Comedian and activist Lizz Winstead started a hashtag on Twitter, #MeAt14, asking women to share photos of their 14-year-old selves to ask how a 14-year-old kid can be old enough to give consent. This is in response to allegations that Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore pursued a relationship with a 14 year-old girl when he was 42 which some have defended as a ‘consensual relationship.’
My friend Amy dug out my yearbook photo from 1984 so I could chime in. Here’s my tweet
#MeAt14 1984, 9th grade. I was in the band, wearing a retainer, & had a paper route. Algebra II was hard. Had to cope with parish priest & close family member as predators. Didn’t need #NoMoore then, don’t now. Thanks @lizzwinstead pic.twitter.com/PNAwkpHBMP
— Sue Kerr (@PghLesbian24) November 13, 2017
I began thinking about the situations where I was a kid and exposed to these lessons. Then I began thinking about the experiences I’ve had as an adult that reinforce the all-encompassing truism that men have the power. They make rules, they break rules, and that’s that. They are the rules. Resistance is importance, but speaking of these experiences out loud is a HUGE deal. It flies in the face of what we are taught from a very young age.
I keep asking people what they are doing to do, not when its one of “our” famous/political guys. But when it is their brother-in-law or dearest friend from high school or someone that right now your mind is not suggesting to you because there is no way they are that kind of guy. Except, data, right?
I started making this list. It is far from complete. But it is all that I can endure. I fully expect 75% of the people who read this to deny or downplay what I share. Somehow expecting to not be believed makes it easier to say it.
The time at a work party when a male board member approached our group of three female employees to say in a faux whisper ‘I want to fuck <insert name of other female staffer standing with us>.’ He was married to someone she knew, but hit on her repeatedly. When management learned about this, they simply adjusted assignments so she didn’t have to work with him. He remained on the board of directors.
In college, I was a Resident Assistant (RA) which meant a close working relationship with security guards. The guards who rubbed my back while talking about business. Or squeezed my shoulder like they were caressing me. Grown men who stared at the breasts of me at 18 when we were alone in the lobby at 12:30 AM.
The time when I was on the phone with a male colleague at another nonprofit who said ‘I’d like you to sit on my lap sometime’ in the middle of a professional conversation. He’s still floating around local social justice circles to this day.
When I was an intern, I learned that another intern was dating her field instructor. I inquired about that to my own field instructor who was friends with both of them. I was told that it was appropriate because field instructors weren’t actual supervisors and couldn’t impact a grade since we were pass/fail as interns. I also learned that I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about things like codes of ethics from the school of social work because the men apparently had that all handled.
The parish priest who abused the boys, my friends, at least two of whom did not survive to adulthood. The priest sent to replace him. Learning the original parish priest is part of my extended family tree.
When I was a front line worker and received lesbian porn imagery in a group email sent by a senior director at the organization. At least three other directors were on the email chain and none of them addressed it. When I filed a formal complaint, I got a lot of lectures about collegiality and team building. I had to point out that my partner was an attorney and this was a violation of the City Human Relations Ordinance before anyone took me seriously.
The time I was babysitting around age 22 and the Dad asked me to help him finish getting dressed. The Mom agreed. He put his arms around me to show me how to fasten his cummerbund and then asked me to make sure it fit snug around his waist. I was being paid $7.50/hour.
Different director, same employer, was known for lots of staring at women’s breasts. He did it to me so I again just casually mentioned my partner was a lawyer and his eyes snapped back up to mine very quickly. He was fired for not doing his job, but the rest of us just had to deal with it. Another younger female colleague ‘borrowed’ my response and claimed she was dating a lawyer, too. It worked.
When a drunken woman I didn’t know who told me she was a lesbian groped me and at least four other people, but the bartender didn’t throw her out.
When a male supervisor told me if I lost weight, I would be a better asset. When a potential date told me the same thing 15 years earlier and all of my friends agreed with him.
The fact that at every job I’ve had since graduating, intern supervisors have awkwardly close relationships with interns. If anything was said by the rest of us, we were accused of jealousy over someone having a favorite rather than acknowledging that not all interns are treated fairly. Also, the assumption that we should be grateful for getting extra-special attention because it meant we were more highly prized. Finally, the conclusion that the people getting this special degree of attention were always young, slender, attractive white women.
The boys I grew up with who thought holding us down and groping us was consensual. Not awkward adolescent sexual experimentation. Two or three boys pinning a girl, promising to be their boyfriends if they ‘let them’ do what they wanted. As if we had options.
Teachers who touched the girls inappropriately. The band teacher who had private meetings with the young female dance captains. The football coaches who turned a blind eye when the players insisted on using cheerleader bodies as ‘desks’ for signing paperwork.
One incident I witnessed that took me a long time to understand. Our senior year of high school, a popular girl ran against a popular boy for a class leadership role – treasurer, maybe? She won so the senior boys decided to punish the senior girls who voted for her by dating sophomores. They traded sophomore girls like baseball cards. I thought it was juvenile and disgusting, but I never really put it into the context of sexual power. And what a lesson those boys learned somewhere.
It was just last week that I finally had a clarifying conversation with my 78-year-old aunt about the predator in my family and, this is a very important AND, the people who protected him. It is far from clear how many predators there truly were. It is far from clear how many victims and survivors. But it is rather clear how many people were accessories to the crime and the protection of the predator.
I wish that I could write this from a stance of strength and determination. I wish I had faith that good people will do the right thing and protect the vulnerable. I wish I thought my words and memories were powerful enough to protect anyone.
But I am familiar with decades of denial and disbelief. I can still taste the blood inside my mouth from biting back my words. I must still to this day play nice with the predators whose presence in my life I cannot unravel, no matter who believes me.
It was about a year ago that I learned of a white cis het woman who was highly placed in a local anti-violence program. She had retweeted in support of Donald Trump, using the hashtag #SafeSpacesSuck Lots of women were outraged, but no one would hold the organization accountable. Fear, frustration, fundraising, fellowship.
That’s why I believe – based on how local progressive women responded to this – that when the accusations come home to roost, there will be a sudden change. Not for the good. Not a reckoning. The silencing of women who speak out about the everyday folks who are important in our day-to-day lives will continue; they will experience more of the same. Threats of job loss, lawsuits, or just that deafening silence.
Denial of the true nature of sexual harassment and abuse is far from our line of sight. Good men and women, innocent young people, have stood silently by for decades. Their complicity is bound up in the stories so many of us have to share. And the duplicity we’ve experienced over and over again.
No, my words are not brave or courageous or life-altering. They are simply my words. And I know that it is necessary to say #MeToo and #MeToo and #MeToo over and over for my own sake.
I’m blogging every day in November, for good and for bad as part of #NaBloPoMo – because all of my stories matter. I’m also hoping to find 30 total new donors to support our blogging efforts, especially #AMPLIFY. Will you contribute?
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