Part of the reason I haven’t written too much on here this month of October (aside from being quite busy) is that I had been wracking my brain over whether or not I should write what I’m about to write about. You could probably tell that from the deep, anxious sighs I just let out above. Believe me, you can’t comprehend how hard it was to hit the “publish” button, let alone write this post. But I feel it’s important enough, perhaps even inspiring enough, to tell you what I’m about to tell you.
So, forsaking an opportune chance on this Halloween weekend to dress up and perhaps record a video, I’m about to let you in on a secret. Well, to be honest, a couple of secrets. These are things I have never disclosed to anyone outside my family or even to my family (in guy or girl mode). And I’ve never discussed them here prior to now, nor am I wanting to bring them up again, as the 3600+ words in this post pertain to an uncomfortable topic, with some very frank terms being used (so before you click on that jump, consider yourself warned).
At this point already, I know what some of you are thinking… and you’re so wrong. First off, no, these secrets have nothing to do with my crossdressing; it has to do with another sensitive and more serious topic altogether. Also, these secrets did not happen to me directly, so please accept my apologies if what I’m about to discuss to you feels second-hand in nature (because it does). And these are in relation to what’s become an important, well-publicized topic, but don’t think for a second I’m joining in on this bandwagon for the sake of driving up readership (good heavens, no!), though I will say I’ve been moved and inspired enough by its discussion to feel that I should share to you these stories.
Okay, with all that being said, let me start with the inspiration for this post, and perhaps you’ve already guessed what it’s about from the title: By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of a recent trending topic on social media initiated by the writer Kelly Oxford. About three weeks ago, Oxford shared to the world the story of when she was sexually assaulted as a 12-year-old, when a man on a bus grabbed her by the genitals and smiled. It was Oxford’s response to a certain thin-orange-skinned presidential candidate bragging about his propensity to put the moves on attractive women and about how his “celebrity” allows him to do it (or so he thinks). Oxford then put out an invite for others to share their own stories of assault.
The response to Oxford’s invite was overwhelming: Thousands upon thousands of women and a few men, anonymous or not, sharing details of their assault stories through the #NotOkay hashtag (that tag’s meaning is self-evident). Some of the respondents used graphic terms in their stories; others still felt uncomfortable to share the details to their own friends and families, let alone on social media. And while Oxford and the respondents had their share of trolls playing “Blame the Victim,” the #NotOkay topic had a galvanizing effect: Victims of sexual assault no longer standing silent, exposing a serious topic to the world, and rebuking a major presidential candidate and his implicit endorsement of men having their way with women.
So, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing up #NotOkay on here. Well, by virtue of personal experience, I am of the belief that everyone knows or will know (consciously or not) at least one person who has been verbally, physically, or sexually harassed or assaulted at least one time in their lives. I’ve consciously known of at least three women in my life who have gone through these situations, and I will tell you what I remember of their stories here. You’re probably wondering why I’m telling these stories (even with the use of pseudonyms) and not them. Well, they may have or will tell their stories to whomever they want to at their own volition, but I’m doing so here on the belief that this will encourage others — though only when they are ready — to share their own harassment/assault stories and encourage positive, respectful dialog about the topic, just as Kelly Oxford did with her own story earlier this month.
I’ll start with the story of a woman I dated 20 years ago. I am ensuring anonymity here, so I’ll refer to her only by the first initial of D. I had just started dating D. and it was around our fourth date when we started to get somewhat intimate (i.e. full-throat makeout sessions). We were headed back to my house I shared with my sister when she heard a large dog in the next yard barking vociferously and approaching D. and I in a fierce manner. The dog made D. jump with clear panic, and I comforted her and reassured her safety the rest of our way back home. That was where D. sat down, collected her bearings, and told me a secret: Seven years earlier, she was dating another gentlemen, and the two of them had a pretty good relationship. Well, that was the case until he raped her one night. I cannot remember whether D. said if the guy faced the judicial music or not, but that incident left her emotionally scarred for quite a long while, so much that she refrained from going back into the dating pool until she was good and ready.
D’s disclosure of her rape left me stunned. It also gave me a lot of compassion and empathy towards her, and for a valid reason. By unfortunate coincidence, I had learned one week earlier from my mom that my little sister had her own similar story. Little Sis was 15 years old at the time, a couple months away from turning 16. Our family lived next door to an aunt and uncle on my stepfather’s side, and their kids and grandkids would frequently come up to visit them. One of those grandkids, who I will refer to as James as that was his name (I hope you’re burning in hell, James), came over to our family’s house to supposedly say hello to my little sister, who was alone at home (Mom and Dad were at work). From the story Mom relayed to my sister and I, James cornered Little Sis in her room, threw her on her bed, pulled her pants down, pulled his pants down, and… had his way with her.
I felt so angry at what James did to my little sister, as well as other things that resulted from what he did in the year or so that followed. For one, he claimed it was consensual, then he claimed she forced herself on him, then he claimed that nothing happened at all. Luckily, the rape kit proved otherwise. But he and his legal representation (a public defender, or so I want to believe, since I recall his family lived in a poor excuse for a house) tried anything and everything they could to make Little Sis break during questioning. But the prosecutors didn’t paint a pretty picture of James in court, presenting evidence of… well, let’s just say that whatever James learned in regards to having his way with the opposite sex, he learned it from the worst (it’s so tawdry, I just have to refrain from sharing those details with you even in this anonymous forum).
Eventually, about a year after he did what he did to my little sister, James agreed to a guilty plea and paid society for what he did: A fine. Court costs. A bit of jail time, if I recall correctly. A restraining order forbidding him from coming within 200 feet of my sister. But the familial damage had been done: My mom and dad forbade my aunt and uncle from even crossing property lines and darkening our family’s door; it was punishment to them for their defense of their grandson over what he did to my little sister. The icy relations would lead my mom and dad into leaving the area completely a couple of years later.
As for my little sister, her emotional well being would undergo a great change from that point forward. For sure, she and Mom and Dad would try to put their best faces forward after that incident. But even today, I still can’t help but wonder… What if James hadn’t have had his way that day? Or at least what kind of person Little Sis would have become had she not gone through that day and all the legalese that would follow? Would she have not gotten into trouble at school? Would her grades have not fallen? Would the strain of the case had not led her into an emotional spiral that would lead to psychological treatment? And would she have agreed to move with Mom and Dad out of the area, instead of leaving home one year before high school graduation with the boyfriend that would become her husband? And the father of her two daughters? And her eventual ex-husband? Oh, for sure, all that could be chalked up to the fact that she was growing from a teenage girl into a young woman, acting greater than her actual age, and not the victim of a brutal assault. But, still, I can’t help but wonder sometimes…
The good news is that my little sister has become a stable woman here in 2016. She is the proud mother of two teenage daughters. She, her new fiance, and his own daughters now live in a beautiful house somewhere in Northern Wisconsin. (No, I’m not going to go into any further details about that, so please let them have some privacy.) And she, and our family as a whole, have moved on from that dark incident from 20 years ago.
Have we made peace with James’ family and our aunt and uncle? Well, some of us may have. I, however, have not. I’m not sure what has happened to James, suffice it to say that, in addition to burning in hell, I hope what he did and the punishment he suffered have ruined his name irretrievably. (Side note: He was part of his high school’s football team when he did what he did. And, yes, it led to his being kicked off the team. I’m sure his conviction must have had some effect on his education status as well.) I have not seen nor heard from (nor have I cared to think about) any in James’ immediate family. As for his grandparents (my aunt and uncle), I would interact with them only twice afterward: Once at my other sister’s wedding (how did they get an invitation anyway?), and once a few years later when I was visiting my sister and her own family and they made a brief stopover to visit. I didn’t talk with them very much, acting instead to be protective uncle to my nieces who where in the other room with me. I really didn’t want to talk to them at all, as I still harbored ill feelings towards them for their defense of their grandson all those years ago. But I could hear my aunt’s clearly raspy voice from the dining room, a clear sign of the late-stage lung cancer that would claim her life a few years later, her punishment for being a lifelong smoker.
And I shouldn’t forget about D. Even on that night when she told me her about her rape several years earlier, the two of us would eventually become a bit more intimate. But if you’re wondering if we, uh, went all the way… well, we never did. Rather, I never could. It wasn’t entirely a question of my questioning my sexuality, if that’s what your wondering about. I did have strong feelings for her. It’s just that, well, I didn’t have condoms, and if I were to have a romantic partner that I went all the way with, I wanted to make sure we did it in as safe a manner as possible.
Yes, my hesitance to have intercourse with D. left her disappointed, even if she did say she was using birth control. And I wonder if our relationship would have lasted a bit longer had I agreed to such deep physical intimacy. But I do think after all this time that at least part of my hesitance was out of respect for D. in particular and the opposite sex in general. I never wanted to see D. as a sexual conquest, and her telling me her story about her rape solidified my seeing her as a person and not a romantic conquest I would brag about to… wait for it… only myself. That’s another thing about me: I am not one to proclaim to the world how many romantic partners I’ve had in my life. It’s true, I will never be a “bro” in that regard.
If you think I only saw D. as a former rape victim, that’s not the case. But as I hinted above, my respect for D. grew as a result of her disclosing her story to me. She was a shy person, for sure, but her dark story did not seem to leave her a wallflower. I think part of that was because she told me her story. She never forgot that moment, but she seemed a stronger person because of that moment. A braver person. A determined person who wouldn’t let dark times define her. I can’t help but think if many of the #NotOkay respondents from earlier this month feel that same way: Yes, they went through unsettling moments, and at least a few still do not feel fully comfortable to share those moments to friends and family if not the general public. But at least they seem to want to become more determined to not let incidents of harassment and abuse define them. They want to be stronger, if they are not stronger already, and they want to let others who are also victims become stronger, and tell those who dare to perpetrate such heinous acts that they should not get away with it.
One last thing about D., and it leads back to my little sister’s story and my one true regret about our relationship: I did tell D. about Little Sis’ story. I did not tell the rest of my family that I told D., however, as I grew to have that much respect for her. But D. was willing to help out my little sis if I thought she needed some outside emotional help. I admit that I never took D. up on that offer, probably out of too much respect for D. and too much respect to keep my family’s private life just that — private. I do think sometimes how Little Sis would have turned out if D. provided even just a little bit of guidance and support.
As I noted above, the whole #NotOkay topic was in response to a certain presidential candidate’s bragging that because he was a rich celebrity, he felt he could get away with any form of harassment toward women. Of course, that is clearly, well, not okay. Just because the company shares the same name as its CEO does not mean that the CEO should get away with lewd conduct against one of their employees. And if you look into most companies in America, you will find that they have strict guidelines against any form of verbal, physical, or sexual harassment committed by one employee against another. My current place of employment is no different: Their code of conduct, which includes the forbidding of any form of harassment by one employee towards another, is something that every employee must read, acknowledge, and abide by. Whether it’s the lowest-level plebe or the chief executive officer, we must acknowledge our understanding of the code on an annual basis.
And while not every company’s stand against employee-on-employee harassment is something that may date back to the Mad Men era, it’s certainly not something that has popped up here in the decade of the 2010s. Case in point, another story I’ve never disclosed to anyone else, one that actually predates the decades-old stories of Little Sis and D. by a couple of years:
At a previous place of employment, I had the brief privilege of renewing a strictly professional acquaintance with someone, who I will refer to as only L. (as it’s been so long I’ve completely forgotten her name). She and I had worked at a previous place of employment, where she had departed around the same time as our office manager (i.e. the guy who headed operations at our office). I will not clue you in on the nature of this previous company’s industry, suffice it to say that its nature did not require said manager to be in the office every waking moment (I guess one of the privileges of being the boss is that, unlike those under his watch, you don’t have to get up at 4:00 in the morning).
When L. arrived at that second company and I began to recognize her (“Hey, I think I recognize you. Didn’t you used to work at…”), we started to discuss that prior place of business (“Yeah, I do remember you. How have you been?”) L. and that manager had departed that prior company a couple of years before I did, and I had never learned of the reasons they departed (it was none of my business, of course). I had made the natural presumption that L. departed that previous company for a more regular job than the part-time employment that was our prior employer’s nature.
It was then that I mentioned our prior company’s former manager to her by name, and for further reference, I’ll call him K. That’s when L. told me the reason she left in a matter-of-fact fashion: The reason L. left was the reason K. left as well. In fact, L. was the reason K. left — he was fired for directing harassing comments towards L. In private. And when L. took those comments to the higher-ups in the company, he was suddenly and abruptly shown the door.
L’s admission was a stunner to me, and I did openly show empathy and some admiration to her or her taking such a strong stand against a harassing manager (“I’m so sorry you had to go through that”). Just as she was at this newer place of employment, L. was of nothing but good character and devoted work in my professional encounters with her. The truly stunning part about L’s disclosure was that she was telling the story of her own free will. I was still rather evergreen in my professional employment at that point, yet I knew the importance of not disclosing every little office secret, the better to ensure the victim’s privacy and dignity (what happens in the Human Resources department stays there). But I do admire L. for her freely admitting the reason why K. left that company and for still having some professional dignity. I guess you can all it an early #NotOkay story. I applauded L. then, and I admire her to this day, for taking a stand against harassment, and for not bragging about her stand — which, when you think of it, is a sign of professionalism in its own right (she sought respect, not attention).
As for K., well… to be honest, he deserved to be shown the door. He was the manager who hired me (well, it was more like he gave me an application, I completed it, and he immediately approved it), and in the interactions I recall with him, I never saw him deliver leering or rude comments towards the women at work. However, he did seem to leave an impression of macho boorishness and sometimes indifference to others’ concerns. And what’s more, he didn’t seem to care. I didn’t see that attitude in the early going, what with my desperate need for a paycheck contributing to my general professional naivete. But by the time K. was… well, shown the door, I had an easier impression of his professionalism, or lack thereof, and L’s telling me of his harassment of her put an already crystallized impression of crudeness into solid bedrock.
So, what happened to L. after our second professional relationship? Well, she eventually moved on to another place of employment, but not without a “good luck” card from the rest of our team (I signed it with “It was an honor to work with you again”). I’m not sure what she’s doing now, but I’m sure she, her husband, and perhaps, if they have any children by now, their family are enjoying a wonderful life. As for K… well, Heaven knows what. But I never saw him again afterwards, and I imagine — nay, hope — that he has learned his lesson and understood the serious professional and likely personal consequences he suffered as a result.
It’s a lesson I hope everyone will understand: Any kind of harassment — be it sexual, verbal, or physical — is uncalled for. It is unprofessional. It is illegal. It cannot be innocuously dismissed as “locker room talk.” It won’t make you any more secure of a man. And it can have serious repercussions, affecting not just you but those who you think you can put under your thumb but in reality can become much stronger than you ever thought they’d be.
Simply put, if you think you can get away with harassment, don’t. Because it’s #NotOkay.