Growing up in East Texas, I went to church with my family every Sunday. Most Wednesday nights I went to youth group. One of the youth leaders was dating a young woman who always wore denim skirts to her ankles. One night I asked her why.
“I don't want to be responsible for causing impure thoughts,” she told me. “I don't want to be a stumbling block to my brothers in Christ.”
When we went on retreats or to summer camp, the girls were required to wear fingertip-length shorts. I was a lanky teen, and my fingertips practically brushed my kneecaps. I ended up wearing a lot of ugly clothes, yet one of the guys still looked at my thighs during the praise songs. I wondered, Had he stumbled? Had I caused him to think impure thoughts?
In college, I went on a mission trip where we spent our days painting homes and doing activities with the local children. In the late afternoon and evening, we were permitted to go to the beach. One of the first days we were there, the wife of the trip leader took me aside.
“I need to speak with you privately,” she said. “It's... your breasts. They're too large. There's too much cleavage. I'm going to have to sew a piece of fabric into your swimsuit if you're going to keep wearing it on this trip.” (I was wearing a one-piece swimsuit with knee-length board shorts.) Shame filled my body, and my face grew hot. I went to my room and cried, then changed and handed over my suit.
My second-to-last semester of college happened to be during summer, and I wore my standard uniform of tank tops and capri pants to campus. I was an intern for a literary journal, spending my days in a lonely basement office, transferring a typewritten book manuscript to a Word document. Most of my time was spent in front of a computer with my back to the door.
Maybe if I ignore him, he'll go away. He didn't go away.
Still, I could sense when the English professor was standing in the doorway. Somehow he was always around when I was there. One day, he crept into the office and stood over me, looking down my tank top.
“I can say this because I'm old enough to be your grandfather,” he smiled. “You got the goods.”
Due to the culture in which I had grown up, I thought, This must be my fault. I should start wearing a sweater. Maybe if I ignore him, he'll go away. He didn't go away. He would come by almost every day to make dirty comments or silently watch me file documents. I was graduating that year and didn't want to cause trouble. It wasn't until I realized I was crying every day on the way to campus and breaking out in a sweat whenever I walked downstairs to my office that I realized I needed to say something.
I know I'm not alone in these experiences. These accounts are not exhaustive. There are many others, and I'm sure many of you reading this have similar stories of your own.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I began to realize how harmful the messages I had learned in my childhood and adolescence were and continue to be. I have allowed men to act in certain ways toward me, and even put myself in dangerous situations with them, because I did not want to seem rude. I have blamed myself for the behaviors of men, thinking it must have been something I said/wore/implied that caused them to respond to me the way they did.
Several weeks ago, I was performing psych assessments in an emergency room when my phone buzzed. It was a message from the service I use to market my private practice to potential mental health clients.
“Can you help me with P.E.?” the man had asked.
“What's that?” I replied.
“Premature ejaculation,” he responded. He proceeded to email me photos of myself—from Instagram, Google, Twitter, and my website—for the next two hours. “Can I show you 16 super sexy pics? Such a turn on” were the messages attached to photos of my face. Photos I had shared online.
All the things I thought I knew about sexuality and feminism flew out the window. I was terrified. My first thought was: I brought this on myself. I shouldn't have posted those selfies. I should make every account I have private. Thankfully, at the suggestion of my therapist, I took another route.
Sexual harassment. Those two words held all the validation I had needed.
I called the police department, not sure how they would respond. The police officer was somber. “We take this kind of thing very seriously,” he said. “This is sexual harassment.”
Sexual harassment. Those two words held all the validation I had needed—then and in previous situations. This makes me uncomfortable. This isn't okay. This is a reflection on him, not me.
I felt stronger, clearer, braver. I typed a response: This is inappropriate behavior that crosses professional boundaries. I have filed a police report and do not wish to be contacted by you again. I exhaled loudly and pressed send.
Now more than ever, I wear what I want to wear, knowing that I dress for myself. If a man responds to my clothing inappropriately, that's his personal responsibility, not mine. I'm proud of my body—all 5-feet, 11 inches of it. I shouldn't feel the need to try to shrink or make myself less visible to protect myself, and most days I don't. I still post selfies online. If a man says or does something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I will remove myself from the situation and/or confront him directly. After years of silence, I'm speaking up.
I shouldn't feel the need to try to shrink or make myself less visible to protect myself.
Just because something is not sexual assault or rape doesn't mean it's not sexual harassment. If someone is in a position of authority—an employer, a church leader, a professor—that's even more of a reason not to stay silent. The more we speak up against the daily acts of disrespect against us, the more confidence we build, and the more comfortable we become calling people out for sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior as it occurs.