Ever since the wave of #Metoo narratives made its way across social media, I’ve been having lots of conversations about what “counts” as sexual harassment. It’s probably not surprising that women have a hard time defining this term for themselves. After all, we’re groomed to excuse all sorts of behavior.
The boy who’s harassing you at school? He just likes you. The dad you babysit for–the one who offers to drive you home and spends the whole ride telling you how lucky your boyfriends are? Take it as a compliment! We’re taught the art of gaslighting ourselves as soon as we’re aware that harassment exists. Our perception, we’re taught, is the problem–not others’ behavior.
The longer I’ve talked about sexual harassment with women, the more clearly I’ve understood why it’s so difficult to talk about. Mostly, it’s because we can’t even agree on what we’re talking about.
So I asked the women I know to tell me about their experiences with sexual harassment. I didn’t define that term; I left this up to the women who felt comfortable responding to my request. The only goal I had in mind was to gather their experiences and offer a very broad view of what real-life sexual harassment looks like.
Not surprisingly, I received too many replies to include here. But I did try to include responses that represented scenarios I saw over and over again, as well as those that might lead someone to wonder whether or not they “count.”
Note: Some specific details in the stories below have been changed to protect the anonymity of the author. As much as possible, I’ve preserved the writer’s words and edited only for length or clarity.
- “In 8th grade, a pack of the popular boys decided the way they should treat the popular girls was to grab and “crunch” our breasts as we were changing classes. We girls quickly learned to carry our notebooks in front of our chests. Then, during lunch break, which was held in the gym with little to no adult supervision, the leaders of that pack decided it was fun to start grabbing and tackling girls to do this. Two or three boys would grab a girl and hold her down. Then it moved from breasts to below the belt. Once, two boys grabbed me on the bleachers and each pulled a leg in the opposite direction. They urged a third to “Go for it!!” and send his finger where it had no business going. I looked him straight in the eye and said, as calmly as I could, “Please. Don’t.” And he didn’t. He shook his head and said “I can’t” while the other boys groaned in disappointment and let me go. I was not the only girl this happened to, but it didn’t occur to any of us girls to tell our parents. I suspect that all of us had just internalized what we thought was normal junior high behavior.”
- “In middle school, a guy cut my hair because he thought girls cared too much about their looks. I was called to principal’s office the next day, with the guy. While yes, he was punished, I was told that it probably happened because he liked me.”
- “I still wonder if the man at the gas station who told a 16 year old me that I had ‘good birthing hips’ had any idea that his harassment would stick with me for a couple of decades. That was the first time I remember feeling harassed because of my gender, and somehow, even after living through what many would deem ‘worse,’ this is the time that is always at the forefront of my mind.”
- “I grew up as the only daughter in a very religious household. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and micromanaged every element of my life, down to the number of times I was allowed to shower each week. I complained about this when I became a teenager and developed oily skin and hair, but I was told “No respectable woman needs to shower more than twice a week. If you’re doing things that make you feel dirty, you deserve to live in that filth.” For years I actually believed that my bad skin was evidence of my sinful nature. It took a long time for me to understand this as a kind of pervasive sexual harassment, not just bad parenting, because there were no restrictions on how often my brothers could shower.”
- “My father talked to me about sexually inappropriate topics when I turned teen years. He was never physical, but he had that lecherous look that is almost a comic book grin. Thankfully, he wasn’t around very much. I knew what he was doing, and so I just counted it as among the many ways he was a reprobate and a jerk.”
- “In high school, I was wearing a colorful skirt and a teacher commented that he wondered what was on the other side of my rainbow. That made me stop in my tracks. I didn’t know how to react.”
- “My parents hung out with a couple. The woman died when I was in high school. Soon after, I was encouraged to go out to dinner with the man to cheer him up. At first I thought it was fun because I could dress up and he would take me to nice places and said I could smoke around him and he wouldn’t tell my parents. Then he started taking me to his house for a drink before dinner. Then it was several drinks. Then he started forcing himself on me. My dad was always off somewhere out of the country for work, and I did not think my mom would believe her good friend would act like that. It didn’t stop until I went away to college when I was 17. I loved my mom dearly, but she always encouraged me to be more ‘grown up’ than I actually was. I hope that she honestly thought he was not a threat.”
- “A male coworker at the university library where I worked broke up with a girlfriend and then described the violent things he wanted to do to her. Then he asked me out and engaged in some pretty stalker-ish behavior. And then he accused me of being a snob (he wasn’t a university student; I was) when I told him I wanted him to stop coming by my dorm room. I quit that job without telling anyone why.”
- “I was a senior in college when my great-aunt passed away. I was leaving for her funeral right after class and was dressed in my funeral attire: black kitten heels and a purple peasant dress that hit at my knees. It had a scoop neckline that didn’t show an ounce of cleavage. My professor, a well-respected female faculty member, stopped me as I was leaving class and told me, in front of a group of students, that if I ever dressed like that in her class again, she was going to ask me to leave. I apologized and explained that I was on my way to a funeral. She then laughed at me and told me that my outfit was far from being funeral appropriate. I dropped her class the next week.”
- “Various men in my life have claimed they could ‘turn me straight’ if I’d just sleep with them.”
- “I’ve lost count of how many variations of frigid bitch I’ve been called. Or people feeling like it’s a appropriate to start off by telling me they’ve always wanted to sleep with a black woman.”
- “When I was pregnant, a male student told the entire student body that it was his child, along with a load of stories about things he wanted to do to me. When I called home, his dad just laughed and told me, ‘That sounds like him.’ When I asked that this student be removed from my classes, the school administration told me that they couldn’t honor my request because I was the only AP teacher on our campus in my subject area.”
- “I work in a male-dominated industry with a bunch of older men. I get called names like Sweetie and Darling simply because I’m a woman. I’m deeply non-confrontational, so it would be difficult for me to say something even if I didn’t think it would also affect me professionally. Still, I always want to take a shower right after I deal with them because I feel so gross having a man who is not my husband use a pet name for me. I know many women who have had to deal with physical violence or the threat of it in their workplace, so it feels silly to complain about this. Still, I can see how deeply it bothers me.”
I’m grateful to all the women who shared their stories with me for this post. And if you’re wondering whether your own experiences “count” as sexual harassment, remember–you’re the best judge of that. Whether or not anyone else agrees.
A slightly different version of this post appears on Huffington Post.