This week, when I read the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, I wished I could say I was shocked, but I’m not. The accusations against him are so familiar to me. I recognize my experiences along the same spectrum, in different professional arenas, particularly as a writer, though in my case, I was the victim of sexual harassment.
Some of these experiences occurred with older, powerful men, and even on a couple of occasions, with older, powerful women. There were sexual flirtations or outright sexual overtures.
Sometimes, I spoke out. Other times, I simply refused to respond to the banter or invitations, hoping if I ignored it, everything would be all right. But it never was all right, no matter how I tried to handle it.
Instead, I experienced emotional abuse, public shaming, hostility/bullying by the harassers’ acolytes, gaslighting, loss of community, career sabotage, and the loss of close friends who didn’t want to be tainted by me, who suddenly saw me in a different light, once I criticized someone so revered. When I say, I get why some women don’t want to come forward, I mean it.
Out of my many experiences being sexually harassed, here are just a few.
This is what one writer said to me, while at the dinner table: “Your southern accent makes me want to mount you from behind.”
Other writers were there, all men, all very well-known, and they laughed. I kept cutting my lamb chop into pieces—this was a free, expensive dinner–and the harasser asked, “What do you think about what I just said.” I said, “I don’t think anything, but these lamb chops are delicious.”
And that was that, but my harasser took my name off the poster listing distinguished visitors to the college.
In another year, this is what another writer said to me, while standing on a porch in front of three other famous writers: “Your teeth are beautiful.”
I said, “Thank you so much.”
Then, he said, “We both have big bellies, so let’s rub our bellies together.”
I didn’t say anything back.
One of the writers on the porch was a woman; she laughed and told my harasser, “You’re too much.” One of the other writers–a man– said, “Hey [name withheld], that’s not cool. Stop that.”
But later, after I ignored this harasser’s other, repeated advances, he told me, “Your body is so big. You scare people. So maybe, you shouldn’t talk in workshop. Be quiet from now on.”
Then, other women at the conference came to me, complaining that the harasser frequently debated the appearance of unshaved versus shaved genitals.
Over a ten-day period at that conference, things progressed, and not in a good way. First, I talked to an older woman who was featured at the conference. She advised me to report.
I went to the director of the writing conference. I gave him the names of the writers who had been on the porch. I told the director that other women were complaining about sexually explicit comments. And I’d been silenced in the workshop and comments had been made about my body. I started crying and the director said, “I’ll look into it.”
Remembering the one man who’d stood up to the harasser, I was hopeful, but the next day, director came back to me and said, my harasser had denied the charges and so had the other writers who’d been on the porch. And that was that. The older woman who had given me advice was never invited back to that conference and neither was I.
And this is what a third writer said to me, after asking me to stop by their room at night, and after answering the door wearing only underwear: “I’d like to lie on top of you. I bet it’s so nice there. I bet you feel so soft.” I said nothing back to them, and they came and stood closer.
I smiled–always a smiler, that was me–and went back to my room. The next day, the person pretended nothing had happened and I did, too, but later, I heard this third harasser had called me “insane” in a meeting of other writers. And suddenly, other, similar, bad words about me were traveling around.
I told my writer-friends what had happened, and asked, had that moment in the person’s room led to this sudden trashing of my reputation? But my writer-friends told me, “Oh, that didn’t mean anything. You know how you always take things wrong.” One even told me, “Honi, you need to get over being so arrogant. You think everybody wants you.”
I have memories of trying to explain what had happened with my different experiences with sexual harassment, when I found my voice spiraling into tears. I couldn’t help it, no matter how calm I’d start out. I’d tremble, recalling the moment. How I’d been a victim, when I’ve always pretended to be so strong. How I had tried to be classy, to be a lady, to lean to the right when my harasser leaned left, but always, I lost the game.
I’d ask, if what happened didn’t mean anything, then why did my harassers’ friends stop speaking to me? Why wouldn’t they meet my eyes when I saw them at writing conferences? And why wasn’t I invited to this writing event or that one, when every other person in my cohort had been invited? Was I not talented anymore? Did people really think I was crazy?
On a couple of occasions, I’d hear back, “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re the problem? That maybe you need to work on yourself?”
And of course, those questions bewildered me. Certainly, I needed to work on myself. I was a young person, and many young folks are messy and not very well-behaved. I mean, don’t all young folks need to work on themselves? Isn’t that the point of old people yelling out their front doors, “Hey you crazy kids, get off my lawn”?
But still, I questioned my perceptions. I needed affirmation–to make sure I was telling the truth–so I told my stories repeatedly over the years, going over details with various people to try to prove to them, no, I wasn’t crazy.
And yes, they were right when they told me, everyone wasn’t attracted to me. And I knew that. And yes, I think I’m cute, but that’s never been part of my PR package. As someone who’s battled weight issues all my life, I’ve relied on my brains for my beauty.
But harassment isn’t about attraction, though it took me decades to figure that out. I just didn’t want to believe that an older, powerful person I admired (or even, outright adored and worshipped), a person who could have easily found willing sexual partners would want to sexually flirt with and/or procure sex from a person who didn’t return their desires. And not only that, would go out of their way to hurt that young person, when they didn’t get the attention or physical activity they wanted.
Now that I’m fully grown and in the second half of my life, I realize that, pretty or not, fat or not, neurotic or not, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my perceptions. People said what they said and they did what they did. They sexually harassed me. And truly—finally—that was that.
Even after all I’ve lost for being plainspoken, I’m glad that I said my piece in the few instances I did, behind my own name, instead of hiding. I won’t criticize other women who haven’t done that, though. We all must do what’s best for ourselves.
But as someone who has had to publicly go it alone many times, I can tell you, when you try to stand up for yourself, it’s still incredibly lonely out there.