Warning: can be triggery for incidents of sexual harassment and angst–no gory details. If such things bother you, best not read. I’ll cut this in LJ.
There’s a reason I have my friendly but assertive/aggressive persona in public settings. It’s called growing up female, blond, and big-busted while being a smart, nerdy girl with a lot of self-confidence issues.
The first incident I recall happened in third grade. I had been transferred from my regular school to a nearby school due to overcrowding, and my parents had thought it would be kinder to put me in a different school where a godmother could watch over me. It wasn’t the best choice, in part because it put me in a place where I had to deal with daily bullying by a boy on my walk home. The bullying escalated to physical attack. He routinely slugged me in the gut. Every afternoon. Every walk home. For a week and a half.
One day, I had my umbrella. The boy in question came after me. He was pleasant at school, well-liked, and I really did want to be friendly with him. He led with an innocuous comment, then followed up with–yes–a punch in the gut. I reacted with a smack/poke in his gut with my umbrella.
I had no further problems with that boy. I learned.
Fast forward through several years of bullying based on being an outsider in yet another school. I developed early, was set up with boys as part of teasing by other girls, dealt with the routine that happened at my junior high of boys snapping my bra, stepping on the back of my shoes, and otherwise being obnoxious jerks. At the same time, I watched Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and enjoyed Ruth Buzzi’s treatment of Arte Johnson as the Dirty Old Man (hitting him over the head with her purse or her umbrella when his propositions got to be too much). I emulated Ruth Buzzi when I got bugged, and things got better.
At the same time, my growing breasts also subjected me to a lot of scary harassment in situations outside of school. This was the late 60s-early 70s, and a young girl like me with big breasts and long blond hair really had problems walking the street alone without enduring catcalls, whistles, and other letching behaviors. I learned to ignore being yelled at, because anything further escalated the behaviors into unsafe areas, and I wasn’t at the point where I felt comfortable flipping groups of men off.
Then the really scary thing happened. My parents and I were out fishing in a big reservoir, something we did on a regular basis. I was wearing a peasant blouse my mother had made for me, one I really loved. But it revealed my cleavage and my breasts. Some drunken fishermen saw us. They started driving their boat around ours, letching, hollering, and leering, tossing out beer cans as they circled us. My father yelled at them. They didn’t stop for the longest time, and their wake threatened to swamp our boat. Other fishermen came by, and they went away.
I learned. I also didn’t wear that blouse very much after that. I don’t like wearing peasant blouses any more.
High school was better. I wore short skirts, practiced falling off of 50s-era platform shoes that I’d inherited from my mother, and hung out with a nerdy crowd.
I went to college. More exposure to catcalls and letching. I dated a Libyan guy for a few months, and became known and respected amongst the Libyan men for a.) respecting their faith while being clear about sticking to my faith and b.) not going to bed with any of them. We teased each other, but it was on the level of joking, and we all knew it. In return, I could hang out with the guys and no one, repeat, NO ONE, bothered me on campus. The guys were in the student union at odd hours when some really scary folks would hang out there, and I could sit with them and be safe.
I moved on from the Libyan group. I went through a sequence of boyfriends who all wanted me to mend their pants. I went on a date with one guy, pleasant person, excellent date–who then went out and tried to commit suicide afterwards. I was told I needed to talk to him as part of his rehabilitation. He told me he did it because he didn’t feel worthy. Now I wonder what happened to him. Meanwhile, I felt awful because I had done something to him–what, I wasn’t sure, but for some reason it was felt to be my fault.
I dated a man who moved away. He was still young and immature, and his father warned me off of him. It was my first time being seen as a predatory female, and I was confused by it. This same guy came up $1.50 short of having the funds to get a bus ticket to come see me. He didn’t call. He didn’t take my calls. I got an apologetic letter a week later, where he said he’d gone to see a movie instead.
I hooked up with a man who seemed pleasant at first. We shared a living situation called a “quad,” where each of us had separate sleeping and living quarters but shared a kitchen and bathroom. We went to bed. Then the red flags started flying. He got possessive. He got angry when he was told no. He showed me explicitly how he could break into my room using a foot-long Bowie knife.
I learned. I didn’t say no again until I had moved out. He stalked me and my family for two-three years after that, frightening my elderly parents (and Dad had been in WWII in the Italian theater). He moved into an apartment complex behind the coed cooperative house I lived in, got drunk at night, and bellowed my name across the alleyway. He came by the house once, and was chased away by the bigger and more aggressive men of that coop (I had to love the drunken redneck resident guy who, when alerted to the danger by another woman, came staggering up from the basement, bellowing and hollering like Thor). None of the men who chased him off were ever involved with me–they were offended by his harassment of me. He only stopped a couple of years later when he showed up on my doorstep and I informed him that my boyfriend at the time and our attorney were in the apartment behind me. My parents moved to a gated community. I lived in mixed households where the men were people I could trust as allies.
There was a rapist in my college neighborhood. I had to go out at night, but I tried to call my boyfriend at the time when I’d leave where I was at (much more difficult in the pre-cell phone era). I didn’t let my boyfriend’s interests defer me from going out independently to do different things. He was working, I was going to school. One night a male fitting the MO of that rapist came out from behind a dumpster and moved toward me. I ran as hard as I could as he chased me. Luckily, I was close to my apartment and made it without a problem.
Eventually, I married. I had a son. I learned that sometimes the presence of a child and a spouse didn’t defer the harassment, but the combined outrage of my husband and myself would. My son started going to the same sf conventions I did. We developed a code where I’d let him know if I needed backup.
There are other incidents, other times, but that’s a pretty good summary for what I went through and how I managed it. I’m one of the lucky ones. I learned to be aggressive in the face of harassment, mouthy, and developed a good offense. I also learned to partner up, first with men, and then other women, to keep harassers at bay. Additionally, I developed a radar for the difference between jokey flirtation and creepy stalking, and created my own personal line in the sand for when that happens. My line might not work for other people, either one way or another. I just developed what works for me.
My story really isn’t that different from any other woman’s. Talk to anyone my age, and unless they’ve had an extremely sheltered life, my guess is that they’ve had similar experiences.
I just figured that maybe it is my turn to share.