“A shockingly casual case of sexual assault” is how the author of The Liars Club Mary Karr describes an incident she experienced by a stranger in broad daylight in an open essay she penned in The New Yorker.
Karr had enjoyed lunch with her son and a “gentleman caller” when she decided to walk home through New York City on a sunny “but not steaming” day. She writes:
“Then an approaching guy chatting equably with a tall friend dodged at me to grab my crotch. I don’t mean brushed by it maybe accidentally; I mean he grabbed between my legs with a meaty claw, big as a waffle iron. He also called me the C-word with breath that stank of beer. Then he passed on into a sandwich shop with his buddy.”
Immediately she felt shame, wondering how she had incited the attack, even taking stock of what she was wearing — a modest dress and platform slides. Looking around at other women, she realized, “If this sick bastard will do this to me in broad daylight, what’s he doing to these young’uns at 3 AM?” Deciding not to let the guy get away with it, she screamed at him as he ordered a sandwich — only getting support from a homeless guy. She called 911 and chased the guy several blocks until a cop car pulled up and handcuffed him. Although he wasn’t charged, the 30-something guy did spend the night in the cells; Karr felt vindicated.
And yet, Karr goes on to note that while 20 percent of women in the U.S. have been raped (every 109 seconds an American is sexually assaulted; every 8 minutes the victim is a child), only 6 of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. Karr argues that 100 percent of women have to some degree been sexually assaulted, asking: How many women have endured an unwelcome penis pressed up against their leg at a party, being fondled, lunged at, felt up, squeezed, or verbally assaulted?
It was only when I read this did it occur to me of all the assaults that I have brushed off in my life.
Like when I was 13 and standing in a Belfast city center looking in a shop window, waiting for my bus, when a group of young boys in school uniforms came past. One of them ran past me and stuck his hand up my skirt. It terrified me. I was shoved up against the window of the shop and I froze. Luckily his hand only grazed my inner thigh, and then in a flash he and his buddies were gone.
But it haunted me.
Just as it is did when on vacation in Greece, a man masturbated in front of my friend and I on a deserted beach.
Or when walking along a tube station platform in London, aged 31, with my male best friend, two guys walked past and one grabbed at my breast. Luckily, I moved just as he went for me and he ended up grabbing my arm, which at first confused me. My male friend stopped and realized exactly what the man had intended and was about to go after him, but he vanished.
Perhaps the most bizarre but disturbing assault that I endured happened at work. I was standing with several colleagues in a TV station where I was a host, talking about being pregnant — having just announced that I was expecting. One colleague explained he knew because he noticed my cup size increasing — “a sure giveaway.” As uncomfortable as I was with this conversation, I then didn’t expect a male producer to suddenly say, “Your breasts look firmer, are they?” and reach out and press on them. I was so stunned I just accepted what he had done; I think I even laughed. Only later did I feel horrified that in public, he had groped me.
So it is of no surprise to discover that in a recent survey in the U.K. of over 1,500 women, researchers found that 52 percent had experienced “unwanted behavior” at work, including inappropriate jokes, sexual advances, and groping. Sadly 79 percent of these women did not tell their employers it was happening, as they were concerned it would affect their career prospects — or that they wouldn’t be believed.
And what if that inappropriate behavior comes from your boss? At my first job as an earnest news reporter at a cable TV station, the boss only talked to me as he stared at my chest. The channel featured shows with semi-clad women, so it was as if the entire male staff felt it was excusable to drunkenly ask us to “show us your tits” at staff gatherings. Eventually I stopped going, tired of the lewd comments and leering.
All too often we brush off or try to justify what is, in essence, sexual assault. The Everyday Sexism project is a forum where women can catalogue instances of sexism they experience on a daily basis. A quick scan of the stories shows how many are several rungs up from sexism and have crossed the line to assault. In so many cases the women wish they could go back and report what happened.
Karr believes that guys who make creepy comments or grab you on the street, aren’t just “oafs,” but people who get a perverse thrill from mortifying you. She states, “that is why I chased the grabber down.” Why didn’t I report the producer at my work? I wish I had. Or in front of colleagues, asked my boss to look me in the eye rather than my breasts when talking to me. I wish I’d called the police on the boys in the street when I was 13, and the man on the Greek beach.
I am going to raise my daughter to call out ANY behavior — even in jest — that makes her feel uncomfortable, ashamed, or awkward about her body. We have to stop worrying about whether or not we will be believed, whether we will be seen as “unable to take a joke,” whether or not it will affect our jobs. More often than not, perpetrators are counting on our fear, our shame, our silence, to ensure they can continue with this behavior unchecked. A Google of the laws in the U.K. states that:
A person (A) commits an offense if —
(1) he intentionally touches another person (B),
(2) the touching is sexual,
(3) B does not consent to the touching, and
(4) A does not reasonably believe that B consents
Under this definition, I have been a victim of sexual assault on all those occasions — a crime which, under U.K. law, carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
It is time for women to no longer downplay such acts, to normalize them. It is time for us to take a stand against those who say we are making a fuss or should “take a compliment” or “enjoy the attention.”
If we witness a woman being assaulted, we shouldn’t avert our eyes or accuse her of inviting the attention because of her clothing or her behavior. We need to make our voices heard. We need to assert that behavior like this is a crime and one that must be taken seriously. We aren’t overreacting, we aren’t attention-seeking — we are merely refusing to tolerate this behavior any longer.
We all need to be more like Mary Karr.