got back, one option was to go into the bar and tell the bartender that he was bothering me. My first choice was to get into my building and leave him behind. The building had a heavy door that led into a courtyard. I knew if I could get through that door fast enough, I could slam it behind me and shut him out on the other side. I assume we were still talking but I cannot remember any of that conversation. I also remember assessing him physically. He was small; shorter and skinnier than me. I knew that didn't mean he wasn't strong but I also figured I could put up a pretty good physical resistance to him if it came to that. [Aside: as I write this, I'm getting upset on behalf of the younger me. This is a completely unacceptable situation. Yet, I was prepared for it.]
In fact, he did follow me all the way to my door. I got my keys in my hand and decided to make a break for the courtyard. As I was opening the door and telling him to go away, he managed to get very close to me, face to face, and when I refused him yet again, he said "loca!" and grabbed my breast. I pushed him away, opened the gate, slipped in and closed it behind me. I was safe.
I've told that story many times--but almost never do I include the part where he grabbed my breast. It felt like maybe I should've done more to get rid of him. That maybe I shouldn't have talked to him at all. That I was tainted by his unwanted touch. That being a victim meant I gave up part of my self-image as a strong independent person. As someone no man would dare harass because he would know I would fight back. I think mostly this is true about me--and this experience doesn't invalidate it. Also that maybe what happened was really trivial and I didn't want to deal with pity and people making it into a big deal. This is experience is what I usually think about when I say I've been sexaully assaulted--that is, I've never said it until this year. Never. But there is also something that happened when I was much younger that felt shame about for years and I don't know if it fits.
When I was 12, in the 6th grade, I had a date with a boy I'd pursued for the entire year. Finally, finally he asked me to the movies. During the movie, he stuck his hand down my shirt and groped me in a most unpleasant way. I didn't want him to touch me and I slowly eased his hand out of my shirt. I kissed him willingly, though I still remember it as one of the most unpleasant kisses I've ever had. I didn't say anything about the groping to anyone for years. I think I can count on one hand the number of people I told, while I did mention the kissing to many. I liked him so much and so wanted him to be my boyfriend--I was terrified to tell him I didn't like the way he touched me. It didn't matter--he broke up with me a couple of weeks later so he could be "free for the summer." I honestly think that touch made the idea of a man touching my breasts pretty unthinkable for many years (which--fine! I was too young for that). When it did happen, I just sort of accepted it as something dudes liked to do, but not something I would ever enjoy. Luckily, by the time I was 20, I'd had an experience that that changed my mind about that. I don't know
I have been very lucky--those incidents didn't result in major trauma or damage to my psyche. Still, what it confirms to me is that literally every woman has likely been sexually assaulted. Maybe it was a slap on the ass, maybe it was rape--but no woman is allowed to think she has complete autonomy over her body--and that is the lesson that the patriarchy wants us to learn.
Being in this headspace and really thinking hard about this stuff--not for the first time, but probably for the first time in relation to my own experiences--makes it a very strange time to be starting a new relationship.
Grateful for: surviving.