Last week, millions of women posted to the hashtag #metoo, sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment to let the world know that situations like the publically splashy Weinstein allegations are not isolated incidents.
When I first saw this post I thought, “I can’t post to that, I haven’t been raped or assaulted… and harassment…? That’s so tricky to define.”
But I saw who had posted it- my sister-in-law. And I know her. Well. And I thought, yeah. Me, too.
When I was about 4 years old, a wheelchair-bound, elderly man at our church liked to give out candy to the kids. Once, at a visit to his house, me and a friend the same age were asked to go visit him in the back room since he couldn’t get around well. He had candy necklaces for us. He sat me on his lap and kissed me- sloppily. With tongue. I remember his tongue, thick and large, swiping across my teeth, and how baffled I was by it. This was not, by any definition of the word, what I knew as a kiss. It seemed to go on and on and on, though it really couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. I was rewarded for my endurance with the promised candy necklace. My friend received a similar kiss and necklace. I remember afterwards discussing with her how gross the kiss had been, but nothing else. We didn’t know any better. The man was disabled… maybe he’d forgotten how to kiss?
It wasn’t until some days later that the man’s adult-daughter- the mother of other friends of mine- came into my room, obviously upset. “Has he ever kissed you in a way that you thought was weird?” She asked me. I cried. I thought she was upset at me. “You’re not in trouble, Karly,” she said. “But you have to tell me if he ever kisses you like that again.”
To my knowledge, I was never left alone with her father again, and it never happened again. As a kid, I brushed it off. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I seriously began to realize what had happened.
And by then I was so sexually confused I didn’t know what to think. At 13, a friend introduced me to Yahoo! Checkers, an innocuous online game hosted by yahoo where you could chat with the person you were matched up to play against. Privately. She thought it was funny to find people who were interested in cybersex, to play with them, flirt with them, and then leave the chat. I became fascinated. I was young and hormonal and ugly. It was nice to be the belle of the cyber ball. Some men, I discovered, wouldn’t play with you unless you said you were at least 17- but some of them relished the idea of your youth. It was men who thought I was 13 who began sending me pornography. Sometimes it was links to other websites- the first video I ever saw was pretty hardcore girl on girl that someone sent me to, I guess, get me, a child, in the mood. And sometimes- increasingly often- it was just pictures of their penises.
Never mind how confusing and disturbing and frightening this all was to me as a kid. This was how the internet was. These weren’t isolated incidents. I experienced this kind of behavior online for all of my teenage years. Sometimes willingly, because I was lonely and felt horrible about myself. And sometimes it was totally unasked for and unwanted. I got it from men. And from women. I was sent graphic descriptions of rape fantasies, bondage scenarios, you name it. I was sent more videos featuring more grotesque, inhuman sex acts than my brain could fathom. Sex was horrifying and fascinating and I was deeply, hideously ashamed. Liberating, my ass. I felt enslaved. Sex was not enjoyable. I was not experiencing an awakening. I felt like I was staring into a dark, roiling void and wanted nothing, at all, to do with it in reality.
But there was bleed over into the real world occasionally. Like the guy I befriended online- a friend of a friend who claimed to be Christian- who started an innocent enough flirtation that led to phone calls. And demands for me to perform, or simulate, borderline acts for him. Not masturbation. But close enough. Wear such and such outfit. Do such and such while I listen. Listen to me describe to you exactly how I would tie you up. I was 17. I thought it was funny at first, as I held no actual attraction to the guy- but it became frightening when his calls became more insistent and he wouldn’t stop. I turned my phone off for a final in my freshman year of college and he had called me 12 times during that time, leaving increasingly demanding messages. When he started talking about coming to visit me, I broke off all contact. I remember asking my friend, who had introducing him to me, why she hadn’t told me what he was like. “I thought you were smart enough to figure it out,” she said. And of course there was that one guy I met at a coffee shop who immediately demanded nudes as soon as I began talking to him online and became threatening when I of course wouldn’t comply. But that hardly feels worth mentioning, it’s such a side note.
More impactful were the guys I really did like, who I really did want a relationship with. I found myself, in high school and again in college, in situations where I was growing close to a guy who manipulated me, used me emotionally, and was verbally and emotionally abusive. I rationalized their actions, knowing they struggled with their home lives, or their psychological issues, or what the hell ever, but the truth was… I just figured that these were the kind of men I deserved. I pined for one of them throughout all of my college years. I loved him almost right up until I started dating my now-husband.
Looking back, I can ask myself in every single one of these instances what was wrong with me? I can look back with shame and embarrassment at the situations I willingly walked into. But how willing was it really? I felt, and sometimes still feel, corrupted in some way by these experiences. I still feel sometimes like I walked away with the wrong husband- mine loves me too much and too selflessly, he must be defective. Surely, I deserve one of those “calls me at midnight blind drunk to demand we have sex” models, because those were certainly what I envisioned myself with for many years.
But I still don’t know if I can really say “me too,” you see. I wasn’t really abused. Or harassed. I wasn’t given anything I didn’t, on some level consent to. I know people who’ve been raped, and abused for real. That’s not my story.
But this is. And I know it’s plenty bad that I can look at all of this and still wonder if it counts.