This is one of the hardest articles I’ve ever written.
I’ve started it several times. And each time I deleted it.
After all, what right do I have to talk about sexual harassment?
I wasn’t raped.
I wasn’t drugged, beaten or blackmailed.
No one physically abused me in any way that did lasting physical harm.
But I was misused.
I was harassed.
And I shouldn’t have been.
I was made a victim, and my victimizer was a woman.
That, alone, shames me to my core.
I’m a grown man.
We’re not supposed to care about things like this.
We’re supposed to be unfeeling, undisturbed, stoic cowboys with our eyes ever fixed on the horizon.
If anything, I should be the one accused, not the accuser.
Some would deny that you even CAN sexually harass a man.
They’d look at the cultural ideal of manhood as an emotionally stunted beast of burden, and say men are too callous and shallow to be susceptible to this sort of pain. After all, men are always ready for the next sexual encounter. Or we should be, because that’s what it means to be a man.
But they’re wrong.
Men have feelings, too. We hurt. We cry. And we can be scarred by unwelcome advances.
So what happened?
It was almost thirty years ago.
I was just a kid in middle or high school – 8th or 9th grade.
It was in pottery class.
I’ve always loved the arts. I used to draw every spare second. My notebooks were covered with doodles and sketches. Cartoon dinosaurs and skulls. Sometimes an alien or dragon.
And I loved working with clay, too.
For years my mother had a vase I made in that pottery class. It was fat on the bottom with a slender neck. Purple glaze on the outside with a blue interior. Mom displayed it proudly in her dinning room, sometimes with a few flowers inside, until one day it accidentally fell from a shelf and shattered.
I might have been working on that same vase when it happened. I really can’t remember.
I think it was a pinch pot.
I was standing at a table I shared with three or four other students, wrapping tubes of hand rolled clay around and around into the shape of a container, when someone came up behind me, grabbed my butt and squeezed.
I jumped in surprise, and said “Ohh!” or something.
Then I heard, “Hey, sweet cheeks!”
And laughter. All coming from the other side of the room.
I turned my head to see who it had been.
It was a girl I hardly knew though she had been in my classes since first grade.
Let’s call her Nancy.
She was a chunky but not unattractive girl from the other side of the room.
She walked back to her friends, both boys and girls, at her table, and they were all losing it over what had happened.
I blushed and turned back to my work, feeling like the clay my fingers molded.
I couldn’t even process what had happened.
Why had Nancy just walked over to me and pinched my butt?
It wasn’t even a playful pinch. It wasn’t grabbing someone with the palm of your hand and giving a squeeze. She had clawed into my flesh, secured a good hunk and pulled.
It was angry and mean.
I didn’t understand. What had I ever done to her?
I barely knew her. I hadn’t said more than ten words to her in eight years.
“You like that?” she asked from across the room.
I just kept working on my pot, looking at it as if it were the only thing left in the universe.
The others at my table were giggling, too.
I remember it like a scene in slow motion. Me rolling out and unwinding the clay. Everyone else laughing. Nancy smirking.
And then she came back and did it again!
I jumped and squealed.
But I did nothing. I said nothing.
She pinched me at least three or four more times. Maybe more.
And she said something each time.
And like it was on a script, always the laughter and guffaws.
Eventually I think I started to quietly cry.
That’s when it stopped mostly.
The others at my table were as silent as I was. When they saw my reaction, I think they got embarrassed.
We were all working with incredible concentration trying not to acknowledge what was happening.
I made sure not to turn and look behind me. But I could hear the snickers.
Where was the teacher?
The room had a strange L-shape. At the foot of the L was a kiln where she was diligently firing last week’s pottery. From where she was, she probably couldn’t see the rest of us working at our tables.
I don’t think she saw anything. She never said anything if she did.
When she returned to our side of the art room, she may have asked if I was okay. I’m not sure. I probably just shrugged it off. Maybe asked to go to the bathroom.
Why did this bother me so much?
Because I wasn’t asking for anyone to come over and touch me like that.
I just wanted to make my stupid pot. I just wanted to be left alone.
I didn’t want to be treated like anyone’s joke. I didn’t want my physicality to be the cause of anyone’s laughter.
It’s not that Nancy was a pariah or a terrible person or anything. If things had been different, I might have responded differently.
But when you’re a guy in high school, you aren’t allowed to be upset when a girl comes and pinches you.
You’re supposed to respond a certain way.
I couldn’t ask her to stop. I’m supposed to love it.
Even if it’s a joke.
Even if it’s a way to denigrate me in front of the whole class. Even if it’s a way to proclaim me the most undesirable boy in the whole room.
It felt like someone pointing at a banana peel in the trash and mockingly saying, “Yum! Yum!”
But I was the garbage.
It certainly made me feel that way.
I’m not sure why this has bothered me for so long.
Maybe it’s the feeling of powerlessness – that there was nothing I could do. Maybe it was a feeling that I should be reacting differently. I should be more assertive either telling her to leave me alone or maybe actually liking the physical contact.
I’m not sure how to explain it.
I was made to feel inferior and degraded.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve remained silent about it all these years. The only solution had seemed to be to forget about it and move on.
Yet doing so leaves a cold lump in your chest. Oh, it won’t kill you. But it’s always there. You just learn to live with it.
I suppose in writing about it, I’m trying to rid myself of that lump.
I don’t know if it will work. But I’m tired of carrying it around with me anymore.
We’re living in a remarkable moment. Women everywhere feel empowered to share their stories of abuse at the hands of men. Shouldn’t I feel empowered to share my story of abuse at the hands of a woman?
But there does seem to be a disconnect here. A disanalogy.
No matter who you are, everyone has been the victim at one point or another.
Whether you’re male or female, rich or poor, black or white – everyone has been on the losing side.
However, some people use that truth as an excuse to pretend that all groups have been equally targeted. They use it as a way to justify the marginalization and minimalization of women and people of color, for instance, groups that have been most often earmarked for abuse.
Let me be clear – I firmly reject that. I am not All Lives Mattering sexual harassment and abuse. Clearly, women have born the brunt of this burden and men have more often been the cause.
But that doesn’t mean that men are immune to being victimized or that women are incapable of being aggressors.
Perhaps that’s my point in writing this – to caution against easy expectations and easy labels.
Toxic masculinity exists because we have toxic expectations for men and boys. Our society molds them into the shape of our collective expectations.
It’s about time we expect more from men.
And it’s time we allow them the space to be hurt so that they, too, need no longer suffer in silence.