Nonfiction | What We Wear

Borne Up by an Ocean

Seeing how many friends have endured harassment and abuse didn’t depress me. It made me optimistic.

The first time I remember being sexually harassed, I was six years old. I was a tomboy, and, despite my mother’s best efforts, I sometimes forgot to wear shirts when I played outside. If my brothers didn’t have to, what was the big deal?

I was riding my tricycle out front when a convertible sped by. I remember a tangle of arms waving and leering mouths open in hoots—teen boys, out for a joyride. I didn’t understand the things they were shouting, but I knew they were all directed at me. I had no idea what to do. Did I know them somehow? I raised my hand in a tentative wave, and they laughed and yelled even harder.

And then they were gone, and I was left with a new feeling. Something not-right in my stomach, something I would later recognize as a twist of fear and shame. I pedaled my tricycle back up the driveway and went inside to put on a shirt, but still I felt exposed. From then on, I would not leave the house without feeling hyper-aware of my body and its vulnerability.

For years, I blamed myself, of course. I was six years old, why wasn’t I dressed properly? Why did I wave? When I began to comprehend what happened—a car full of men had harassed a six-year-old girl—I skipped over rage and went straight to relief. Thank God it hadn’t gone further. I was lucky, I told myself.

With each successive encounter—coworkers and colleagues, boyfriends and father figures—I’ve felt both more numb and more vulnerable, as though a layer of who I am is sanded away each time. Me too, me too, me too. Each drop forming an ocean, threatening to drown me.

It has been difficult, but not at all surprising, to see how many women in my life have experienced harassment or assault. I am proud of my friends who are able to stand up and say “Me, too,” despite the years of shame and disgust these experiences given them. And I have an even deeper love and tenderness for the friends who can’t yet say it—those who are still early in their path toward healing.

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, no matter what you’re wearing, what you’re doing, what you’ve had to eat or drink. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman or nonbinary, if you’re older or younger, pregnant or carrying a baby, dressed for work or dressed in PJs. It happens anywhere, any time. I am certain that every woman I know has been harassed or assaulted in her life—and many men have, as well.

Given the burdens survivors already carry, then, why is the onus on us to stand up and fight to be heard? What about the people perpetrating the abuse? To quote a friend: “How can it be all of us and none of you?”

The idea of harassers and abusers confessing their secrets was laughable when it first occurred to me. Can you imagine! I thought, and I kept scrolling. Scrolling and scrolling through wave after wave of “Me, too.” Sometimes it stopped there—a simple declaration of a less-than-simple history—and sometimes there were details, stories, pain in words.

These two words, writ over and over, began moving me. What does it mean that I can easily imagine a world in which everyone I know has been harassed, but I can’t imagine their harassers being held to account? Each post was a fresh reminder of how much women go through and how little we are heard. From a young age, we encounter abuse and we internalize it and we stop thinking the world can change.

But we’re wrong.

When Harvey Weinstein responded to allegations that he had preyed upon women for decades, he defended his actions as part of a time “when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” His repulsive behavior and non-apology aside, there was indeed a time where his abhorrent treatment of women apparently raised few eyebrows. The very fact of his public downfall is evidence that times are changing.

The world can change. Together, these waves of assent form another ocean, this one bearing us up in a swell of support.

I want harassers and abusers to acknowledge their actions, and I want them to pledge to do better—and to embark on a path of genuine, meaningful action to do so. I want allies to stand up for us in our workplaces and churches and bars and streets; I want us to be believed, and I want us all to work toward change.

But more importantly, I want survivors to remember that a better world is possible, and worth fighting for.