Sexual harassment forty years later is still sexual harassment #MeToo

Today is supposed to be my day off after an inspiring and exhausting weekend with three hundred and fifty writers at the James River Writers Conference in Richmond. In my stupor, I dragged myself from my bed to a recliner and settled in to read. Before opening my book, I checked Facebook. There, I read that my long-time friend “was taken to church to tell the priest in the confessional that ‘I allowed a man to take liberties with my body.’ I was eight years old.” “Me too,” she wrote.

I immediately felt sick. I read more status updates from more of my friends. Me too. Me too, Me too. That’s when I first learned about the #MeToo campaign, the social media campaign to document the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment of women.

My stomach churned and I kept reading. Me too. Me too, Me too.

My own story wrestled its way to the surface as bile gathered in my throat. I tried to force it down. I had rarely spoken about it. I had never written it. Was now the time?

I read some more posts. Me too. Me too, Me too. I could feel my doubts, my hesitation, and, before long, I heard myself whisper, “Me too.”

I was not eight years old. I was 22. It was my first job after college. For months, I woke up every morning and threw up.

A few months in, went to the doctor to find out what was wrong with me. The upper and lower GI the doctor ordered showed nothing. Although he didn’t say, “it must be in your head,” I knew he was thinking it.

I returned home, went to bed, woke up the next morning, and, as I got dressed for work, threw up.

My boss never threatened me with losing my job if I didn’t comply with his advances.

I could have said, “No” when he pressed the elevator stop button between floors of the County Building to kiss me or wriggled away when he pulled his car over to side of the road on a lonely highway as we returned home from an evening meeting, a meeting he stipulated I should attend with him so he could “mentor” me. I could have refused to open the door to my apartment when he showed up after I’d called in sick one day.

I did none of those things. I let him kiss me. Sometimes, I even kissed him back. He was an attractive older man who desired me. I fell into his trap. I let him fondle my breasts, and I might have even touched him – that part I’ve blocked from my memory.

I do remember that I resisted his invitation to go to his house for Sunday dinner with his wife and children.

And resisted.

And resisted.

Until I finally complied.

I remember the cross hanging on the wall in their dining room, the Bible reading before dinner, and the conversation about the importance of the Christian faith in their lives.  I remember making excuses to leave as soon as I could after dinner. I remember stopping my car on the side of the road on the way home, opening the door, and throwing up.

I left this job after only six months and, miraculously, I stopped throwing up. It wasn’t until years later, when Anita Hill was testifying before Congress about Clarence Thomas, that I made the connection, that I understood I was a victim of his sexual harassment.

I’m sure he’d say, probably even today, that this was a consensual relationship. If I could track him down I would ask, but so far I’ve been unable to locate him.

What I now know is that it was an abuse of power – his over me – and that I became an unwilling participant in his pursuit of that power.

I pray no one else fell victim to demands. However, I suspect this behavior was not directed only at me, that it continued long after he left Michigan for Wisconsin and might even continue to this day.

I picture him reading accounts of Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keeler, Matt Lauer, and so many other men, and squirming with discomfort. Would the women he had relationships with accuse him? Would his past come back to haunt him? Might it still?

Let me extend an apology to the women who might work for him now for not naming him all these many years later. He has a common name and I don’t want to implicate someone who is not guilty of these offenses, so until I locate him, I will not name him. I’m hoping he is now retired but if not, I know that puts you at risk and for that, I am sorry.

Let me also apologize to his wife and children. I know what we were doing was wrong, even if I didn’t understand the power dynamics at play. I’m sorry I didn’t fight him off for those reasons.

I will not, however, apologize for not warning other women who followed me. Through no fault of my own, I did not have the consciousness to know that this was much bigger than me, that it reflected a patriarchal society, which still exists today, in which men assert their power over women through sexual conquest and claim it as consensual. I cannot be held responsible for what we had not yet named. Taking on guilt for this is yet another way women are victimized.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Why didn’t you report it five years ago, ten years ago, thirty years, or in my case, forty years ago when it happened?”

I didn’t report it for the same reason women don’t report the millions of other abuses of power we’ve experienced — because we are made to think it is our failing, our guilt to take on, our indiscretion. It’s part of the control perpetrators exert over us — to make us feel guilty for the part we play but never allow us to feel like the victims we are.

So although I cannot protect his other victims, what I can do is let young women of today know that unwanted sexual behavior from someone in power over them is not about them. You are not the guilty one and you don’t have to let men get away with it.

If you find themselves throwing up every morning, seek help, and not necessarily from a doctor, but rather from someone you can trust with your story.

You do not need to be taken advantage of.

You do not need to engage in behavior that makes you uncomfortable.

You do not need to throw up every morning before you face your boss at work.

Me too. Me too.