The 7 Stages Of Being Groped
It was a 30th high school reunion party and the DJ was playing “Come On Eileen.” I was working the party as a catering server. I carried a tray of hors d’oeuvres in my left hand and, in my anonymous catering uniform (black button-up shirt, black tie, long black apron), I wove my way through clusters of 48-year-olds who were three beers or chardonnays deep. I came to one such cluster of half-drunk 48-year olds, made up of three men.
“Goat cheese wonton?” The tallest one reached his hand toward the tray and as he did, I asked, “Having a nice night?”
In one swift movement, his hand stopped moving toward the tray and started moving toward my chest, where it landed on my right boob. He clutched firmly. I froze. He didn’t remove it. He looked into my face and he answered my question: “My night just got better.” I stood perfectly still. I heard his friends laugh nervously. I heard “Eileen, too-ra-loo-ra-too-ra-loo-rye-aye” playing over the PA system. I heard someone drop a beer bottle. He kept cupping my breast for another 10 seconds.
If, likely because you are a man, this kind of thing is foreign to you, let me chart for you the seven stages of being groped:
1. Disbelief: This stranger can’t possibly be cupping my breast right now and looking me in the eyes. This cannot be a thing people do. His confidence and ease conveys a presumed naturalness on his part. But it feels so unnatural that it causes me to question if this is actually happening at all.
2. Belief: It is actually happening. People actually do this.
3. Dissociation: I feel myself shrink 10 sizes. The aspects of myself that make me a multi-dimensional person fold in on themselves until I am lying flat on the ground like cardboard. All the things I know to be true about myself — that I like black coffee and that I graduated magna cum laude from college and that I worry about my mother’s health — flee. I see myself as this man sees me: the physical outline of a woman who exists for him to behold and handle. I am a blank canvas on which he can paint some brushstrokes that will reflect back to him a sense of his own power, an assurance that strange women exist for the purpose of his own sexual impulses.
4. Self-Protection: I draw an invisible curtain over myself. The curtain is meant to keep him from seeing that his hand on my breast unsettles me, makes me feel bad and scared and less-than. The curtain is meant to keep him from the gratification of knowing how much this sucks for me. The curtain is also useful because I can use the cloth to begin wrapping the wound of his strike against me.
5. Decision: I weigh my options. I can stop this from happening. I can say something. I can attempt to remove his hand. But it is my first night on the job. I don’t want to cause waves. I’m afraid he will ridicule me. I’m afraid my boss will categorize me as a difficult woman who takes things too seriously. I need this job. I need the money. So I opt to stand still until the moment is over and he removes his hand.
6. Fleeing: I walk away and return the tray to the kitchen. Away from the crowd, I break into a loud laugh — the laugh works to shatter the acute sense of powerlessness. I casually relay the story to my new co-workers and boss. My boss’ eyes go wide with horror. But I also know that by having chosen to grin and bear it, by not ripping a stitch in an otherwise seamless evening, I’ve curried some workplace favor. I’ll get called for more jobs. I’ve guaranteed myself some economic security by the simple act of not standing up for myself.
7. The Aftermath: I cannot tell you what happened after that, but I can wager some guesses. I can wager that I went home to the privacy of my apartment where it was quiet and I was alone and I couldn’t ignore the memory of this stranger’s hand on my chest and his emboldened eyes as he waited for my reaction. I can wager that I probably ate to numb myself. I can wager that I probably drank so I didn’t have to think.
You already know this wasn’t an isolated incident. You already know that I’ve walked myself through these seven stages before, whether the groping was physical or verbal. You already know that when I was 16, I stood at a crosswalk while a man 40 years my senior looked me up and down before asking: “Do you have skim milk in those titties?” You already know that when I was in college, I declined some guy’s invitation to go back with him to his frat house; “Fucking cunt,” he spat as he walked away. You already know that I once worked at a restaurant where I found myself alone with a cook in the kitchen. His eyes followed me all around the room as he began violently thrusting his hips against the prep table so that it banged repeatedly against the wall, scattering ingredients: thud, thud, thud.
“Who are you ladies voting for?” He paused for a split-second, and before we had a chance to reply, he offered: “I’m voting for Trump.”
You already know all that because these stories are universal.
The stories are universal, but the ways women respond vary widely. For me, almost every time I’ve come to Stage 5 (decision), I’ve opted to let things slide, to not say much, if anything at all. The reasons are numerous: I’ve been ingrained to expect this sort of behavior, I’ve been wary of economic retaliation, I’ve wanted to sidestep potential ridicule, and most embarrassingly, I haven’t wanted to humiliate the men choosing to enact such damage. It feels good to come clean about that. I haven’t wanted to humiliate then men who have humiliated me.
So instead of addressing the situations, I have taken a stiff broom and swept them under rugs in the deeper caverns of my mind. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep the memory of these words and images swept clean out of sight. After Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood video surfaced, a steady stream of women began stepping forward to talk about their own experiences. Each new story reminded me of my own history. Things I’d rather forget began slinking out of their caverns toward the sunlight. Things I’d rather forget began dancing in my brain when I tried to fall asleep at night, begging to be dusted off, addressed, reconciled.
A couple weeks ago, on the evening of the third presidential debate and in the midst of Trump’s accusers stepping forward, I found myself on the patio of a restaurant having a glass of wine with my friend, Jennifer. A group of men sat at the table next to us. Their conversation was loud and blustery, so my sonar was up. Inevitably, they broke the ice. Jennifer and I weren’t really looking to meet new people, but we casually exchanged conversation for a few minutes until one of them broke in: “Who are you ladies voting for?” He paused for a split-second, and before we had a chance to reply, he offered: “I’m voting for Trump.”
I would like, as much as possible, to steer away from generalizations here. I know nothing about this guy. I’m in no position to make judgments. But what I know is this: We were two women. The final debate had aired on TV that night. Streams of sexual allegations against Trump had been pouring in. Most political discourse, at the national and personal level, was being dominated by themes of sexual assault and boundaries. This man had been drinking. His tone was aggressively challenging and unwarranted. And the look in his eyes as he stared at me felt familiar. It was the same emboldened look the man at the 30th high school reunion had on his face as he stared into my eyes, holding my nipple between my thumb and forefinger. The look lets me know who has more power in the situation. The look says: “What are you going to do about it?”
So I stood up. I gathered my purse. I said I didn’t want to talk anymore, and as I walked away, I heard him shout after me, “Oh, come on!” As if I were making a big deal out of nothing.
Maybe I was making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe I should’ve given this man the benefit of a dialogue. But I have grown tired of dialogues. I have grown tired of men who treat my body as their own. I have grown tired of men who stand idly by while it happens. I have grown tired of these seven stages of groping and my memories of walking through them.
So I did what I could. Before I even got to Step 1, I skipped to Step 6: I made the decision to walk away.
Images: Anna Anderson