When I was sixteen or so, my dad, wearing his "Old Testament angry prophet" face, leaned into me and announced, "All men are wolves."
Turned out he was the wolf. First he tried to seduce me, subtly exposing himself when my brother and I came to bid him goodnight, staring lasciviously at my breasts as I bounced downstairs in a two-piece swimsuit. Then, the denouement: alone together on a summer Saturday, he pulled me onto his lap, laid his fingers against the crotch of my floral capris, and began rubbing. I can almost recall the scent of his Old Spice aftershave, hear his quickening breath in my ear, feel the irritating pressure against my clitoris. Somehow I escaped before it went further. Dad never acknowledged what he did, never apologized. Physically, I was unharmed. But the emotional impact festered—an untended wound.
Like so many other young women, I couldn't speak of what happened. Shoved the memory deep into a dank cellar in my mind. Forgot. Or so I thought. Instead, I lived out the harm—had meaningless, unsatisfying sex with men whose names I hardly knew and wouldn't remember the following day. Why I did this was probably a combination of many things: spite, rebellion, lack of self esteem, reaction to betrayal, a belief that sex should be enjoyable and if I had it with enough men I'd find one with whom it would be satisfying.
I didn't speak up. Who would believe me? After all, my father was a church deacon, an upstanding family man, a World War II hero. There was no one to tell.
Dad would deny it. My parents had already labeled me the "troublemaker." Maybe I'd been at fault. Best to paper over any recollection of that Saturday.
Only later, as an adult, did I come to understand that I had options when men grabbed my butt, demanded that I climb in the back seat of their car, or insisted I was obligated to relieve a case of blue balls. I could refuse, could hurl my anger at an aggressor. As a waitress, I was required to shove my body into skimpy outfits designed to enhance horndog male fantasies. Perhaps our sex-kitten costumes gave the impression of availability—that it was okay to touch, to squeeze and more.
When I worked in a hotel cocktail lounge, a customer would sometimes drop his room key on my tray, as if I might want to trot upstairs at two a.m. and bestow a blow job. Once, a group of college guys began tossing ice cubes from their drinks at me, aiming for my cleavage. Earlier, one of them had "accidentally" let his hand brush my upper leg as I leaned over to place his drink on the table. The ice cube fusillade ignited my anger. Without thinking, I'd snatched a draft Coors Light from my tray, sending a urine-yellow arc of beer across their table. I'd thrown highball glasses at ass-grabbers, cursed and chased them out of the lounge into the lobby, shouting obscenities at full volume. Hotel guests turned in astonishment at the spectacle.
So why wasn't I able to unleash that anger when a senior correctional officer made crude remarks to me at San Quentin State Prison, where I worked? Was it because I was uncertain of my status—acutely aware of the power imbalance? More likely, it was because our supervisor—the control sergeant—sat two feet away, heard it all, and said nothing. Just kept chomping and puffing on his twenty-five-cent cigar. The creepo cop, whom I'd secretly named "The Blimp" because of his grotesque obesity, once remarked, "Hey, you gonna count inmates by dropping your drawers and backing up to each cell?" He mimicked the move, patting his extra-wide rump. Nearby, the sarge busied himself with the cell change sheet. Back then, sexual harassment awareness training didn't exist. There was no reporting mechanism for abuse. You either sucked it up or you quit. It took losing a few million-dollar lawsuits for the Department of Corrections to institute harassment prevention training and assign staff to handle complaints.
But classes and a new policy didn't keep some male staff from doing stupid shit. A couple of years later, I was bent over the front of a prison maintenance truck, peering into the engine compartment, looking for drugs or weapons. My uniformed buttocks were in the air when someone came behind me, clutched my hips, and pushed his dick against my backside. Too startled to put a fist in the offender's groin, I'd yelped and turned my head. It was another cop, a man I'd mistaken for a friendly, decent guy.
"Hagan, what the heck?" I'd stuttered as he dropped his hands.
A sly grin lifted the corners of his mouth. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself." Hagan's eyes twinkled.
I felt soiled, dirty, violated. Impotent too, unable to express the depth of my rage, the cumulative effect of years of harassment and unwanted touching.
Mad more at myself than at Officer Hagan for letting him get away with treating me like his personal sex toy, I ended up complaining to my therapist the following week. She urged me to confront the man. A few days later I did. It was unsatisfying—he didn't actually apologize. And I held back my anger like a timid child. I couldn't explain my reticence. Was I afraid to reveal my fury?
What makes men believe it's okay to pull this kind of crap? Do they think it's a compliment, an affirmation of a woman's desirability? I can still recall a crimson-cheeked guy with orange hair who'd walked into a bar where I worked and pinched my ass before he'd even ordered a drink. It wasn't his first time. But it was going to be his last. Hollering at full volume, I said, "Keep your filthy hands off me, you creep. What's your problem, anyway? You can't get a woman, so you come in here and grab my ass..."
His face flushed, he backed toward the door as other patrons looked up from their Bloody Marys and Irish coffees.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I thought you'd like it."
"Like it?" I'd screamed. "I do not like being assaulted."
The ass-grabber never returned.
Put-downs and calling out unacceptable behavior worked some of the time. During my years at San Quentin, I'd verbally embarrassed several serial masturbators—the inmates who'd wait for me to walk by their cells as they stood in front of the bars, slamming the ham. Using my strongest voce forte, I'd say, "Hey you, give me a magnifying glass if you're gonna put on a show." Nearby prisoners hooted and hollered at the perpetrator, "F—ing stop that shit, asshole." Most did.
Some harassment occurs in private settings, without witnesses, which makes exposing the perpetrators more challenging. Will the accuser be believed? It's taken courageous women who've risked trolling, disparagement, public shaming, and threats of lawsuits to publically expose their abusers and harassers. People only speak up when they feel safe or they've had it with the bullshit. Still, many accused perpetrators continue to deny culpability, to denigrate and intimidate their victims
A few celebrity offenders have acknowledged what they did and the harm they caused. However, they dilute their culpability by partially excusing their actions. One example celebrity statement: "I never showed a woman my dick without asking first." The man misused his power, pressuring women to watch him masturbate. Often, sexual harassment, and even assault, is about power more than lust.
I think back to that long-ago Saturday when my dad put his hands on me. He was in control—made the house payment, paid for my clothes, and allowed me to drive the family car from time to time. He'd made it clear he had the power, once saying, "As long as I'm paying the bills, you have to do what I say."
Mostly I've forgiven my dad, dead now nearly two decades. We never talked about what happened. There's no point in carrying the anger from my teen years, no reason to debase myself ever again by having meaningless sex with strangers. I applaud the women who've spoken out, sometimes years or even decades after the abuse. It's never too late to reclaim one's self-worth.
Title image "Silence" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.