When I was 18, I worked at a tapas restaurant, a giant toro emblazoned on my chest thanks to the restaurant’s standard-issue t-shirt. As I served rounds of sangria I was too young to drink, I grew used to the drunken ogling from men old enough to be my father. It was, I’d been coached during training, an occupational hazard. Smile and play along if you don’t want to hurt your tips. Even when your customers stare at that giant toro and laugh about how much better your tips would be if this were a topless restaurant instead.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. However horrific his particular approach—the hotel rooms, the untied bathrobes—it feels like old news to me. The decades of silence from the victims and the enablers is, after all, akin to that advice I got about maximizing my tips: Smile. Play along. Laugh even if the joke’s not funny.
We may call it workplace harassment now, but then? Then, it was just part of the job. Or so we told ourselves in order to calm the rising panic that insisted: The joke’s not funny. The tips aren’t worth it. The leer is scary. But we’ve been taught since girlhood that this is our job: Stay safe. But also, smile. Play along. Don’t take it too seriously. That’s just how boys are, and you’ll learn soon enough what your job is.
I remember the first time I was groped. On the school bus in elementary school, some boy who lived in our apartment complex touched me in a way that I knew was wrong. He grabbed me, and I punched him in the stomach.
There was that time on the crowded subway, where the man in the too-tight jeans inched closer and closer until his erection jabbed me in the back, at first subtly but then belligerently, and I was young and scared and all I could do was plot my exit when the train doors opened.
There was that time in the Walgreens across the street from the state capitol, while I was shopping for tampons and extra absorbent night maxi-pads in my pajamas, and the man grabbed my ass. And when I shouted, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!” he shrugged and said, “What?! It’s crowded in here.” It was 11pm. We were the only ones in the aisle.
There was that time at the Vatican, as I tried to get off the bus, that the man lunged from a seat across the way just to grab my breast. And that time at State Street Brats where I don’t even remember what was grabbed but I remember our drunk, gallant Southern friend clutching the guy by the throat as fair warning that You. Don’t. Touch. That time in the Karachi airport where an attempt to buy a shawl became a terrifying moment of breast grabbing, and I wasn’t even supposed to be in Pakistan and I was sleep deprived and nervous and I stood there silently.
And that time when I was pregnant and my student kept caressing my belly, my arms, my back, in ways so intensely inappropriate. Even after I sat him down to explain as a teachable moment why this was not okay, that you don’t touch without consent. And there were the boys in high school who called me “Big Breasts.” That took their penises out in class and slapped them around under the table and in the cafeteria and never got caught. And when I wanted to say something about it in the school newspaper, my peers told me to stop taking everything so seriously because they were just being boys. That’s just what they do.
And I’ve known other kinds of assaults. Men who were supposed to be my family and my caretakers, who used physical force against the women who were my protectors and guides. Sometimes I pretended to sleep through it, just so no one would know that I witnessed. Sometimes, though, their drunken violence would send us fleeing, out of the house in the middle of the night. Vulnerable inside, vulnerable outside. But always, always under assault.
Today, though, the silence is supposedly broken. Today, though, we swear we’re waking up. #MeToo, we say. #IHearYou, they say. #NotAllMen, others say. But I wonder: Do you really hear me? Is it really not all men? Because I also just read about police officers having “consensual” sex with a minor in custody. And I also heard the world memorializing Hugh Hefner as a sexual revolutionary without mentioning the women who felt suicide was the only way out of being a Bunny. And I also learned about the “suite” Thomas Jefferson had for his slave, Sally Hemings, off his bedroom, and I listened to people justify that maybe Sally really loved him—as if it’s possible to love someone who claims you as property. And also, our president, the pussy-grabber-in-chief. And so I wonder: Do you really hear us? Is it really not you?
There are too many of these stories for you not to be implicated.
Do you know what it feels like to be under assault? Not metaphorically because your jobs are disappearing or because more and more people are not like you or because the twenty-first century is changing your way of life—but actually, literally, physically under assault? Do you know what it feels like to walk through the world knowing you are unsafe in the most carnal and physical of ways? To have your physical body always, always under assault?
In so many ways, I walk in privilege. In my white skin. In my hetero marriage and nuclear family. In my high status career, with all the university degrees you can get, from elite institutions. In my perfect English (and strategic bilingualism). But I am put in my place with every grope, ogle, vulgarity, and assault. Because make no mistake: I am telling you stories of assaults. Assaults that are not isolated incidents but part of the systemic way that misogyny is enforced. Assaults that are so normalized we’re not even outraged by them anymore. Or rather, we are outraged for a moment (see: Harvey Weinstein), but the assaults go on. Life goes on.
But what we know, those of us under assault, what we know in our bones and our skin and our breasts, is that these are not individual indignities. No, this is how oppression polices us. How patriarchy and white supremacy enforce themselves. When a man forces his tongue down your throat, as our president has bragged about doing, or when a man shows up to your job interview naked under a bathrobe, as Weinstein is accused of, he is living and enforcing his power. And when we dismiss it as normal, as boys being boys, or when we say that a predator is just a “sex addict” or “testosterone-driven,” or worse—when it’s our friends who are the harassers and yet we say nothing, what we’re really saying is: I know. We live in a world where your body and your life are not valued. And I’m okay with that.
Harvey Weinstein is not the first predator; he won’t be the last. There is also: Donald Trump. Bill Cosby. Bill O’Reilly. Clarence Thomas. Roger Ailes. Casey Affleck. R. Kelly. Anthony Weiner. Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. And then: My sixth-grade homeroom teacher. My friend’s yoga teacher. The kid in my English class. That visiting professor. The famous politician from the photo op. #MeToo, we say, #MeToo, and we hope that the sheer volume of it all might finally help you see the way that it really is you, too.
These assaults, they are the bedfellows of policy. Policy that wants to punish women (but not men, never the men) for abortions—or clothing choices. Policy that wants to take away health care and education and financial security. Policy that cements injustice. Policy that assaults more than our bodies: our livelihoods and spirits and communities. Policy that makes us silence that inner panic in the service of the job that we’ve got to keep, the paycheck that we’ve got to keep coming in, the letter of recommendation we’ve got to secure to move on.
This is the work of womanhood: protecting ourselves and then silencing ourselves. Being decent—in dress, of course, but also in the smile that is uncomfortable only to us and the silence that protects only them. It comes too easily, this well-learned decency, almost like breathing—except it’s a desperate gasp not to suffocate under the weight of it all.
Me: University professor, scholar, teacher. Them: Young, drunk, suited, rich. The scene: An elevator at a fundraising event, where they joked about not needing directions because they could just follow the girls in the skirts. I am the only one on the elevator, the girl in the skirt: forty-year-old, overweight me, in tights and a modest dress. They continued with one another, and I stared at the elevator numbers—one, two, three, four, five, six—willing that they would not be sitting at my table, willing that they would not be donors I had to talk to.
I will not smile, I tell myself. It is not my job to make them feel comfortable. The rage is rising up, a thunder of adrenaline and blood. I am trying to think of something to say against this everyday indignity.
Seven. The elevator door opens. They leave, laughing and taking up space, cocktails in hand. Do not be decent in the face of this constant assault, I tell myself—I tell no one but myself. Breathe, I coach myself, and follow them off the elevator to my work.
Header photo courtesy of the author
MELISSA GIBSON is an assistant professor of education at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she writes about justice and education, and tries to bring that to life through her work with teachers. In between her paid job as an academic and her unpaid job as a parent and laundress, she periodically blogs at The Present Tense. Mostly, she tries to find ways not to write like the critical theorists she spent decades studying in her BA in Women’s Studies from Harvard University and PhD in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Wisconsin. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on her blog.