By Johanna Carney, Staff Writer
The day I finally stood up for myself I was 42 years old. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to whether this event would change my life, or that what I was doing was completely out of character for me. I was only trying to make everyone happy. That’s what I do.
The event itself was wholly unremarkable: as I was bent over to clean a spill from the floor of the convenience store I was managing, a customer came up behind me and grabbed my rear thoroughly. What made this instance remarkable is that this time I actually did something about it. The police were called, an arrest was made, and early this month a sentence was issued. I felt vindicated, and then I felt….embarrassed, foolish even. Why was I so proud of myself for telling a stranger he was not allowed to touch me in any way he pleased? Shouldn’t I have done this many times before? Why, in over four decades, was this the first time I had spoken up and said, “You can’t do that to me!” ?
Some soul-searching was in order. Uncomfortable as it may be, I knew I would need to look backward to unravel the mystery of how a smart, capable woman becomes someone who can’t speak up for herself.
I was eight the first time it happened. A much older cousin coerced me into sex. Our mothers were good friends, and for the next year and a half, every time he visited my house or I visited his, he would find a hiding place and have his way with me, threatening me not to tell anyone.
I didn’t need the warning. I was too terrified to let anyone know what was happening. I wasn’t sure what an adult’s reaction would be, but I didn’t want to find out. The winter I was nine, the light finally came on for his mother.
She realized what was going on and asked me if her suspicions were on the mark. I was so relieved to be able to let it all out; finally an adult would help me escape this situation! For the briefest of moments, she was a superhero in my little girl eyes. I had understood for a while that my parents needed to be aware of what was happening, but I didn’t even know how to begin to tell them.
My aunt told my mom what she had discovered . To this day, I believe they are the only two adults who ever knew what happened. The secret I had been forced to keep for a year and a half would remain a secret. I was not to tell anyone, not even my dad (especially not him, in fact). A week or so later my aunt had a chat with me. It turned out, she said that my cousin “didn’t know it was wrong. But he knows now, so he will never do it again.” Even my fourth grade mind could see the flaws in that logic, but the subject was closed. For a few weeks following, I remember having conversations with my mom about it that began like this: “Why did you let him do that? You knew it was wrong!”
I learned from the experience. I learned that when you are victimized, even as a child, it is your fault. I learned that secrets should be kept. I learned that there was no one in my corner. I internalized those lessons so well, in fact, that when, a year later, I awoke in my bed to a different cousin fondling me, I kept it to myself. I pretended to be asleep and I rolled over and hoped he would go away. He did, until the next time we slept in the same house.
Unfortunately, my experience is hardly unique. To a greater or lesser extent, most women deal with being victimized or sexualized or even abused at some point in their lives. The man at the bar who rubs up against her on his way to the restroom. The coworker who looks at her in a way that makes her afraid to be alone with him. The strangers who comment on her appearance, appreciatively or not. There are women who are strong, who will quickly say, “don’t touch me”, or “you have no right to say that to me.” Then there are women like me, who find themselves frozen with fear, unable to take a stand. What determines which one we are?
I fear for my niece. She’s eleven, on the cusp of puberty and already a beautiful young women with curly hair and dark eyes. She has a mind of her own that I envy, and does whatever she enjoys without fear of what anyone else thinks. Yet I worry. When asked for a preference, her go-to answer is nearly always, “I don’t know. “ What if she is afraid to speak up? How can we, as a society, encourage young women like my niece to become their own powerful advocates? How do we teach them to stand up for themselves?
I don’t know the answer. But I know what worked for me a year and a half ago.
When I arrived home from work that day and casually mentioned to my husband what had happened, he was livid. He was adamant that no one ever had the right to touch me without my permission, that it was not okay, and that we were going to do something about it. He insisted I call either my boss or the police. I chose my boss.
My boss was not the kind of guy that you call after hours with problems or questions, and I waited on edge for him to answer. However, he was instantly indignant as I told my story. No customer would ever be allowed to treat me or any of his employees that way. It was not okay. He asked me to call the police, and the next morning I followed through.
The friendly officer who responded to my call never questioned my story. He didn’t for a second believe the man when he said he never touched me. After I gave my statement, a warrant was issued, and the man was arrested. Even his own lawyer, after speaking to me, was so disgusted that he asked to be removed as counsel for the defense. I was asked by the court what I wanted to see happen, and that was the sentence that was handed down.
And from that, I learned again. I learned that when you are victimized, it is always the offender who is at fault. I learned that when something disturbs you, or feels wrong, or even just not quite right, you should speak up. And speak up again. And I learned that there is someone in my corner. There are a lot of people. In fact, my corner turns out to be so full of individuals that I’m surprised there’s room to breathe.
Whose corner can we be in? That’s my thought for today.
Every woman, young or not so young, needs to know that when she speaks up, there will be a team supporting her. That someone has her back. That she is loved. That she is important. That she will be believed and not blamed.
I’m not going to fool myself into imagining that I will always from this day forward be inclined to stand up for myself. A 42-year habit is difficult to break.
But, I am hopeful that from this day forward when a young woman like my niece, or any woman of any age, needs someone to be willing to stand up for them that I will be first in line for the race to their corner.
I hope you will be, too.