This incident happened well before the #MeToo movement began, but in light of recent stories of harassment and assault, it seems more important than ever that we share these experiences, no matter how small. All silence accomplishes is the perpetuation of harassment.
It was 9:36 AM on a Friday morning. I had been at work for about an hour, and I was the only one in the office. The phone rang.
I sighed, anticipating yet another call with a confused elderly volunteer.
“Why hello, how are you?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m doing well now that I can hear such a beautiful voice on the other end of the line.”
The breathy voice coming through the receiver sounded distant and muffled, paired with a faint rustling sound that made the words even harder to understand.
“Sir, this is the Georgia Sierra Club, what can I do for you?”
“Oh, yes, what can you do for me? Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Okay, now I was getting impatient. Between the multiple upcoming deadlines and the pile of paperwork sitting in front of me, I did not have time for an out-of-touch old man. But being the Communications Coordinator and working for an organization that relies heavily on our volunteers, I again tried to politely move the call along.
“Sir, how can I help you?”
“Well, I’m just lying in bed, relaxing, trying to speak with someone like you. And if I’m being honest, I’m watching porn. Yes, I am watching porn and talking to you.”
I hung up.
Bewildered, I stared at my desk for a few minutes, unable to process what I had just heard.
He was pleasuring himself. He sounded distant and there was a rustling noise because he was masturbating while he talked to me.
I had taken a shower that morning, had put on makeup and a nice outfit and perfume, but suddenly I felt like I had fallen face-first into a sewage pipe. My skin was crawling. I felt disgusting. I wanted to burn all my clothes and scrub my skin clean.
And I was never in the same physical space as him.
Research has determined that two out of three women have experienced street harassment. I am one of them. I have always been tall and I matured at an early age, meaning I have had sexual comments, gestures, and advances casually tossed in my direction for about thirteen years now. Like most women, I have internalized it. Excused it. Normalized it.
“Men can be animals.”
“Construction workers are so gross sometimes.”
“I’m not even dressed that nice today.”
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for me to make the assumption that most women have had similar thoughts after such interactions. We’re programmed to absorb these exchanges and to simply move on. It’s just a part of life.
But it’s not “just life.” It’s absolutely sickening that we’ve accepted harassment as a normal part of carrying the gender of “woman.” And yet, this phone call, this man, this exchange felt so, so much more violating and intrusive than any time I’ve ever been catcalled on the street, gestured at from a moving car, or told to smile more with my beautiful mouth.
I feel so angry that I’ve normalized the casual, passerby harassment to such an extent that this man on the phone felt worse. It makes me feel like I’m part of the problem. But conversely, on a basic, gut level, this situation was just… worse. This man took the time to call an unlisted office extension line before 10 AM in the hopes of speaking with a voice that was female (what would he have done if a husky, masculine voice had answered? Would he have hung up and tried the next set of digits that came to mind?). He was right in my ear, physically removed but emotionally closer than any catcaller has ever gotten. He couldn’t see me, knew nothing about me, will never think of me again, and yet he had total power.
In that moment, I was powerless. Helpless. Immobile. I was just trying to do my job, and I was forced into the role of weak, of submissive, of… woman.
Because that’s really it for sexual abusers, isn’t it? The whole premise is one of power. They can do this because we are women. We are defenseless, we are sexual, we are theirs.
And I played right. into. that. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t let him know that if this is how he has to get his pleasure, it must be pretty indicative of how pathetic his life is, I didn’t use any choice expletives, I didn’t even tell him that what he was doing was disgusting. I just unceremoniously hung up the phone. There’s no way he could have hurt me. He couldn’t come through the receiver. He was simply a voice in my ear. That was my chance to tell him anything I wanted, all of the things I’ve never had a chance to tell any of the passing men that have sexualized me, and I would have been safe.
But I was still terrified of him. I was absolutely petrified. I hung up the phone quietly, and I did nothing.
I’m angry because I perpetuated the notion that women are submissive. Because I believed that I was weaker than him. Because I didn’t fight back. Because he was sexualizing me without even knowing one single thing about me. Because I know that he’s done this to women before me. Because I know he will do it again, and probably already has. Because I allowed myself to feel violated. Because I didn’t realize sooner that I wasn’t talking to a volunteer, but a waste of a human.
Because this exchange affected me so deeply, when I wasn’t even in the same space as him.
Because this exchange affected me so deeply, when other women have experienced, far, far worse.
Because he has left me this burden to carry and will never have to pick it up for himself.
What I experienced was a drop in the bucket. It was virtually nothing, and it still shook me to my core. My heart sinks just thinking about the victims of domestic abuse, verbal harassment, sexual assault, and rape.
It’s so easy to watch Law & Order: SVU or listen to a podcast on serial killers and their victims and say that as women, we have to reclaim our power. We have to stand in the face of the perpetrators that are telling us we are nothing but objects for their pleasure, their desires, and tell them where they can go.
It’s much harder to follow through when a man catches you off-guard, unprepared and feeds off of your surprise. When he wants you to feel unsettled. When the more you try to reclaim your power, the more powerful he becomes. It starts to feel impossible to find any power at all in a situation like that.
And truthfully, that’s always the situation. No one is ever prepared to be sexualized through their fear.
I wish I had an uplifting end to this. I wish I could offer support, but I am still processing what happened to me. I am angry, I am still surprised, and in a twisted way, I’m sad. I feel like something was taken from me, but I don’t really understand what that something is.
To any women (or men, or other genders) who have dealt with something similar or worse, my heart goes out to you. I am deeply sorry, and just know that I am here to offer you my compassion and to lend my ear.
I know this topic is uncomfortable, but so is what happened to me. I know it’s not pleasant to talk about, but the repercussions I’m now dealing with aren’t pleasant either. I know this is off-brand, but if we don’t share these stories, we’re still perpetuating. We’re still excusing and internalizing and normalizing it.
And I’m pretty tired of this being normal.
“Boys will be boys” my ass.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t provide resources of some sort for those who would like to learn more about sexual assault and how you can get help. If you’ve been put in a situation that made you feel uncomfortable, please, talk to someone you trust.