Every woman you know has a story like this one. They probably haven’t shared it. My story took place when I was 34. These stories are our normal experience. Your first reaction will probably be that it’s not THAT big of a deal. It is.
A few months ago, I was having dinner with my boyfriend, Nick. We were sitting at the bar in a busy restaurant, so people would occasionally come up to get drinks. This young man saw that Nick was drinking bourbon, asked for a recommendation and we had a conversation with him and his friends as they were waiting. They got their drinks and stayed around and kept chatting for a while.
I like people. I like learning about people. I like knowing details of their story beyond the usual things like age, job and where they’re from. I like looking people in the eye and really seeing them. It might be the first time they will feel seen all day.
As a woman, I have learned that there is a deceptively fine line between being seen as friendly and as being seen as flirt. I smile a lot, I laugh a lot, I ask lots of questions and pay attention. As a young teenager, not everyone was that friendly, open and non-judgemental so it was always assumed as flirting. My genuine interest in others, smiling, laughing a bit too loud and joking apparently became an invitation to men and a threat to women. Eventually, I accepted this as flirting and became every bit of a flirt because that seemed to be what made people the most comfortable. They could define flirting. Defining “friendly” is not as simple. And being too young to change that at the time, I believed that is how it had to be.
So instead of seeing my personality and openness as a strength, it became my greatest shame. I didn’t know how to not be friendly and bubbly without it being perceived as loaded with sexual intentions, so I played the part. As I grew up a bit and left the nest, I began to realize that being a flirt was a trap that I fell into. It became a perceived weakness that shamed me and a part of me that I settled into. Life taught me that I no longer wanted to play by those rules. Fast forward a decade through a marriage, a divorce, a move across the country, a second marriage, two kids, becoming a widow, suffering a traumatic brain injury, another move across the country and frankly, I have way too much life to live to give a shit about what others think or the filter they see me through. I love people. I love conversations. There is nothing suggestive or sexual about that. It’s just pure joy of living and wanting others to always see how valuable and wonderful they are. So I’m careful. I’m clear. I mention my boyfriend, my kids, my intentions, whatever it takes. I should not have to, but I know the reality all too well.
So back to the bar… we were all laughing, talking, having fun and then from behind me, one of them grabbed my butt. Not a simple pinch, but a full grab. Not on my shoulder or my arm to simply get my attention, but a private part of my body. My boyfriend was talking to another guy and didn’t see with all of the noise. I’m sure the guy waited until Nick wasn’t turned towards me. It was clear that the grabbing was intentional. I turned around and he had this kind of questioning smile on his face, like the gesture was a question waiting for an answer.
I immediately stood up and faced the guy, ready to square off. I stepped toward him clearly as an act of aggression. He acted like a complete idiot, dancing and trying to make a joke of it and I just felt like it wasn’t worth my time. He clearly did not have any idea what he had just done and I was not about to spend my night schooling him on women’s rights instead of enjoying a date night. I sat back down and prayed that he wouldn’t do it again because I would surely punch him. I know I talked less after that, focused on my food and kept quiet. Nick noticed the change and asked if I was okay and I said yes, I just wasn’t feeling well. He knew something wasn’t okay. though. They eventually wandered off and I was left feeling accosted and confused and shamed. I replayed my actions over and over in my head.
Did I somehow imply I wanted that?
Was I “too” friendly?
Is there a defining line of “too” friendly?
Did I smile too long? Make eye contact for too long?
Did I do something that gave him permission to do that?
Would he have done it again if I hadn’t stood up and confronted him?
I was sitting next to my boyfriend. Why would he do that when I clearly have a boyfriend and he was sitting right there next to me?
I tried to just brush it off and did not bring it up. It was still bothering me though. So later, as we were walking to the car, I asked Nick those questions, feeling a bit ashamed to even be making a big deal of it.
His reaction validated my feelings about the whole situation. He immediately wanted to head back to the bar. I stopped him and told him it was okay, I felt like I had fought the battle well enough, but thank you for respecting me enough to want to go back and loving me enough to know I didn’t need you to fight that battle.
He told me I absolutely did not deserve or ask for it and the guy was lucky he hadn’t known about it, because he would not have hesitated to punch him. I can’t remember the faces of the other guys we talked to even though we were in a longer and more meaningful conversation, but I can’t forget that guy’s face.
He traumatized me.
He assaulted me.
He took something from me.
As women, when do we learn it’s easier to just dismiss this type of behavior than to attack it? When do we start making excuses for being treated this way? When do certain men (not all men) decide that it is their right to touch a woman’s body without her consent? Unfortunately the more “powerful” the man, the more entitled he feels.
I have an 11 year old daughter. She is everything beautiful in the world. She is innocence and kindness and love and joy. I wish I could protect her from the world forever, but I know I have to teach her to fight her own battles.
As she enters the relational world, here is what she will know:
Your body is your body. Period. You decide how you feel about your body and what you will and won’t do.
A boy being mean to you is NOT his way of showing you he likes you. A boy being mean is just a boy being mean. A boy showing you he likes you is opening a door for you, smiling at you or giving you a compliment.
Be straightforward and clear with a boy like that. Tell him that you are not interested in even having a friend that only can give you negative attention.
You do not “owe” a boy anything who is nice to you. They are not doing you a favor by being nice to you. They are showing human decency. Never expect less.
They are also not doing you a favor by including you therefore you do not have to “give” them anything.
You are powerful.
You are a force to be reckoned with.
Despite the way you may be treated at times, all of these statements are true.
Remember who you are.
Please share your story so others can feel they are not alone. Hashtag it with 2 tags. First, use the tag #wheniwas without your age and then in a separate hashtag include the age you were during the incident you are sharing, e.g. #wheniwas34. Thank you for sharing your experience and helping women everywhere feel understood, feel heard and become stronger.
Watch our First Lady, Michelle Obama, address this very issue and do so with grace, humility and honesty.
And I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world.