The first time a man hurt me, I was 8. My story isn't unusual
Editor's note: Tara Weaver posted this essay on her personal Facebook page after the second presidential debate, when Donald Trump said that his talk of sexual assault was merely locker room banter. More than 4,400 people shared this story, and hundreds commented with their own devastating stories in the comments.
The first man who kissed me when I didn’t want him to was the boyfriend of my babysitter. He lifted me up by my armpits, sat me on the kitchen counter, leaned over me and slid his tongue into my mouth. I was eight years old.
I don’t know why he thought he could do this. I wasn’t acting sexy. I was reading Beverly Cleary books and wishing I could be a horse.
Do you think he had been listening to locker room banter?
The second time I was kissed I was twelve or thirteen. My mother’s boyfriend came into my room to say goodnight. He sat on my bed, ran his hand under the covers and put his fingers up inside me. It hurt. He made me hold his penis and rub it. He told me it was “safe” to have sex with him — he’d had a vasectomy and wouldn’t get me pregnant. He laughed.
I went to school the next day, sitting in class like nothing happened. I told my mother only that he had propositioned me, not anything else. It took twenty years and much therapy before I could tell her the full story, before I could admit it even to myself.
This man had known me since I was nine — he had two daughters. How had this happened? Had he started listening to locker room banter?
I pretended I was okay, but I tried to kill myself not long after that. Twice.
When I was fifteen I was date raped at summer camp by a boy I had a crush on. I said, “No.” I said, “Stop.” I tried pushing him away. Did he not hear me?
Perhaps his ears were too full of locker room banter.
The next day I tried to talk to him, to tell him what had happened wasn't okay. He looked at me with a blank face and dead eyes. “What happened?” he asked.
He acknowledged nothing. To him it was nothing. I was nothing.
I feared I was pregnant afterwards. I wept in relief when I wasn’t.
I blamed myself. Maybe I should have protested louder. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him hold my hand. But I thought he wanted to be my boyfriend. I thought wrong.
I ran into that boy at a Christmas party decades later. “Hey,” he said, smiling. “Long time, no see.”
To him it was still nothing.
I started wearing my brother’s clothes—baggy sweatshirts and jeans so big I had to roll down the waistband to keep them up. I gained weight. I didn’t drink alcohol in high school; it would have made me feel too vulnerable.
But simply being a woman made me vulnerable. There was nothing I could do to avoid that.
In college I was careful. If a guy showed interest and seemed safe and we started dating, I pretended to get drunk and pass out, just to see what he might do. Would he put a blanket over me and be kind, would he push me aside in disgust or anger at not getting what he wanted, or would he take the opportunity to go up my shirt or down my pants? I needed to know if I could trust him when no one was looking.
I chose well and never had to deal with the latter. Some guys don’t listen to locker room banter.
When I was twenty, I went running on a bike path along a river in the city where I was a student. There was a park and families came to enjoy the sunset in the evenings. Fishermen lined the water. It was a popular place.
That day had been rainy. The clouds cleared by late afternoon, but when I arrived the park was empty. I had never seen it like this.
As I ran, I heard footsteps that got louder — two men, running directly behind me. Turning my head I got a glimpse of them. They were not wearing running clothes.
I sped up, trying to outpace them. They sped up too. They began to grab my ass.
I whirled around to face them but they grabbed at my breasts. I broke off and ran away from them—faster this time, but they kept up. Their legs were longer, they were stronger, and there were two of them. They kept grabbing at me. I kept breaking away and trying to outrun them. I kept failing.
I could kick them in the shins, I thought, I could kick them in the balls. I had been learning how to play rugby; I knew how to tackle.
But I wouldn’t want to hurt them.
That was the thought that leapt unbidden to my mind: I wouldn’t want to hurt them.
I had been raised to see men, all people, as human, to be concerned about their welfare, to be a nurturer, to care. I had never listened to locker room banter.
I was also practical: I didn’t want the encounter to turn violent. They were bigger and they were stronger. If I ended up on the ground, I’d have no chance.
I kept pushing their hands away from my body. I wrenched one arm down so strongly I ripped the man’s watch off his wrist and it fell to the ground. He reached down to grab it, cursing.
In that brief pause it occurred to me to scream — the one thing I hadn’t tried. There was no one around to hear me, but I screamed anyway; I made as much noise as I could.
They ran away, laughing.
On the subway home, I sat on the hard, plastic seat rocking back and forth. There were four other people in the compartment: two male riders and a man and woman, holding hands. The train compartments did not have doors connecting the cars. I felt sick, panicked that the couple might get off at the next station and leave me in a closed compartment with two men. I no longer knew what they might be capable of.
I didn’t cry until my roommate came home that night. When I saw her, I burst into tears and she thought someone had died. She was not entirely wrong.
The next day I asked the dean of my academic program to go with me to the police station. We spent the afternoon looking at mug shots of known rapists. There were pages and pages of them.
Had they all been listening to locker room banter?
We didn’t find my attackers; I hadn’t expected we would. I wanted only for this crime to be recorded, to be a number. I wanted my pain to be counted.
The police told me it was the fault of the immigrants.
When I returned to school I explained to my professor why I had missed class. “What were you wearing?” she asked me.
“A long-sleeve, faded red sweatshirt and baggy shorts.”
“See,” she said. “You were practically asking for it.”
Perhaps she had been listening to locker room banter as well.
There have been other instances as well, though less violent. Boys who were dating my girlfriends who also tried to kiss me in secret. There was the coworker who, in front of our shared work colleagues, announced that my breasts were like overgrown melons. He was 56 and a father of daughters; I was 23.
There was the man in southern Italy who grabbed at me as we passed each other on the sidewalk, laughing with his friends. There was the teenager who stood near me at an empty train station on a cold January day in Japan. It was snowy and he was shivering, his thin shoulders shaking. I worried about him. Until I saw that he was masturbating.
I have been catcalled and followed and made to feel unsafe on three continents and in more countries than I care to count. The only thing I have done was to be female and to have the gall to leave the house. Though life has taught me that you don’t need to leave the house to be harassed or hurt.
You might think I’m beautiful, to get this much attention, but I’m not. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t wear jewelry. I don’t make an effort. My hair is pulled back in a ponytail and I’m overweight; I feel safer this way.
How do I dress? Modestly. I like turtlenecks and long scarves. I rarely show my legs. I buy dresses but can’t bring myself to wear them because they don't feel safe. I wear shoes I can run in, in case I might need to get away.
Most of the time I wear the same black fleece vest that zips into a turtleneck. It’s old and starting to fade. I should get rid of it, but I can’t. It cloaks my stomach, waist and chest. It makes me feel safe. It feels like my armor.
But my appearance is irrelevant and these are the wrong questions to be asking.
The mistake we make is thinking that harassment is about desire, lust or even attraction. It’s not. Harassment is about dominance. It is saying: I am more powerful than you are. I can do what I want.
I once asked a therapist why it is that I have experienced four instances of significant sexual abuse in my life. FOUR. It’s enough to make you think I might have been careless rather than just unlucky.
My therapist answered slowly. “Sometimes, when a person has experienced trauma, their protection instincts are damaged and it leaves them open and more likely to experience abuse again.”
I’ve thought about this a lot. I imagine it might be true for some people, but it’s not my truth.
My abuse has not left me open, it’s made me close myself off. I don’t smile at people on the street. If a man asks me what time it is, I shrug and keep walking. To stop and look at a watch or phone would put me at risk. In a full parking lot, I would never park next to a van.
I am always wary. I cross the street to avoid walking by people in the dark. I avoid walking by large bushes. At parties I listen to multiple conversations at once. I used to think this was my special talent and I would have made a good spy, but it’s typical behavior for abuse survivors. We are on alert at all times. You never know where the threat might come from.
Relationships are hard, even friendships. It’s difficult to trust people. When your human connections have been so violated you become a country unto yourself. You do not reach out, it’s far too dangerous.
I wonder what life might have been like had these things not happened to me. Would I have married? Would I have had children? The idea of walking down an aisle wearing a wedding dress and having people stare at me fills me with horror. Since I was a little girl all I’ve wanted to do is hide. All I want to do is keep myself safe.
Sometimes I see women who are small — thin arms and tiny waists — and I wonder how they can stand to be in this world. How can they possibly feel safe? I think of the words of writer Roxanne Gay, a survivor of childhood rape: “I got to make my body into what I wanted it to be, which is a fortress.”
I recognize other abuse victims, I see myself in them. We have a need to be in control. Sometimes we are anorexic or bulimic, exerting a control over our bodies that has been taken from us. Sometimes we harm or self-injure, treating ourselves as poorly as we have been treated. Sometimes we kill ourselves. When I hear news of a female suicide, I always wonder. To exist in a world that has betrayed you in such a fundamental way can be unbearable.
Often we are overweight, as if we are padding ourselves against the sharp edges of the world. In a culture that still values women mostly for their looks, being overweight is the easiest way of hiding in plain sight. If you get really overweight, men won't even look you in the eye. Often this feels like a relief.
But this does not protect you from violence — because abuse is not a sign of attraction. And if women are valued mostly for their looks, and you refuse to play that game, what then is your value?
You might think I hate men, but I don’t. Some I have even loved, some I’ve let love me. But men have no idea what it’s like to walk through a world that is not designed for them. Even the very best men in my life cannot understand this. They cannot fathom the disrespect, the danger. If they did, they would be outraged.
I hate it only when men refuse to believe that I do not experience life the same way they do. I hate it when they refuse to listen, when they won’t try to understand. I hate it when they say they are not sexist.
To say you are not sexist (or racist or phobic) is always the wrong answer. The right answer is a question:
Why do you think that?
What did I do that makes you feel that way?
What does sexist mean to you?
What am I not understanding in this situation? Can you help me see it?
You might think I cry over these things, but I don’t. Not often. To cry one must feel things, and I’ve worked hard to muffle those feelings. It’s exhausting, this sexism. It’s unrelenting. Most women just sigh.
Sometimes we speak out — to which we’re generally told to have a sense of humor, that boys will be boys, or it’s just locker room banter. Sometimes we’re called feminist bitch or threatened. So we wake up every day and just get on with it.
I’m pretty tough, I’ve had to be. But this election has made me cry — at home, in the car, while I'm working. I cry in anger, I cry in frustration, I cry in fear.
This is about politics, but this is also about decency. This is about respect. This is about a vision of America as a place for all of us — even if you’re female, even if you’re a person of color, even if you’re an immigrant, even if you practice a different religion.
Instead we have a candidate saying: I am more powerful than you, I can do what I want. When you’re a star, you can do anything.
It was years before found the courage to talk about these things with friends, and when I did most of them said some version of, “Yeah, me too.” Studies say one in five women will be a victim of sexual abuse, but those numbers are vastly underreported. In my circle of friends it’s more like 80 percent.
We are not in some high-risk group for abuse, either. We are, for the most part, sheltered white girls who grew up in the suburbs. Imagine if we had less privilege, less protection. Imagine if we spoke with an accent or came from another country or had to undertake work that put us at risk.
Privilege does not protect you from gender violence, but I have to believe it helps. When I’ve spoken up about what has happened to me, I have been believed. Many are not.
In self-defense classes, they teach women not to shout “rape” or even “help” if they are being attacked. They teach us to scream “fire.” They say people are more likely to respond if you do.
It’s been 20 years now, but I have a better answer for the question I once asked my therapist: Why is it that I have experienced so much abuse, so much violence in my life?
It’s because I am a woman. Because there is simply that much violence against women in this world.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. To submit a story or note one you've seen that deserves more notice, contact Isolde Raftery at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.616.2035.
This story was originally published on KUOW.org on October 31, 2016.