In my first college apartment, my bed was like a little girl's birthday cake, with comforter, pillow shams, and dust ruffle all done in shades of sugary pink and purple. Tucked carefully underneath all that sweetness was a kitchen knife. I didn't sleep with it from the start, just after that one night.
I remember his name, first and last, and his messy, wavy, straw-colored hair. Other than that he was unremarkable, and I imagine I regarded him with the same indifference as I would any man whose presence didn't move me. He came to my place with my roommate's boyfriend that night. They were both from our hometown area. Maybe we played cards. Maybe we sat around the glass-top coffee table that my parents had given me. Maybe I was wearing my favorite ripped boy jeans, the kind that, in 1994, actually came from the boy's department. Or maybe I stayed in my room most of the night listening to Chicago love songs that reminded me of my former high school boyfriend.
The evening could've easily faded from memory were it not for that defining moment late into the night. As I awoke from perfect sleep and put the pieces together—there was an uninvited man in my bed and a hand on my bare upper thigh—my first thought was, "Is this really happening to me?" My answer to my own question was unequivocal, and I shut him down in seconds flat. I yelled, woke everyone up, and he spent the rest of the night in the parking lot in the car. I didn't tell my parents, ever, and I didn't speak of it to anyone else for years. It wasn't because I was embarrassed or ashamed. It was a nonissue. I'd taken care of it. The only vestige of that night was a new addition to my bedroom: a kitchen knife for welcoming uninvited guests.
I chose not to say #metoo on Facebook and Twitter. As a writer with a decade in marketing, I'm prone to look at social media through that lens. To sell anything—a product, an idea, a movement—it takes more than believing in its worth or usefulness. A simple hashtag is enough to manifest solidarity among the affected and empathetic others, but it's not enough to budge a dissenter. Scores of Americans, men and women alike, resist the belief that we have a problem in America. They dilute the root cause of sexual assault and harassment with statements about boys being boys; harmless locker room talk; women asking for it; and a few bad apples. They'll do it when confronted with the fact that rape and sexual assault victims are 91% female. They'll do it no matter how many times they see #metoo—or rather, how many times they ignore it.
I was out of pigtails but still years from a training bra the first time a grown man terrified me. His name was Joe H. and he lived in my neighborhood. I'd never met him, nor had any of my friends who saw the same thing that day. We were all playing in a yard across the street from my house. Joe H. appeared from behind the brick garage in the next yard up, exposing himself from the waist down. I didn't see what he had intended. Instead, it was his long, sunken face and dark, empty eyes that exposed him. Half a lifetime later, I remember the events in this sequence: I screamed "There's a man!" and ran with all my might toward home. My older brother took off in the opposite direction, throwing rocks at the lanky gray-haired man running up the alley. When I burst through the front door and explained what happened, my dad grabbed a club and flew up the alley after my brother and the bad man. In the weeks and months to follow, my parents and the neighbor parents talked of court dates, and Joe eventually went to jail. Although I knew he was gone, the anxiety that would one day become my shadow made perhaps its earliest appearance: When I would play in the front yard, I kept one hand clasped onto the stair rail, and when I would play around the neighborhood, I made sure I was in plain sight and that I had an escape route.
Of course Joe H. was a sicko. The problem is, in America we tend to stop there. We don't want to address what lies behind that word. Calling out a sicko doesn't address the fact the vast majority of sex offenders are male. Why are we unwilling to ask why? Social media is on fire with all the ways in which society demeans and devalues women. These are important conversations. Yet what we see so little of is discussion about what American culture does to men. In this country, males are taught, either implicitly or directly, that emotions are for women, that women are for pleasure, that pleasure is their birthright. Sexual pleasure is one half of the equation. The other half is pleasure derived from women's work. It's normal to expect—or passively allow—Mom/wife/partner to take on the emotional labor of the relationship or household. By not acknowledging and addressing this imbalance, we do a disservice to men and women, girls and boys, alike.
A few years after the Joe H. incident, I would start junior high. I was only 12 when the school bus and my innocence collided, with the latter dying on impact. My slight, 100-pound body was no longer meant for yellow Huffy bicycles, a pink Nash skateboard, or a cousin's unruly pony; it had become a thing in and of itself. On the school bus, a few boys in particular grabbed a few of my body parts in particular on a regular basis. It was no secret; they'd do it openly as I walked down the aisle or when we were seated near the back, with giggles and jokes on all sides. Even at 41 years old, I cringe to admit that back then what should've felt invasive instead felt rebellious to me, so I never told the bus driver, a teacher, or my parents.
As for those boys, none grew up to be rapists or abusers or any variety of criminal. That's good news—for them. What about me? While over the years I've given plenty of thought to how their behavior underscores a cultural failure, I've honestly never considered how it specifically impacted me, not until this week. Given my history of relationships plagued by power struggles, maybe those early days were more than an example of a young girl thumbing her nose at parental supervision.
The girl who slept with a kitchen knife, who held onto the porch rail, who indulged young boys' reckless hands, she gave life to two sons. I was first a single mother, then a partnered mother, and now a single mom again. Despite my failures with relationships, I don't feel ill equipped to teach my boys respect, at all. My history is a chunk of coal. All the pressure and stress that's been put on me (at times by me), is a means to creating something clearer, more defined, and reflective of light. I hope to be that light for my sons. One of my biggest goals as a mother of boys is to teach them respect, particularly for women, but for everyone.
My sons are young, only five and two, but I'm already doing the work. It has to start early. It's not enough to throw in an occasional comment about the Golden Rule or to correct or punish bad behavior. Raising respectful boys means finding teaching opportunities in everyday life and modeling respectful behavior and language. It means allowing our boys to express emotion and encouraging them to talk about their feelings. Although parents are the first line of defense in shaping young minds, that responsibility extends to other family members, mentors, educators, and communities too.
Women who speak out about women's issues are often labeled man-haters or damaged goods. I am neither bitter nor scarred. Some of the most endearing people I've known are men. Among my most loyal friends are men. They differ in personality and background, but what they have in common is respect for women. I can both value men and recognize cultural deficiencies at the same time. And I guarantee that among the thousands of women saying #metoo, the same is true. In the social media realm, in all our socio-political banter and arguments, it can be comforting to assume people are one-dimensional. Let's have discourse that shows we're better than that.
Today I say #metoo—and then some. Behind every hashtag is a person and a story. Be willing to listen.