Waking up: A quick thing on systemic harassment and abuse

As the anniversary of last year’s election draws near, I’ve been getting nervous. Annual milestones are a big thing for me, in general, and I find myself feeling sad and apprehensive and quietly shocked that it’s been this long, while in another sense it’s been so much longer.

I’m in this odd space between hope and despair with everything that’s happened in the news lately. I can’t stop thinking about all the sexual assault allegations coming out of Hollywood, how day after day another name pops up and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that it will slow down. The scales seem to be falling from our eyes. Obviously, these stories have circulated for decades, but right now, a confluence of forces have joined that make the world at large suddenly willing and eager to listen.

When #MeToo was first trending, I participated (in the mildest of ways, literally just posted the hashtag and nothing else), and soon after that I started seeing the criticism of the campaign. We shouldn’t have to talk about our abuse and trauma, people said. Women shouldn’t have to bear the burden of confessing what happens to us at work, at home, on the street.

And of course, that’s true–we shouldn’t “have to” do these things, and certainly no one is required to. But lately I’ve been focused on the long game, the overall arc of history. I believe in the power of telling a story that shouldn’t, technically, have to be told if it means it’s the story that finally gets through to someone.

I am, for lack of a better word, lucky when it comes to sexual assault. Probably the worst experience I ever had was getting fondled while standing on a crowded rush-hour train during my commute home a few years ago. The train was so packed that the man who stood with his groin pressed hard against my thigh had absolutely plausible deniability. I stood still, terrified, but also wondering if it was all in my head. Then some months later, I read a news article about transit harassment that mirrored precisely what I’d experienced. (This one is a good example.)

There are a thousand other little moments, too, that pop up in my memory from time to time. In my high school gym class, a boy called me a whore (kind of out of the blue? It was weird), and my boyfriend laughed. I have no idea what that was about. It was just a thing that happened that, in the moment, I laughed off even though I was hurt and confused.

I’m lucky, and I’m always wondering when that’s going to change. When I’m walking home from work at dusk, or out at a bar with my friends, or running a quick errand downtown, I’m always looking over my shoulder and side-eyeing the man next to me. I hear loud male voices behind me and press pause on whatever’s being piped into my headphones, just in case I need to know what they’re saying.

This is not a spoiler at all, but JD and I have been watching the second season of Stranger Things over the last few days and I just get so angry when I see Nancy and Mike’s worthless, disengaged father on the screen. It’s not the point of the show, but he reminds me of so many enablers of systemic abuse: well-off white men who aren’t outright evil, but distant and removed from the people they’re supposed to care most about, only giving a damn when it threatens to hurt them directly. I want to scream in his face to wake up and care about his family and stand for something real. I want to believe that right now, even if it’s overdue, even if it’s embarrassing how explicitly we have to spell things out, people who have been ignorant of sexism and abuse are starting to put the pieces together. If you’re only getting here now, that’s okay. I’ll take it.

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