He corners me in the stairwell, away from the other kids. “Show me what’s under your underwear,” he demands, “or I’ll hurt you.” I’m scared and ashamed. I lift my skirt and show him the edge of my underwear, trying to appease him. He traps me another time and after that I quit wearing dresses to school. I tell no one, already internalizing the potential fallout of an accusation. I am six.
We’re in England for my dad’s work during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. I attend part of a school-day with the daughter of my father’s colleague. We glue colored tissue to flat paper crowns. Love live Queen Elizabeth the Second! I, the foreigner, am paraded around the room with my crown. Some older boys snicker and talk. I hear their words and see their crude motions and I’m not quite naïve enough to miss their sexual intent. I am seven.
We stage a talent show at sleep-away church camp. I wear my leopard print pajamas and dance around to music from The Pink Panther. A male counsellor, college-aged, says, “You’re so cute, I could make kittens.” I am nine.
My mother takes me to a self-defense workshop at a Catholic church near our house. Kick them in the groin, poke them in the eyes. “Don’t yell rape; yell fire,” they say. No one wants to get involved in a rape. They teach us to fear the stranger in the woods. They don’t teach us to fear the priest, the babysitter’s boyfriend, the friend of the family. I am ten.
We’re visiting distant cousins in California. The boys are systematically chasing the girls, capturing them, and swinging them by their arms and legs before tossing them into the pool. I shrink behind the pool furniture. They try to come for me and I say, “No,” shaking my head. They come anyway and drag me to the side of the pool. I’m hanging by my arms and legs – it hurts to have your entire weight suspended by your hands and feet – and I feel helpless. And resigned. It’ll be over soon. They toss me into the pool. I am eleven.
The practice studio sits at the very back of the music store, down a dark hall, behind a closed door. My drum teacher is strange. I have a pretty high tolerance for strange. One day, he tells me a joke. I don’t recall the lead-in. The punchline is “A black cherry,” a double whammy of racism and misogyny. I tell my teacher that it’s not appropriate for him to say things like that to me. I am twelve.
A friend of my family, a single man around thirty years old, tells my parents that he would want to date me if I were older. I am thirteen.
I take the bus to driver’s ed in the summer, all the way to the flat expanse of Bloomington. I’m carrying a LeSportsac purse. It’s white and square and I love everything about it except the color. I get off the bus, headed west on 90th, and sense someone behind me. I glance over my shoulder. There’s a man behind me. He’s moving closer. I glance again and the sun reflects off the metal he holds in his hand. He’s gaining on me with apparent intent. I dash across the street and rush into the driver training building. Even then, I’m doubting my own senses, my own story. Was he really following me? Was it actually a knife? I call my parents from the office phone. I am fifteen.
I’m at the allergist, doing my annual check-in. Yes, the injections are going fine. No, I haven’t had any bad reactions. Yes, I’m taking the phenylpropanolamine (even though it makes me feel blue). No, I don’t want any prednisone. The doctor moves in to examine me, pressing his groin tight against my thigh. I try to scoot sideways, subtly. Is he just leaning? Am I over-reacting? The next year, it’s the same story. And the next, I’m ready, my leg safely out of the way. I am a teenager.
The youth group from church goes on a mission trip to San Francisco. We frolic at the ocean despite the freezing temperatures. I’m wearing a modest bikini that I found on clearance at Marshall’s. Behind my back, I hear a group of boys comment on my swimsuit. “Too bad she doesn’t have the body for it,” they say. I am fifteen.
I’m a senior at South High School. A junior flirts with me, loans me his fuzzy jade green sweater. It smells like soap and boy and fits me like an enormous dress. He gives me a Woolrich stuffed sheep for Christmas. I know it costs $25 and I think it’s way too much for him to spend and he does it anyway. We hang out at City Center, listen to U2, and kiss. “Whenever you’re ready,” he says. I’m not ready. He doesn’t push. I am seventeen.
I’m a freshwomyn at Oberlin College. I meet a boy. It’s autumn and the fog is so beautiful in the evening. We walk and talk and play Rachmaninoff for each other. We wind up in my dorm room. We’re kissing and he keeps trying to get up my shirt. I push his hands away. “No.” He stands up abruptly, “I’ve heard enough ‘no’,” and storms out of my room. We never speak again. I am eighteen.
One of my patients is scheduled for a complete physical. We chat about his medical history. I hand him a gown and step out of the room so he can change. When I come back in, he is completely naked and aroused, sitting on the exam table. I offer him a gown. He declines. “You can wear a gown,” I say. Do I step out and ask my nurse to accompany me? A colleague later tells me that she saw my patient for a physical. “Why? I say. “He just had a physical.” The story is exactly the same. The story repeats again in the ER with yet another young female physician. I contact the tech assistant for the Electronic Medical Record. I describe the situation, that we need a warning to pop up on the patient’s chart: Do not see this patient without a chaperone. The tech assures me that he’ll look into it. When the patient returns to clinic, I confront him. “I know what you’re doing and you have to stop.” I never see him again. I am thirty.
In my five years at Hiawatha Clinic, two of my patients come to me for help after they are raped. I encourage them to call the police. Both decline. One was raped by her drug dealer and is afraid that she’ll be prosecuted. The other was roofied on a college campus in the Twin Cities. I write a scathing letter to the president of the institution and hear exactly nothing back.
After the Leann Tweeden story breaks, I find myself embroiled in a Facebook discussion. Most of the participants think that what you, Al Franken, did, really wasn’t that bad. And for a woman to even bring up such allegations is an insult to women who were actually raped. I’m speechless. These are “progressive” people, arguing for “Levels of Wrongness,” excusing your inexcusable behavior.
Eventually I find my voice in the discussion. “From the US Dept of Justice: ‘Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.’” There is pushback in the Facebook conversation, so I add, “Our culture has so normalized the objectification of women, that we even question ourselves – ‘Did he really just rub his groin against my thigh? Maybe he was just leaning?’ [recognize that story, reader?] Regardless of the ‘degree of wrongness,’ it’s wrong. And women should feel safe to speak up, to break the Cycle of Wrong.”
Women are speaking up. Finally. Every woman has a story. Every woman has been harassed. In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. That means 92 people have been assaulted since I sat down to write this post.
I’m fortunate. What happened to me was “not so bad,” par for the course for any girl in this country. Still, the memories I shared above are crystal clear, formative experiences in my childhood and adolescence.
I voted for you, Al. Twice. It’s time for some House (and Senate) cleaning. We hold our children to higher standards than we hold our elected officials. Let’s systematically sort through and eliminate (metaphorically, of course) everyone in government who has committed sexual assault. Cull the ranks. If we systematically sort through and eliminate everyone in government who is guilty of sexual harassment, how many men will remain?
I don’t know what to tell you, Al. On the one hand, you’re pretty good, one of the few glimmers of hope in a bleak political landscape. You seem to care about issues that I care about. Your recent track record suggests that you value and respect women. On the other hand, you appear to have committed sexual assault. Twice. You made your bed and now you have the pleasure of lying in it.
So I say shake it down, shake it all down. Rattle the skeletons. Hold everyone to the same standard of human decency in this era of a pussy-grabbing president.