A few years ago I wrote a positive story about a guy I knew. He was a nice guy and it was a nice story. Then a woman called me a week or two after it was published. She wasn’t angry with me, she said, but she wanted me to know that the guy I’d just profiled had raped her. She didn’t tell me the details of what had happened, and I didn’t ask. I did ask her if she ever contacted the police about her assault, and she said she had not, and would not. Though she said it was important that I knew that this had happened, she asked me not to write about it, or mention it to him–not because she felt any affection towards him, but because she didn’t want to face the hell that would come from going public with her accusation.
Rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment–it’s everywhere in society. We talk about it a lot now largely because of brave actors like Ashley Judd, Lupita Nyong’o and Asia Argento have gone public with stories of how they’ve been sexually assaulted and the #MeToo movement on social media (which was actually started a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke), but sexual harassment has been part of life for women for as long as men have run the world. Call it what you will–the patriarchy, the old boy’s club or just “business as usual”–but it’s the same all over the world: men attack women, women get hurt and men get protected.
Clearly, none of this will change until men–all men–change their behavior towards women. Not all of us rape, of course, but it’s a sure bet every man has inflicted some sort of pain on women in his life. And since most men aren’t in the habit of asking women how to better behave, I decided to ask my friend Marie.
I’ve known Marie (not her real name) for about three years. Born in Great Britain, she’s lived all over the world, working at a variety of corporate offices, humanitarian charities and strip clubs. In fact, in 2013, the pop culture website Complex listed Marie as one of “25 hilarious strippers you should follow on Twitter.” But she’s often eloquent and thoughtful on weightier subjects like race, gender and the troubles of the patriarchy in general.
She has a great deal to say about sexual harassment and assault–both in terms of her own experiences and how it affects society. As such, she readily agreed to chat with me about how men behave towards her and what all men can do to be better towards women.
MAUITIME: Thanks for agreeing to this chat. Let’s get right to it: How many times have men harassed or assaulted you?
MARIE: Harassed, I couldn’t begin to count. I literally couldn’t. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t harassed by men. Even as a child, men I really didn’t know well enough would “cuddle” me. As a seven-year-old we had a male lodger in my house who pretended to be my boyfriend and he’d put his arm around me, lying on his bed. I have no idea why I’d even go in there. As a teen, the man at the local tuck shop [a small food retailer] would cuddle me over the counter so he could see my cleavage in exchange for sweets. It was just something we all accepted as “pervy.” I’d borrow my friend’s jackets or wear higher necklines to get my candies. Retrospectively, it was normalizing a behavior I would experience for the rest of my life.
MT: How about assault?
MARIE: Assault is a broad term, but the answer is six. Six different men, throughout my life spanning from age 14 to age 25. I’m 27 now. I’d guess that only one of them feels remorse, but only because I told my boss and he got fired. We were colleagues. One was a boyfriend. One was a sister’s friend. One was my first. One was a friend of a friend of a friend. One was a teacher. You’d think they were all normal guys if you met them, that’s the scariest part. They look just like anyone else, which might give you a clue as to why many women are scared of men on the whole.
MT: What was it like telling your boss that your co-worker had assaulted you?
MARIE: When I told my boss what had gone on her reaction was a thousand times worse than anything I could have expected. I was too new to the company really to clock [notice] the fact that she had a special relationship with the man who had assaulted me, and she would protect him. The first words she said to me after I had explained that he had forced penetration on me were, “We all make mistakes.” She sat me down in a very pokey [small, uncomfortable] room with him and the company therapist three days after the assault had taken place. He touched my shoulder to greet me before sitting in a chair so close to me I had to lean away to stop our knees touching. After an hour of questioning him over what had taken place and hearing him admit that he had heard me repeatedly saying “no,” I was free to go.
The next day she and the therapist approached me to ask how we should best take care of him from here, as he was “very upset.” For some reason I swallowed it because I wanted the job. Any colleagues that I told didn’t have the first clue what to do, and honestly barely had any reaction at all. One colleague accused me of being bad at my job as a result of the rape and brought it up in a board meeting. After six weeks, they promoted him. I got mad and told a different colleague–an older, slightly rebellious American lady–who got mad with me, wrote a tell-all blog post about it and sat with me while I reported it all to the company above ours. She quit with me, too. A couple of male colleagues also quit as the truth came out, and apparently, my assaulter was asked to leave the company. The details of which I never really sought out–it was too painful, although I did get an email from my boss a few months later asking to talk. I didn’t respond.
MT: Did you tell anyone in authority about the other five men who assaulted you?
MARIE: When I was 17, one of my teachers physically assaulted me on a school trip. Two very hard slaps around the side of my head that gave me a fat lip and a little bruising, because I was acting a touch precocious about my bed time and he really lost his cool. We were outside and alone at the time. He came up with a range of excuses for his behavior (including: he was cold, he thought I was going to fall in a river that was 300 feet away, he thought I was going to have a panic attack), and his final submission of his report said he only hit me once, but it was twice. He had me pinned up against a wall, and only stopped because a passing cyclist pulled him off me. It was all rather extreme and bizarre. This was the first time I reported anything to someone in authority and it taught me a really horrible lesson. I told the headteacher [principal] and he sat me down in his office and said to me, “Do I trust you? Yes, I do. Do I trust him? Yes, I do. I’ve known him a long time. He’s been going on this annual school trip for 10 years, and this has only happened once.”
The teacher got a written warning which came off his record just two years later, and I had to walk around the school halls bumping into him and immediately running to the nearest toilet to throw up. I’ll never forget the animalistic look of anger in his eyes after he first hit me. Funny really, I was a pretty good kid at school, got good grades, did a lot of extra-curricular activities. So the lesson I learned is that justice… isn’t really a thing. Hence, no reporting on the rest.
MT: How often do men touch you without your consent?
MARIE: Not so often anymore. Either something in society has shifted or I give off a better “don’t mess with me” vibe. However, I was recently touched in the street while passing a group of men–he grabbed my arm. I immediately stopped and yelled at him. “How dare you touch me! What did you think was going to happen? Did you think I would like that?” He went bright red, swore at me, his friends sort of nervously laughed and I went on my merry way. About five years ago, it was a rare night out when my rear end wasn’t grabbed on the dance floor. I’ve always been pretty feisty with a backhanded slap, and I consider myself lucky I never got one back. Most of them looked surprised that I hadn’t enjoyed their unwarranted touching.
MT: How does a man touching you without your consent make you feel?
MARIE: When a man touches me without my consent I feel enraged. Sometimes, if it’s particularly sudden, I cry with frustration. I feel violated purely because I decided to exist in that space that day. What they don’t know is that I’ve already been catcalled a bunch of times that week. What they don’t know is how women are aware of the fact they’re walking past a man in the street every time they do it. Particularly a group of men. What they don’t know is that we wait with baited breath if we have to walk through the middle of a group of men on the sidewalk. What they don’t know is that we scan for exit routes and self-defense weapons when we are surrounded by more men than women. So when they touch us without asking, or shout objectifying comments at us, we have the weight of all that nervous anticipation come crashing down around us. We’re tired.
MT: Think about the least violent, least invasive way a man has harassed you. How did it make you feel?
MARIE: I used to work in an office, and one day after work we had a client meeting. My manager had been out shopping during the day to a very fancy lingerie store to buy his wife a blindfold as she didn’t like his reading light at night time. I was very new in the job. We’re waiting in the bar for our client to arrive and we see him walking up. Suddenly, my manager says “can you hold this for a second?” Then he hands me the bag with the brand name on the side and starts fishing for something in his pockets. The client walks up, we greet him, he clocks the bag and only a fair while later did my manager take the bag back. I realized that he was pimping me out to the client–making it look like I had purchased some naughty underwear. I felt incredibly degraded and used. I felt foolish for even accepting to hold it in the first place. It was so non-invasive but he was sexualizing me for his gain. He’d always make comments in the office too but they were more invasive.
MT: You’ve worked in corporate offices, international nonprofits and strip clubs. Where was the harassment the worst?
MARIE: Nonprofits. Or offices. Ooh, that’s hard to answer. The office was more unexpected. You assume that an office with an HR department wouldn’t have employees making sexist, racy comments. I struggled with the fact that I couldn’t answer back, or walk away as I had done in strip clubs. I had to suck it up because “women in business have to have thick skin” or something like that I was told. But the harassment in nonprofits was more violent, less policed. More room for error, more time alone with people.
Offices, generally, are 9-5 and then you leave. If you go out with the team for drinks, you generally aren’t alone in a secluded place with your colleagues. Nonprofits require weird hours, often dangerous places and an incredible amount of emotion from what you’re seeing on a day-to-day basis. Such high emotions make people reach out, act slightly differently, drink a little more, take a few more chances. You end up drinking alone with someone you don’t really know in a dark muddy place and you don’t really know where you are. You trust that they’re a good person because they’re working for a charity.
But a strip club? You can develop great relationships with managers and bouncers who will throw guys out for being rude to you. There are strict rules, and laws, and cameras. You’re in control, and if a man touches you, you can tell him off, you can walk away, you can have him ejected. You can even put him on the naughty step. I’ve seen that done! Obviously, there are exceptions in every circumstance, but in my experience nothing could escalate to a point of more serious assault. Strip clubs are places to worship the female form and appreciate feminine beauty. I’ve never felt more in control of my body than when in a strip club, even in a G-string and a bra.
MT: What are bad things that men do that most men don’t know are bad?
MARIE: Refer to emotions as being “girly.” One of my best friend’s girlfriends is acting up at the moment, and he described her emotional, bad behavior as “she’s being a girl.” First, being out of control or in control of one’s emotions is not specific to a gender. Generally speaking, I (a girl!) don’t let my emotions make me behave like a bad person. Donald Trump writes crazy tweets when he’s angry but nobody criticizes his gender. Second, her behavior may be bad but it’s also a very emotional reaction–which men are allowed, too. Automatically saying that an emotional reaction is a specifically female thing to do is perpetuating the belief that men shouldn’t express their emotions. In conversation, it seems non-consequential, but while we have a suicide rate that’s higher in young men than any other demographic, we have to ask ourselves what’s happening in society that makes men feel so isolated. The patriarchy is bad for men, too!
MT: What do men need to do better?
MARIE: Listen. Realize that we always had to take more steps than you to get to a level pegging. You can talk about what you’ve achieved and don’t even blink–that’s just a normal way to talk. Women, largely, can’t talk about their achievements without feeling or seeming like they’re showing off. Things are just different for us. It’s not your responsibility to change it, it’s your responsibility to listen to how it’s different, and try to take that into account in your daily lives.
Ask us questions about our experiences more often and listen to the answers. Do not say, “Oh, that’s happened to me” or “Oh, that’s happened to a friend of mine” or “Oh, I know a lot about that”–especially if a woman is talking to you about abuse. Just be quiet, listen and take it on board. Talk to us about how you feel about things in your life, not ours. We’re all ears for you–can you be for us?
You can find Marie on Twitter. Her username is @StripperStories.
Cover design: Darris Hurst