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Me, Too: Sexual Harassment Before It Had a Name

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By Paula Moyer

Oprah Winfrey nailed it in her recent speech at the Golden Globe awards when she accepted her lifetime achievement award. Yes, we want a world where no one ever has to say, “Me, too” again. But we’re not there yet. In fact, we are so far from there that for a long time, these words from the poet Marge Piercy have captured the way these moments have landed in my heart and stayed:

A strong woman
is a mass of scar tissue that aches
when it rains and wounds that bleed
when you bump them and memories that get up
in the night and pace in boots to and fro.
 
— Marge Piercy, “For Strong Women”

So much has changed since 1975, the year I began graduate school at Oklahoma State University. This idyllic campus is the location of many of my “me, too” stories. Now, at the beginning of every school year, faculty members and graduate assistants attend a required annual orientation on preventing sexual harassment. I attended this school three years before the first sexual harassment lawsuit was won – therefore, before we had a name for the stares, gropes, and butt swats. Names have power – therefore, not having a name for one’s experience takes power away, tells the survivor: What happened didn’t really happen.

The faculty had one woman – an adjunct professor. Among the 15 or so teaching assistants, all but two were men. I had made the decision too late to apply for financial assistance. Instead, I got a job as the first female letter carrier on campus.

The following is just a partial list of the incidents I experienced or witnessed during the year I was there:

  • A faculty member berated a female graduate student in front of all the other guests at a holiday gathering and summed up this dressing down by calling her – well, a vulgar name for female genitalia that begins with a “c” and rhymes with “hunt.” (Over 40 years later, I can’t even bear to type the word.)
  • I was flatly told by a fellow graduate student that “no woman has ever gotten a Ph.D. from the history department at OSU.”
  • My department was on my route as a letter carrier. Often when delivering mail to my department, I was swatted on the butt by faculty members and fellow graduate students alike.
  • At an event that called for getting dressed up, a fellow graduate student interrupted me to tell me that I looked “good enough to rape.”

We had no name then for what was happening. We know now that the perpetrators were laying the cornerstones of a “hostile environment,” a key phrase used in sexual harassment cases.

Regarding the long-term effect of these events, I can only speak for myself. I left OSU for another school and then dropped out. Eventually, I went back to graduate school in creative writing and focused on memoir. But hold off – don’t say, “See? It all worked out.”

I have earnestly tried to not let these stories be part of my material. In fact, it has taken me a long time to write about what happened. When I first tried, several years ago, I got stuck. I felt like a time traveler, trying to describe to a modern audience something from the distant past, like polio epidemics before the vaccine. Then came the revelations of first one celebrity taking liberties with subordinates, and then another, and then the politicians. And then came the “me, too” movement on social media. My heart broke each time one daughter-in-law, and then the other posted their respective stories. I had wanted to help create a world where such remembrances were truly a thing of the past.

Apparently, this speaking out is part of how we bring about that new world: we “silence breakers” are Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Such stories, then, are still relevant. Further, I have to admit, so are annual orientations. The institutions offering the orientations may be flawed and self-seeking, but in this endeavor, they’re on the side of the angels. The speaking out and the laying down of policy may, indeed, help bring forth a place we can lay down the burden of watching our backs. Just as the scourge of sexual harassment has contaminated our writing, the freedom from it will bring fresh air to our material.

Toward that end, let us join forces to banish this pollution from our atmosphere. In this newly clean, newly pure space, may we reclaim our cores, our dreams, our souls — the drive that this tyranny has so wrongly depleted. May we rediscover our focus. May we commit ourselves afresh to our work, our stories. Our precious callings need nothing less.

***

Paula Moyer is a freelance writer, memoirist, and birth doula living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is currently working on her memoir, An Inheritance of Spirit (working title).

<<♦>>

Raw Literature posts as an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99-word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.


63 Comments

  1. Charli Mills says:

    Paula, thank you for sharing your memoir essay at Carrot Ranch. To me, this is where memoir can be so powerful — using the past to understand the present and reshape the future.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Ritu says:

    What a powerful piece, Paula.
    Even though Sexual Harassment has been known by a name for so long, it took the #MeToo movement for many to step forward and realise that certain behaviours they had experienced, were not normal, or something to hide away, but a form of abuse that needed airing.
    Thank you for reminding us that we need to step up to the past, face it head on, in order to look to the future with our heads held high.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. paulamoyer says:

    Many thanks for your kind words! It took 43 years to get this story out of me. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Thank you for sharing this Paula.

    I’ve been battling within myself about whether to include my own experiences, fictionalised, for my characters, but have always been hesitant for fear of being shunned by those closest who don’t believe it’s as big a deal as it is.

    Being a mother to two daughters and a son, I’m scared for any of them to relive any aspect of the harassment, and I’m starting to believe that being a strong voice in the one creative area I’m passionate about is the only way I can help strengthen all three of them.

    So thank you. Truly. Through this you’ve given me the courage to explore sexual harassment in my own writing, no matter the ridicule. The benefits of awareness far outweigh anything anyone could say to try and drag us all through the mud.

    Liked by 6 people

    • paulamoyer says:

      Thank you, Rebecca! I have had no negative comments at all, and my friends/relatives are all over the map politically. I think it may be the kind of thing that’s easy to trivialize until someone you know comes forward with their own story.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Charli Mills says:

      You’ll have the support of those who want to see the positive change, Rebecca. I find that when we are vulnerable in our creativity we make a bigger impact because we are coming from a center of authenticity. Yes: “The benefits of awareness far outweigh anything anyone could say to try and drag us all through the mud.”

      Liked by 3 people

  5. ksbeth says:

    powerful and so true

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Norah says:

    Such a strong post, Paula. Congratulations. I understand the strength it would have taken to write, to share. The words of Marge Piercy in “For Strong Women” are perfectly true in the harshness of the realities they describe. Thank you for sharing it. I hadn’t seen it before.
    I agree with you that having words to describe what is occurring are what makes them real, something that can be talked about and shared. We talk about this with learning language. If children can’t name an object, for them it doesn’t exist. The importance of speaking about these issues is hugely important. Young girls and women who have been abused or harassed need to realise that it’s not them, not their fault, and it’s definitely not normal. If no one speaks up, those facts go unrealised. For years I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought an abuser was a “dirty old man” but no one else said anything, so I just thought I was over-reacting, a “prude”. When I found out what he was doing, I was appalled. At least it confirmed for me that my suspicions were correct. If it’s not talked about, we all think it’s just us.

    Liked by 5 people

    • paulamoyer says:

      Thank you, Norah! I agree, shining a flashlight on it all makes it more difficult to put on the victim. And the millions of us coming forward makes it more difficult to label anyone of us neurotic or overly sensitive.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s such a good point, coming from an educator’s recognition of how important naming an object or experience can be. And it makes me growl to think of the “dirty old men” who get labeled as harmless because the woman who protest get labeled as “prudes.” Wh really needs a shift in that thinking and it comes from the naming #MeToo movement gives us. It is appalling that women have these #MeToo stories. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience (somewhere in Australia there’s a dirty old man I want to kick in the shins).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Norah says:

        It is a great movement that will go down in history as heralding positive change. That particular “dirty old man” is long gone now. Sadly there are many more just like him. I often wonder what he’d think about all these stories now. He got out just in time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        I think those like him are struggling. But the tide is turning.

        Like

  7. Mary Smith says:

    An excellent post, Paula. I grew up in the era before sexual harassment had a name, when feeling uncomfortable about having my butt patted or sexual innuendo meant there was something wrong with me. Good luck with your memoir.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Oh Paula, those words from Marge Piercy have ‘landed in my heart’ now too. I have read them several times and can only say ‘Wow’. Thank you so much for your courageous and powerful post. I don’t know if you hear about it in the States, but here in the UK we are constantly hearing about yet another celebrity abuse case, all kicked off by one Jimmy Saville, an incredibly popular TV hose to an entire generation of children and teenagers (me included) and in the 70’s but turned out (after his death) that he was the most vile abuser of hundreds of children and young women. A woman in her early 50’s spoke out and then the damn broke. What upsets me so much is how those who have never been abused so often use the argument that those women are just ‘jumping on the band wagon’ having kept silent until now. What they don’t realise is that shame goes hand in hand with abuse and we carry that shame throughout our lives. Sharing our stories empowers us to stand up to our abusers, dead or alive, and reclaim our healing.
    Standing up to sexual harrassment in the work force, at one time, could have lost us our jobs. It was seen as something playful, fun, harmless. Sadly, I was not surprised to read what happened at the university. Like others here both as a teenager and young woman working in the late 70’s, I frequently had my bottom pinched, breasts grabbed and tongue jammed down my throat by married men with young children of their own. My work colleages. It is so hard to write about and I commend you. There is a darker abuse I have never shared publicly, but I have written about it in my memoir. It is that part of my story that I am terrified of sharing but am compelled to. For decades I have kept silent for too long. For those who don’t understand the profound damage suffered from child abuse need to know that it never goes away because it destroys the very essence of our childhood. It is the worst betrayal of a child’s innocence and trust. Thanks to you and every brave woman who stands up and tells their story, another, like me, says ‘Me Too’ and helps end the pain. Again, thank you Paula ❤

    Liked by 6 people

    • paulamoyer says:

      Thank you, Sheri. I agree. This is not a band wagon anyone willingly jumps on. All the best to you as you move through your healing.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you Paula, and sorry my response was so long. I was fired up by your post! And I feel safe sharing amongst friends here at the Ranch thanks to Charli and our wonderful community. I also meant to say, I wish you all the best with your memoir.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      These conversations are a safe place to share and thank you for that rust in sharing your experiences. I think the reason the dam breaks after one victim comes forward is that of how long it takes to understand what truly occurred. Shame is wielded as a weapon against victims, and survivors have to overcome much to name and replace the shame. And like you say, often those swats and pinches were “playful” and we as women are conditioned to play along. I’ve heard of Jimmy Saville’s atrocities and I wonder how many other men who were never famously committed the same in their own families and circles of influence. My understanding from therapy and studying complex PTSD is that these perpetrators feel powerless and they gain their power through sexual abuse. Sick. Maybe power is ultimately the thing that hurts us all in humanity. Why must we seek power over others? Why not help one another self-actualize and be empowered? Thank you for bravely sharing, Sherri.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It is sick and I agree, I do believe it comes down to power, using shame, deceit and secrecy as weapons of control. Oh that it were not so…Thank you so much for this safe place Charli, and for continuing your Raw Lit series with vital essays like Paula’s ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        This series is a great forum to talk about why we write and how creativity impacts our thinking. Language is powerful, too. That’s why we can be empowered as writers!

        Like

  9. Jules says:

    Paula,

    I don’t know what is worse a stranger…or a family member. Then speaking up and being not believed. While my own situation was not as – I don’t know the right word here – perhaps ‘in depth’ as others? I still refused to visit that particular relative overnight as a child. And while I had limited support from my family – they did not make me stay alone with that person, I did not feel 100% comfortable with the mental anguish part. I think it is the disappearance of trust, faith and innocence that hurt more.

    We also need to remember that sometimes the situation though rare is turned around. Men, elders, all children also get abused. Just this month there was a horrid revelation of a couple who basically kept their children, about 11 of them captive for about 15 years. And when the parents were confronted, believed they had done nothing wrong!

    We can only hope to teach our children and grandchildren that respect is a word that must be honored. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Liked by 4 people

    • paulamoyer says:

      Yes, Jules. You’re right. A male close relative is a survivor. Awful stuff.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Jules, thank you for sharing your experience, too. Yes, I think the betrayal of trust is greater when the abuser is known, but I also believe the greater betrayal is not being believed by those who should protect us. There’s a distinct line that should never be crossed with a child and despite the severity, if it get’s crossed it destroys that child’s innocence. And the worst part about it is not having the articulation to explain or understand what happened. I think that is the biggest takeaway from Paula’s essay is the naming of a thing and the empowerment we get from it. I shuddered when I heard the news out of California. Still, as a society, we are more comfortable putting on blinders than confronting this nature of abuse.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. paulamoyer says:

    Yes, Jules. You’re right. A male close relative is a survivor. Awful stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Juliet says:

    A beautiful piece. Paula. Thank you for sharing this with us all.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Annecdotist says:

    Powerful essay, Paula. I so agree that when something can be named we can start to address it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      I hadn’t thought about how powerful naming can be.

      Liked by 1 person

      • paulamoyer says:

        Think about the scene in “The Miracle Worker,” when Helen finally understands that when Teacher does the finger motions in Helen’s hand, Teacher is trying to communicate with Helen. Helen now understands that the most recent motions mean “water.” She runs around the yard, pounding on things, and then waiting for Teacher to spell the name of the thing into her hand. Then Helen spells it back, and Teacher puts Helen’s hand up to Teacher’s face so that Helen can feel Teacher nodding while Teacher spells “yes” into Helen’s hand. And then on to the next thing to learn its name. That’s the power of names.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        That scene is magnificent. It’s still vivid in my mind through all the ways I read it and saw it in the movie.

        Liked by 1 person

    • paulamoyer says:

      Thank you, Anne!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Liz H says:

    I think it was Lev Vygotsky (Russian Psychologist, contemporary of Piaget) who declared that language precedes thought and understanding. I think that we know, in our gut, even if we don’t have a label for a thing, but language allows us to go beyond the gut and grow in understanding, and make change. Unfortunately, language can also be used to diminish and imprison, as well. Which means we need to speak up and share our stories, in whatever form allows us to do so. Visual Art, Writing (Creative and Expository), music, even an answering squeeze oif the hand that yes, I get you. So yes, #metoo.

    I won’t say that these experiences haven’t colored my work, nor that they shouldn’t—it’s all of what makes us the strong, rich tapestry that holds us together when we say. “Stop that, please.”

    And on another note, I’ve been watching the 1980’s-90’s vintage TV sitcom reruns and it’s a little horrifying. No wonder people have been/are so confused. Remember? That was humor & that was normal, back in the day. Ugh!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Interesting! I would have thought that thought preceded language (I think, therefore I am) but this reversal makes me appreciate all the more any kind of language-based art — I’ve always thought literary art is important! I want that rich tapestry that holds together many colorful threads but supports each one when “no” is said. Sometimes humor can be used to show the folly of social constructs, but it can also be used to normalize, too. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Liz!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for sharing Paula. It is a powerful piece of writing and helps those that haven’t decided to speak up to do so and lets those that are mute have a voice.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. faithanncolburn says:

    thanks for speaking out, not just Paula but all the women who have continued the conversation in comments. From my experience I’ll add one note and I still don’t quite know what to make of it. My former husband once told me I have a glance that scared him to death. My son has confirmed it.

    So here’s the inciting incident. I was in my early 20s working at my first full-time writing job when I walked through a kind of bull pen area. One of the men tapped me on the butt as I passed him. I turned and just gave him what I thought was a neutral look. I didn’t frown, I just kind of stared for a few seconds as he carefully drew back his hand. Interestingly, no one ever did that again. And,like I said, I don’t know what to make of it. (there were other challenges, I’m not saying that one look made my life a bowl of sexual cherries)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      How interesting Faith! I learned early one that I could work in jobs normally territory of men by looking men in the eyes. Those who were leaders seemed to respect that I had grit. Those who were jerks couldn’t look back and I knew to be wary of them the most. But I never really thought about it until you shared your story. I think it’s an act of honesty to look eye-to-eye with another person. Maybe it humanizes a woman instead of objectifying her. Definitely, have me thinking!

      Liked by 1 person

    • paulamoyer says:

      Thanks, Faith. I don’t know that I have a “look,” but I do know this: at OSU, the harassment stopped for me when I got angry. I was in a state of shock until then. But still — the perpetrators were responsible for their actions. I was vulnerable and a bit dazzled about being in graduate school. Years later, when I took a self-defense class, I learned that nice people want to help vulnerable people, not take advantage of them. Most of us want to help, the predator mentality is a whole different thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. faithanncolburn says:

    Oh and my previous story occurred in about 1968 or 69, so no one worried about lawsuits.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Even I experienced and still experience sexual harassment at work. I have had a number of unpleasant experiences one at the dentist, one with an ex-boyfriend and a few with colleagues and clients.

    Like

  18. […] BOTS flash fiction is an extension of the essay, Me, Too: Sexual Harassment Before It Had a Name, by the […]

    Like

  19. ngrant41 says:

    Thank you – your words encourage me to follow through on my resolve to write about my own Me_Too in academia experiences. Coming soon. I promise.

    Like

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