Earlier in this pregnancy, I filled out my “Initial Health History” form for prenatal and birth care. You know: check the box if you’ve experienced severe headaches, diabetes, all sorts of things. After the usual “Emotional abuse,” “Physical abuse,” “Sexual abuse,” I got to this very interesting item: ”ANY unwanted/undesired physical or sexual contact.”
And I almost went blithely on without checking the box that means I’ve experienced it. Because nothing has happened to me, really, right? I’m supposed to feel lucky, right, given that I’m a woman in a culture where horrible things very often happen to girls and women? But then I actually thought for a second, and reality hit me.
I have been grabbed and forcefully kissed, open-mouthed, by a stranger while walking through a crowded club behind friends.
I have been groped and rubbed on while dancing at parties in college, at bars, at clubs: a parade of hard penises I most certainly did not want to feel. For a while, I went dancing at a bar where women could dance on the bar, because it was the only place I could figure out to enjoy dancing without getting felt up: being ogled and treated like I was likely to strip at any moment felt safer and less disgusting than the alternative. And I like dancing.
I have felt my ass grabbed and pinched and stroked on crowded city streets and public transit, from early adolescence on.
When I was fourteen, I hemorrhaged while menstruating, leading to a very early first gynecological exam. After putting her fingers inside my body as I lay–abjectly terrified and deeply ashamed, feet in stirrups–on the table, the doctor asked whether I was sexually active. And when I said no, she assumed I was lying. That was my first experience of another person touching my genitals, and while technically she had my consent, let’s just say it didn’t go well. Many years of nightmares, body shame, and bouts of anxiety ensued.
Between the ages of twelve and nineteen, I attracted a great deal of ‘fatherly’ attention from middle-aged men who stood too close to me, touched my shoulders for no apparent reason, moved me physically where they wanted to go rather than using their words.
I’ve had boyfriends repeatedly touch me sexually in ways they knew I didn’t like. Because they wanted to.
There was a professor in grad school who would stand way too close to me (and lots of other young women) at department functions, doing odd things like stroking my arm, leaving me quite unsure how to respond without harming my future as a student and as an academic.
When I was twenty-one, a married acquaintance in his forties asked me to meet up with him and a group of friends for a drink one evening. He was drunk when I got there. He licked my neck. When I left for my car (to get the hell out of there and see my new boyfriend, who incidentally was Eric), the man followed me outside, scaring the shit out of me. He stood there towering over me in the dark parking lot, me backing away from his closeness, as he tried to convince me to go with him to his car.
Just for instance.
I’d never envisioned these little experiences as part of a larger pattern before filling out that form. They’re just so ordinary. My mother and stepmother and friends and, I’m sure, students have experienced all of this shit, and are continuing to experience it–and much scarier and more scarring shit, too. Many of you have, and do, and will. In many senses I am lucky. Yet despite my comparatively good fortune and my considerable privilege–which I totally acknowledge–the truth is that each of these ‘little’ moments in my life articulated what quickly became a powerful theme:
Your body is not for you. Your body is for men’s pleasure.
And you are at risk, all the time.
When I checked the box next to this item on the form, curious five-year-old Noah asked what it meant. I read it to him, and he asked what it meant again. I said something like “Well, Erin wants to know whether anyone’s ever touched me in a way I didn’t want, like kissing me when I didn’t want that, and unfortunately that has happened to me. A lot. But not recently.”
He looked at me very seriously.
Then he gave me a serious smile and slowly, slowly, maintaining eye contact, gave me the gentlest kiss in the world, on my mouth.
I refuse to do the happy dance because I was fortunate enough not to be molested as a little girl and have not been violently raped. I refuse to be abjectly grateful for ‘getting off easy’ with the experiences I’ve mentioned here.
Because I deeply resent that they are normal.
Because I can hardly stand the thought of these constant erosions of personhood seeming normal to our daughters and sons.
But for this love and gentleness and compassion, I am infinitely grateful.