If all the women (and men) who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a Facebook status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
It’s 2 years exactly since I posted a series on sexual abuse on my blog. (Oct 6-Oct 29, 2015). In that case, I was mostly focused on the sexual abuse of children. Many people wrote to me to share their stories and offer support to those who have been affected.
It was astounding to see just how many people there were, while also knowing that there were at least as many others who didn’t write, who weren’t ready to share, who were still suffering silently.
Today the national conversation is on sexual harassment and assault. When I went on Facebook and saw all the #MeToo status updates, I was compelled to re-share a story I posted on my blog about a personal experience that happened to me.
When everyone is silent, the powerful majority can pretend there is no problem.
We aren’t being silent anymore.
There is a problem.
The Day I Was Groped
First published on my blog on October 16, 2013. Modified slightly from the original posting for context.
I had never been raped, sexually assaulted, or been in a situation where I felt in physical danger from men in any way. I knew people who had, and it broke my heart to know that they had to go through something like that. I couldn’t imagine dealing with the mental anguish. But then one day I was groped.
I was hiking down the side of the road, wearing casual pants, a backpack, a baseball cap, walking shoes, and carrying a tiny white puppy.
It was during Border2Border, an annual project for volunteers in Armenia. The project itself is amazing. Groups of volunteers hike from the north and south of the country and meet in a town in the middle. Along the way, they teach children at schools various lessons on the dangers of too much alcohol and smoking, the importance of exercise and good nutrition, and why you shouldn’t trash up your environment. It’s a hard hike, with hours of walking every day, rain or shine. But the camaraderie among the volunteers is fun, and the children seem to get a lot out of the lessons.
We took precautions, to make sure we were safe during the hike. I was with 5 other volunteers. We wore sunscreen and carried a first-aid kit. When it rained (as it did that morning), we wore raincoats and warmer layers. We kept in sight of each other, and regrouped often to make sure no one was left behind or got too far ahead of the others. We made sure not to listen to our music too loud, always keeping one ear on the buzz of traffic.
But no matter how careful you are, there is always a chance for error, for something to go wrong. This is a story about that time.
We were just south of the town of Sevan, following the curve of the road along Lake Sevan. We had left early that morning. It was cold and rainy, only our second “bad” weather day, and we had been on the road already for about 12 days.
An hour or two into our walk two little white scraggly animals came crawling out of the bushes by the road. They were puppies! Young puppies, with blue eyes barely able to see straight. They were mewing (couldn’t even bark yet) with hunger, shivering with cold, matted and wet. It was a wonder they were still alive.
We didn’t have a clue what we would do with them, but it was impossible to leave them behind. We fed them some yogurt, then continued on our hike with them wrapped in our jackets to warm up.
How CUTE are these puppies???
An hour or so later, I was walking with both of the puppies. I let them down every now and then to walk and pee (not wanting them to inadvertently pee on me). But the puppies were slow, so I started falling behind the other volunteers. The road was straight, so I could still see them hiking ahead of me, and I had my cell phone on me, so I figured I’d call and ask them to wait for me in a little bit.
We hadn’t really discussed what we were going to do with the puppies. It seemed foolish to hike with them for 8 more days. We hadn’t even cleared with our hosts for that night if it would be okay to bring puppies in. So when I saw a family by the side of the road throwing rocks into the lake, I stopped to say hi and ask if they wanted a puppy.
It was a man with his wife and 8-year-old son. They petted the (now dry and very cute!) puppies and admired them. The man asked if they were male or female, and I told him both were female. He immediately said no, they didn’t want either of them. The boy looked crushed. After a short discussion, with a lot of convincing from the boy, they decided that yes, they would take one after all. So I handed over one of the puppies. They didn’t want both.
Now I had only one puppy, and I was riding on a sort of high that one of the puppies now had a good home. I was a little nervous about what the others would say, since there had been some discussion that one of the volunteers might keep a puppy for himself. But it’s hard to be a Peace Corps volunteer with a pet (especially at the end of the 2 years. What do you do with your dog?), so I thought it was okay that I was trying to find homes for the puppies on my own.
A little further on, there was a big white van parked on side the road. Who knows why it was there. Maybe engine trouble. Maybe a flat tire. Maybe the driver needed to rest. Maybe he was waiting for someone. But the shoulder wasn’t very wide, so the van was parked partially into the road. As I approached, I debated if I should go around to the right, into the road, or to the left, slightly into the ditch. The passenger side door was open, blocking my way to the left, so I made up my mind to go around to the right, into the road.
But as I got closer a man outside the van, on the other side of the door saw me and told me it was okay to come around the left side. So I did. I was just going to pass him by, but then decided to ask if he wanted a puppy. It had been so easy to give the other one away.
We had a short conversation in Armenian. He saw that the puppy was a girl, and said he didn’t want it. Then he reached out, and I thought he was reaching out to pet the puppy.
Instead, he put his hand on my breast and let it stay there.
I was shocked. Horrified. Disgusted. Outraged. “Amot kez!” I said. Shame on you! I brushed his hand away and then I fled. I didn’t look back. I couldn’t see my friends ahead of me anymore; they had gone over the crest of a big hill and down the other side.
I felt violated. It was a one-second encounter, and I felt cheap and used. I didn’t really feel like it was my fault, but I kind of felt like it was my fault. I was angry at myself for putting myself into that situation. What was I thinking, stopping to talk to a stranger, next to his van on side the road? I was also angry at my friends for not being there.
I couldn’t believe I was having such strong reactions to the situation. A guy touched me. For a second, if that. That was all. But he was a gross, dirty old man who I didn’t give permission to touch me, especially there. In that one quick move, he had destroyed my trust in men and my faith in humanity.
I called one of the volunteers I was hiking with. He didn’t answer. I felt even more isolated. I called another one. No answer there, either. So much for my backup plan. I called a third and finally got a response.
Trying not to cry, I told him what had happened, and he immediately said he was coming back to get me. The group wasn’t very far ahead; we met up in less than 3 minutes. I told them all what had happened. After that, we made sure to stick even closer together.
I filed a report with Peace Corps staff about the incident, and had to talk to a staff member, the safety and security officer, and one of the doctors that evening. They wanted to make sure I was okay, and offered everything in their power, including pressing charges and the Peace Corps counseling hotline, just in case, to make sure I was okay and felt supported.
Ultimately, I was fine. The situation could have been much worse. I don’t think about it every night. But I came through it with a much deeper understanding of and compassion for what others go through.
* I do not want to imply that this sort of thing only happens in Armenia. This particular experience of mine happened there, but it could have just as easily been in my hometown, or in my current town, as many women will attest to. No matter what precautions you put in place, no matter where you are, you can still be violated.
Sexual harassment is not okay. It is not wanted, it is not desired, it is not a game.
This is one story, but my experiences are more. Other women and men have even more stories and experiences, whether they choose to share them or not. Sexual harassment and assault is a problem, and I’m adding my voice to the conversation.
If you have any thoughts you want to share after reading this, please comment.
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