Over the weekend my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with women’s posts using the hashtag #MeToo or simply posting the two words “Me Too”. Some of my friends went on to write about assaults and rapes they’ve survived, others chose to let the words stand without explanation. A few of my men friends even wanted to get in on the conversation posting about their shame for remaining silent, their guilt for being implicit, and at least one man ignorantly posted that we also shouldn’t forget about the men and boys who have been victims of sexual assault. That last one kind of stuck in my craw. But it isn’t his fault. In the same way that I as a white woman can never truly understand what it feels like to be a young black man in today’s society, can any man, let alone a middle class white man, ever really understand what it’s like to be a girl, to be a woman, everyday? I’ll forgive my friend of his ignorance. He just doesn’t get it.
My lessons on being an average girl, like every girl I know, started the day I was born. I grew up bouncing on the knees of male relatives. I have the uncle who claims to be a “hugger” but who I’ve never seen hug any of my other uncles. He reserved his love of hugging for his sister-in-laws, his nieces, his daughter.
I got my first job when I was 19, working in retail at a pet store in the mall. I loved that I got to learn how to care for puppies. I loved taking them for walks, giving them baths and helping them find their forever homes. I didn’t mind cleaning up their poop. I cared for those puppies and wanted to do whatever I could to help make them comfortable. The store manager was just a couple of years older than me and he seemed really cool and nice. I was the youngest person on staff and I instantly made friends with some of the older women, who took me under their wings.
For the first month or so everything was peachy. I was settling in nicely, learning a lot. And then one evening when my shift ended my boyfriend came into the store to pick me up. I was excited to show him around, introduce him to my co-workers and manager, show him the puppies. Everyone was polite and friendly to him but the oldest woman I worked with, who was probably in her 40’s, had a look in her eye, like I had done something wrong. My manager was not at all his usual friendly self when he was introduced to my boyfriend. He looked embarrassed and awkward. I didn’t understand why I felt so uncomfortable but on the way home I told my boyfriend that I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to come into the store when he picked me up again, there must be some rule against it.
The next time I was scheduled to work, I went in to the store and the manager glared at me and asked, “Why are you here?” I thought he was joking, I laughed and said I was there for my shift. He said I wasn’t on the rotor. I was confused, nobody had called me to tell me it had changed. I went into the back room and checked, all my shifts were gone except a few hours. I had gone from about 32 hours in the week to four hours on a Saturday night. I remember flushing with embarrassment because I thought I was rocking this job but obviously I sucked at it to have been cut back so much.
My manager came into the room on the way to his office and he smiled when he looked at me and saw that I was blushing and obviously holding back tears. It wasn’t his usual friendly smile. It was a gloating smile. He showed me who was boss! I didn’t understand any of this. I asked him why all my shifts were changed, why I only had a few hours at the end of the week, why nobody called me to save me the trip in to the store, and he just shrugged and said he could do whatever he wanted with the schedule, whenever he wanted and it was my responsiblity to check it and know when I had to work.
When I had been hired it was understood that I wanted to work into full-time hours because this was my only source of income, so I asked if I was going to get more hours in coming weeks or whether I needed to find a second job. He said I’d probably be wise to find a second job if I wanted to make a full week’s wage. I got angry then. I didn’t understand how it had all gone so wrong so quickly, I had no idea what I could have done that was so terrible that I was being punished like this. I snapped and the tears started leaking out in anger as I told him if that was the case then I was done. His gloating smile got even bigger as he said, “No need to return the shirt, I’ll deduct it off your last pay.”
I fled then. I ran the 30 minutes walk home in about 10, tears streaming down my face, and then locked myself in my room, sobbing uncontrollably. The older lady I worked with called me a couple of days later and told me that she knew it wouldn’t end well once the manager saw that I had a boyfriend. I hadn’t realized but he was interested in me, he wanted to date me, he had a history of hiring young girls and then coming on to them. If they gave in they got lots of hours, the best shifts, and if they didn’t they got exactly what I got. She said she should have warned me. She said she felt bad. I told her it was okay. I told her it was my fault for being naive, not her fault for not wanting to get involved. I thanked her for being a good friend to me. I told her I had learned a lot from her. And I meant every word of it, though now, decades later, I want to go off on that woman and tell her she needed to speak up and tell me. I want to scream at that young girl and tell her that she did nothing wrong, that she had no reason to be embarasssed. I want to make that girl contact the head office of that retail chain and file a report against that punk ass manager.
As it was, I didn’t go pick up my last pay, I sent my boyfriend. The manager wasn’t there or he would have had some choice words hurled at him. A very long time passed before I ever went back to that mall. I was afraid I would run into the guy or even any of my former co-workers. I was embarrassed that I had been so stupid. I felt guilty for screwing up the opportunity.
My very first job and I learned a valuable lesson about working with men … and women.
There would be more lessons though, way harsher lessons … worse bosses, worse boyfriends, much worse situations … in my 48 years of life on this earth I have found that the only way to escape it is to work and live in complete solitude, which isn’t feasible for anyone.
My friend, who wants us to take this opportunity to also think about the men who have been victimized, doesn’t understand that it isn’t just a select group of girls who learn the hard lessons of having a “handsy” uncle or of having their bra strap snapped for jokes in the schoolyard or who have to deal with inappropriate jokes from a teacher or who are forced to quit a job because they say “no” to the sexual advances of their supervisor. It’s not just a select group. I do not know of any woman who hasn’t experienced something awkward and inappropriate. And I certainly don’t know of any girl who doesn’t know the “rules” to help keep herself just a little bit safer at school, at church, out at public events, and in her workplace. And unfortunately I know entirely too many women who have been sexually abused, sexually assaulted and raped.
I have been sexually assaulted, not abused by any family member who gave me the creeps, not raped because I got away before that happened, but sexually assaulted by a man who was familiar to me and who I trusted enough to accept the offer of a ride home.
If the #MeToo movement was focused just on victims of sexual abuse and rape, then yes, I would be inclined to agree that we shouldn’t leave out the boys. But I don’t think that is what it’s about. #MeToo is about being a girl. Plain and simple. Whether my women friends have posted it or chosen not to post it, they all could have posted it. Were they all raped? No. Were they all harassed? No. Have every single one of them evaluated the risk of a particular situation that a boy could just charge through without a second thought and then either altered their behaviour in some way to minimize the risk or decided to throw caution to the wind and take their chances? Hell yes!
And there is the problem.
We have a society where it is necessary to teach our girls to be careful, to be wary, to be on alert, to be aware of their spider senses tingling, to be skeptical, every moment of every day of every year of their entire lives … because boys will ambush you in the schoolyard and snap your bra strap … because you will have a different set of dress code rules so as to not tempt boys to do even more than that … because boys will be boys … because uncles will want hugs … because supervisors will want dates … because married bosses will want affairs … because acquaintances will offer rides home … because men will be men.