It’s difficult to discuss. It’s astonishing to grasp when the real numbers of women who have endured unwanted touching, comments about our bodies and even overt sexual assault were shared this week as part of a viral Twitter movement.
A national conversation about so-called locker-room banter, rape culture, misogyny and assault has proliferated after a TV tape was leaked revealing a vulgar conversation between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and TV host Billy Bush.
Reaction was swift. Author and social media giant Kelly Oxford started it off more than a week ago on Twitter: “Women: tweet me your first assaults. They aren’t just stats. ...”
Just hours later, according to The New York Times, Oxford “was getting as many as 50 responses per minute: often-explicit, first-person accounts of molestation. A hashtag had materialized: “#notokay.” The Twitter posts continued to pour in through the weekend. And by Monday afternoon (10/10), nearly 27 million people had responded or visited Ms. Oxford’s Twitter page.”
The overwhelming message: Women in America are ridiculed, objectified and assaulted. We are often unsafe simply because we are women. Every. Single. Day.
And as we talked in the newsroom, we discovered almost every female journalist had a story or stories to tell — from the awkward to the horrific.
Random comments about our body parts at school and in the workplace. Catcalls on the streets and in other public places. Unwanted advances. Sexual harassment. Assault.
There are 16 female journalists in the Statesman’s newsroom, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. We are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, married, single — representing all walks of life in the Treasure Valley.
We are sharing some of these journalists’ stories with you today.
Why? Because, frighteningly, “it” does happen to nearly all women.
And somehow, as a society, we need to need to collectively come to terms with this fact: “It” is not OK.
• • •
As an 18-year-old college student, I regularly ran long distances to strengthen my body and clear my mind.
I’ll never forget a run in which I was jarred out of my endorphin bliss by a hand that slapped my ass. A man on a bicycle had reached down and slapped me as he was riding by.
I didn’t see the man approaching, so it caught me off-guard. I recall feeling violated — what right did some stranger have to touch me that way? In broad daylight? On a public street?
• • •
When I was in junior high school, I joined a friend’s church. Our youth group leader, a high school senior, pressured me to have sex with him.
He said God would approve of him being my “first.” He said it was the right thing to do. I said no and stopped going to church because of this person.
Church members began calling me, asking why I stopped going. I was too confused, too ashamed and too angry to tell them why.
• • •
I was 20, home for Christmas break during college. I went to my best friend’s house to spend the night. Some of our friends came over.
They brought a guy who was in his mid-20s and happy to provide us with alcohol. I fell asleep in the living room that night and woke up to him kissing me. It was disgusting.
• • •
One night after playing in the band during a high school football game, I was putting my instrument away in the band room when a boy came up to me, grabbed me and kissed me. His buddy stood outside the door and snickered.
I was 14 and painfully shy. It was not what I imagined for my first kiss.
He did not stop there. He would find me in the hallways and pinch me on the butt and eventually started pinching me on the breast.
Most of the time, he snuck up behind me. I started watching for him to avoid getting anywhere near him. One afternoon, I saw him and his buddies at the end of the hall and I turned around to find another exit out of school.
I was too embarrassed to say anything to the teachers. It just made me feel worse about myself at a time when self-confidence is often not high anyway. Now that I have daughters, I’ve taught them to fight back and speak up.
• • •
I’m not sure I know any women who have not, at least once, been subjected to unwanted grabbing or groping. Not that many have talked to me about it — we tend not to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable, troubling and vaguely humiliating. It’s also ubiquitous, but we need to fight writing it off as just part of what happens when you’re female.
The first time it happened to me I was 16 and in a store parking lot when a grinning acquaintance, someone I’d never had a conversation with beyond “hello,” approached me and grabbed my breast. It was his birthday, so he was entitled, he explained.
• • •
After graduating from college, I moved to a big city and got my first job. I was on my way to work one morning in a crammed subway car — the kind of cramming where there’s no free railing to hang on to, and your face is millimeters from pressing into a stranger’s lapel.
I reached my stop and was squeezing out of the car when I felt someone’s hand tickling my butt. It was so weird to me, such a cliche to get fondled on a crowded subway, that I wasn’t even sure it had really happened. I never even turned around to see who had done it.
• • •
I was 19 and asleep in my dorm room when I woke up with a hand over my mouth and a man said, “Don’t scream or I’ll kill you.” I thought it was a joke. Then I got mad.
When he let go, I pulled on my robe that was on a chair next to the bed, stood up and demanded he leave. He grabbed me from behind and held a knife to my throat. Well, actually to my chin, since I ducked my head.
He started undressing, threatening me verbally but no longer touching me. I switched on the light. Now wearing only white briefs and black socks, he turned his back to me and peered nervously through the window blinds, brandishing what appeared to be a butcher knife.
He told me to take my robe off and turn off the light. I did neither. I started talking, thinking that if I could establish myself as a “person” he wouldn’t hurt me. I offered him some tea or coffee. Amazingly, he said yes.
I told him I had to go down the hall to get water for my hot pot. Thank God it was empty. He said, “OK, I’m trusting you” and waved the knife around.
I went down the hall and actually considered getting the water; I had given my word. Instead, I set the hot pot down and ran out of the dorm and down the street to the infirmary.
When campus police got to my room, the man was gone. They never caught him.
I grew up in that small town and never felt afraid, often walking alone at night. The night of the knife changed that.
The fear eventually faded but didn’t go away. The little cut on my chin healed quickly.
What lingered was anger that this man had wrecked my well-being. But so much worse has happened to so many women. And that’s what still makes me angry.
• • •
A fellow female reporter and I were sitting on a bench at C.W. Moore Park in Downtown Boise. It was the middle of a sunny day, and we were having an intense conversation. A man walked up to us, pulled down his pants and just stood there.
More than anything, I remember feeling annoyed, like, couldn’t he see we were in the middle of something?
In truth, it wasn’t threatening, more pathetic. Still, we were just having our private day, being adults in the world. We didn’t need some stranger’s body in the mix.
• • •
My first job, besides baby-sitting, was busing tables at a pancake house. One of the regular customers was a sweet elderly man who always came in alone and was a favorite of my sister and other waitresses.
George and I had nice chats. I was 16; he was probably in his early 70s.
A year later I ran into George when I was with a couple of friends, and he offered us a job helping with chores at his place. We worked for him on a couple of Saturdays and had pleasant conversations. There was never any whiff of lechery.
But the only time I ever went there alone, the same grandfatherly, lonely George put his hand on my breast, uttered some ridiculous line and tried to kiss me. I was blindsided and flustered and unable to confront him.
I jumped up and stammered some excuse about having to leave. I didn’t say anything to anyone in authority, but I did stop by the pancake house (at an hour when George never showed up) to warn the waitresses.
• • •
I’ve considered myself lucky since I haven’t suffered the same horrifying experiences most of my female friends have. And yet, I’ve been grabbed, called every derogatory word for women in the English language and met with more untoward advances than I can count. I first got hissed at by a man when I was 15, and it hasn’t stopped.
One scary moment happened when a man who was visiting one of my roommates made unwanted advances on one of my friends.
He grabbed her, put his mouth on her throat and said lewd things to her. She left. He was staying the night with us, and I went to bed early to avoid him. Later, he began stomping around the house, yelling, asking me to leave my room.
I was wondering if we should call the police or just get my roommate to escort him out. The man then walked into my room and stood over me. I remained very still, trying to figure out the best way to endure an assault if it were to happen. Should I fight? Or remain still and complacent to avoid further injury?
Thankfully, he left my room. That’s when I started screaming. My roommate made him leave.
I was hesitant to even share this story for fear of my account getting criticized: Why didn’t I do X, Y and Z to prevent the grossness of this man’s treatment?
But when I talk about this experience with women or people with minority identities, they are not surprised or even inquisitive. Instead they are commiserative and share their own stories. There are so many stories.
• • •
When I was 14, I was awakened in the early hours of the morning by a man sitting on the edge of my bed. It was our next-door neighbor.
I was sleeping on my stomach, and he started talking to me and rubbing my back. I remember him saying, “This won’t hurt.” I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I started talking to him about his daughter and about how I wanted him to leave. It took about 10 or 15 minutes to convince him to go home, though it seemed like an hour.
Eventually, he got up; I got out of bed and walked him out of the house. I never told my parents, either. I didn’t think they would believe me.
• • •
A couple months ago, my husband and I went to a friend’s house for a birthday party. We all hang out about once or twice a year. A male friend of ours decided to come up behind me and pinch my butt. I jumped.
Yes, we were all drinking. Yes, we are all friends. Do either of these two factors make it OK? No.
• • •
He jumped down from the playground equipment as I walked by and unfolded a piece of paper he had retrieved from his back pocket.
I was probably about 11 or 12. He was a few grades older than me and known for being a bully, so I tried to walk away, but he cut me off before I could escape to the safety of another part of the school yard.
He held the paper in front of me and smiled. “This is what you’re going to look like some day,” he said.
It was a poster of a naked woman, her breasts and vagina exposed in a sexual way I had never seen before.
I wanted to run, but I felt paralyzed, unsure of what to do.
Then he reached out and ran his fingers across my chest, trailing down to an area that until then I had only thought about when I needed to find a bathroom. “Men will put their penis in you,” he said.
It was violating and made me feel ashamed of my body.
I didn’t tell anyone, feeling that in some way my body — my very appearance — was responsible for his unwanted attention.
• • •
I was probably about 11 the first time I felt violated. I was walking down a busy street with my family when a hand grabbed the front of my jeans. I gasped and tried to figure out who had touched me, but I did not tell my parents.
It wouldn’t be the last time I would be touched in a public place, a hand on my breast or my butt. It makes you scared to be in crowds, even during the day. It’s a sad statement that women can’t be out in public without that fear.
• • •
One night in college, I was out at a bar with friends. A man at the bar kept striking up a conversation with me.
Eventually, he offered to buy me a drink. I’d never accepted a drink from a complete stranger, but decided to that night for some reason.
After finishing that drink, I felt as if I had been hit by a truck. I told friends to not let me out of their sight. We sat down elsewhere. I’m convinced, to this day, that that man put something in my drink. And I’m grateful to the friends who stayed with me and got me out of there. Because who knows what might have happened.
• • •
Where to even begin? Since I was 12 or so, going out in public has meant men yelling out car windows, making lewd gestures, trying to coax me into cars. It happened when I worked in food service in high school and college and now as a reporter.
“No ring? I’ll propose to you,” a 60-year-old man told 20-year-old me when I handed him his change. “I wouldn’t normally talk to a reporter, but I’ll make an exception because you’re pretty,” a man told me last month.
It’s impossible to remember all the slimy words, but harder to forget the physical assaults — men who have taken advantage of forced closeness on public transit or concerts to grope me.
Earlier this spring, I took a friend from out of town on Boise’s beloved Table Rock trail. We saw a mountain biker who doubled back, threw his bike to the side and began jogging up the trail ahead of us. Within minutes he was running downhill toward us, completely nude.
I dragged my friend behind a sagebrush, worried the man would try to touch one of us — fortunately he didn’t. My friend laughed it off. I never called the cops, embarrassed that I was so shaken up by what many of my friends chalked up as a bizarre encounter. I remember feeling like a once-safe place would no longer feel that way to me.
Maybe the worst part of all this is the fact that I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced something similar. We bond over the disgusting experiences and learn to look out for one another, and it’s comforting to be able to share that — but also depressing and frightening that we can.
Not every female journalist at the Idaho Statesman chose to share a story for this feature. Some shared more than one.