“I like those pants, boy… but I think they would look better on my bedroom floor!”
It started… when did it start?
I am not sure I even noticed it when it first began. I was too innocent. It was probably way over my head. The first time a man looked at me that way, I doubt I saw it. The first time that a guy felt entitled to tell me what he wanted from me, I doubt I grasped his thinly veiled meaning. But I do know that, whenever it happened, I must have been younger than twelve years old.
Back then, people always thought I was older than I was, which is kind of funny, because these days people tend to think I’m younger. When I was eleven people thought I was sixteen. When I was sixteen people thought I was twenty one. It was all wishful thinking.
It wasn’t that I had “developed” spectacularly fast or anything. I think it was because I was a sad, quiet, smart kid, attributes which people interpreted collectively as ‘maturity.’ I was socially awkward with my own age group and often preferred to talk to adults, and I trusted adults more than my own peers. Of course I was vulnerable.
But I was raised right. My mom taught me all that good stuff about respect and boundaries. So when in sixth grade a male teacher started behaving extremely inappropriately towards me and towards the girls in my class, I knew enough to report his ass. Apparently my complaint was investigated. He was gone soon after.
Sadly, that was probably the last time that I was able to respond to sexual harassment in any effective way at all. Soon I had become so traumatized by the constant barrage of stares, leers, innuendos, and come-ons that I completely lost my ability to draw boundaries. Over time, my defenses were battered down, and in that ruined state they remain to this day.
On the street, on the bus, at school, in virtually any place that other human beings gathered, I experienced harassment. Some of it was fairly extreme. I have had my chest grabbed. I have had my crotch grabbed. One time, at work, I had a guy ask me for a hand job. Another time, a guy to whom I had hardly been introduced to felt entitled to grab me and kiss me, with tongue. And those are only a few of the more memorable incidents. And of course there were the comments, the things shouted on the street or asked point blank at menacingly close range, far too many of them remember.
“Ooh, you are just too sexy!”
“Do you like to be fucked hard? All bottom boys like to be fucked hard.”
Of course it was worse before transition. It was constant when the world saw me as female. Straight cis guys were the main culprits back then, along with a handful of entitled butches. But since transition I’ve gotten a fair amount of sexual harassment, too. Some of it has come from gay men. Some of it comes from transphobic dykes who are trying to put me “back in my place.” Some of it comes from straight cis men who happen to know I am trans. That’s the ugliest shit of all and it gives me a headache to try and figure it out. Probably some are just trying to cut me down to size, make me act how they think I should as a “woman” or whatever. Some, I think, may be dealing with their homosexual attraction to me by trying to erase my gender. An awkward situation: I think I’m a dude, and you think you’re straight. Only one of us can be right…
But of course, the absence or presence of actual sexual attraction in sexual harassment is utterly irrelevant, since the object of aggressive, objectifying, and threatening harassment is highly unlikely to reciprocate it anyway. The whole thing is about power and oppression more than it is about desire. That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise me that a lot of the sexual harassment I have experienced has been liberally sprinkled with homophobia and transphobia (in addition, of course, to overwhelming misogyny). I think anyone who has ever identified as a queer woman probably knows the all too familiar refrain of
“You and your girlfriend are both so sexy, I wanna watch you together sometime!”
And I think every trans person knows how it feels to be asked, with prurient curiosity and avid salacious interest, about hormones, about surgery, about everything under their clothes and what they like to do with it in private.
Sexual harassment is a tool of oppression. It is used against women, against trans people, against queers, and especially against people who are all of the above. The bodies of people who are “other”– people of color, people who are fat, people who are disabled, people who are not cissexual and people who are not male– are exoticized, fetishized, scrutinized, and objectified.
That it takes a toll on us. When other people feel entitled to make demands on your time and attention at any time, when they are all too willing to impose on you with their opinions, prejudices and desires, when this imposition is often accompanied by the subtle or not so subtle threat of violence, and when this happens regularly, over many years, it becomes traumatic. It has eroded my sense of self. It has chipped away at my personal space. It has conditioned me, in fight or flight situations, to freeze instead.
And I was also conditioned to minimize all of that damage.
I was taught to be grateful for the ‘compliments,’ for the ‘attention.’ (No attention is bad attention, right?) I learned to laugh it off, to shrug– and sometimes even to say ‘thank you.’ And even now, every time I think I’ve just about got over that conditioning, something happens that leave me speechless and scared, again… and I just want nothing more than to resurrect that sixth grader who could call it like it is without hesitation. What a brave kid– brave with the courage of total naiveté.
So I write today to acknowledge what I have gone through, to remind myself not to minimize the damage done. The worst of it is that my experiences, although some of them have been fairly extreme, are in the final analysis mild compared to what many other people suffer.
This entry has been very personal, and yet it’s not about me. Sometimes I say that sexual harassment and sexual violence are some of the least personal things I have experienced, since none of the perpetrators were interested in me as an individual, but only in me as a category, me as a demographic. Those of us who have suffered this kind of depersonalization have got to stop minimizing what happened to us, have got to admit that all those “little” indignities can add up to major trauma.
So I invite you to join me (carefully) in owning your pain.