When I was young I was a dancer but by 12 it was clear I would never have the lithe slender body needed to truly pursue it. I was short with big hips and large breasts when I went through puberty. I was lucky that I worked out so much and stayed thin despite developing these more womanly attributes. From a young age my looks had always been commented on. Despite working hard in school and achieving good grades, as well as being precocious and conversing often with adults, I was always told I was pretty, not smart. My mother, a college professor, tried to counteract those lessons at home by encouraging my intelligence but she could only do so much once I hit puberty and that attention turned sexual.
I honestly don’t remember the first time an adult man inappropriately commented on my looks or hugged me just a little too long. It was so commonplace for them to make jokes about my coming home with them, or wishing they were their sons so they could date me that the experience just blends into my formative years. The comments that bothered me the most were the ones that pitied my poor parents who had the supposed responsibility of protecting my virtue from all the boys who would try and date me.
I remember desperately shopping for leotards for my dance classes that had more support or more covering. There was little I could do to hide my body in only a leotard and tights but I remember placing safety pins at the back of the straps to ensure the leotard was a high as possible. Despite these efforts people still commented and even touched me. My (male) dance teacher remarked that push ups would be difficult for me due to my chest, laughing as he singled me out. One of the only male dancers pulled me on his lap and grabbed my breasts, commenting that they were more melons than apples. He justified his actions by pointing out that he was gay so it didn’t matter.
In high school more girls were developing and the boys our age were starting to notice. Undoing our bras through our clothes became a sport in between classes. Obviously the girls with the larger breasts were particular targets. As a joke a senior boy used to slap my ass when he passed me in the hall when I was a freshman. He also took to carrying me to class and depositing me a minute or two late. The teachers just laughed and mildly scolded him for making me late. No one thought to tell him to stop. I was grabbed and kissed more than once by boys who were supposed to be my friends, laughing at my shocked reaction. A few of the teachers made their own inappropriate comments, hoping I was dating a certain guy based on how much I flirted with him, or remarking on my looks themselves.
As I got older I remember less and less of the specific times a man touched me without my consent, reducing me to my body rather than engaging with my mind as an equal. This was just what it meant to walk through the world as a woman. Recounting every instance would be like detailing every time someone was rude to you in public, every time you were cut off while driving, every time you controlled your temper.
I wish I didn’t experience the same treatment from men who were supposed to be professional interactions. So many professors and advisors have hugged me strangely, found excuses to touch me, commented on my looks and clothes and make up-to give advice for when I was teaching of course. Peers in grad school pulled me onto their laps, draped their arms around my waist, looked down my shirt. A particularly demoralizing interaction was when I met a politician in the role of an activist. He offered to take a picture with us and ran his hand down my back to squeeze my waist. I no longer was a professional and an activist, I was just a sexualized woman for him to enjoy touching.
I am not special or unique. This piece could have been written by countless women. I have also been sexually assaulted and cat called on the street more times than I can remember. This is what it means to walk through the world as a woman. Those of us with these experiences know all too well the difference between inappropriate touching, street harassment, workplace sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Condemning inappropriate touching does nothing to lessen the condemnation of sexual assault. For me, the experiences listed in this piece eroded my confidence and self worth. I was not treated as an equal in intellect or professionally and so I did not feel like one. How much do I have to fight to be able to talk to an advisor or take a picture with a prominent man without being made to feel like I’m nothing but a pair of tits.
Those of us who talk about the harm done by men like Al Franken and Joe Biden are not conflating their actions with those of Trump or Kavanaugh. We know the difference because we have experienced the broad spectrum of sexual harassment. The inappropriate touching of the supposed good guys is not innocuous, it confirms every day that our bodies are more valued than our minds. I am a PhD candidate, professional political activist, and college professor, yet every time I meet a man in a professional capacity I hope they keep their hands to themselves. Are these individual men more important than the women we lose due to their behavior?
Women must feel safe and respected in the workplace to be a congressional staffer, a medical resident at a hospital, a young lawyer at a firm, a constituent lobbying their elected official, and a grad student alone in a closed office with her professor. If we don’t fight for those women to be safe and respected we will all suffer when we lose their (our) contributions to the world.