I have silently witnessed, with gratitude, and relief, the echoes of my experiences of sexual trauma in the words of my sisters. This is not my first attempt, by any means, to write about what happened over the years. My many attempts have given me even more respect for the women that have spoken up in the #MeToo movement. These women are fierce warriors of a cultural revolution.
I am a white, immigrant women from South Africa. Women of color face a disproportionately higher rate of harassment and assault than white women and their voices in the #MeToo movement have been underrepresented by the media. I have not been disadvantaged by the institutionalized racism, fetishization, and a host of other cumulative issues women of color navigate in addition to and infused with sexism. I do not speak for all women. This testimony is a deeply personal and subjective addition to the sea of voices speaking out about the impact of men’s misogynist actions – behaviors that range from blatantly cruel to insidiously abusive.
Before the #me too movement our accounts went largely unheard and men’s assumptions about our experiences were normative.
It is relevant to ask, what held back so many of us from speaking out publicly for so long? While there are common threads that keep women silent, many of the unspoken forces affect women disproportionately across cultural differences. There are major disparities between what it means for me to speak out and what it means for women in more vulnerable populations. For example, undocumented immigrants have the additional risk of deportation and separation from their children. Women of color face the threat of personally, institutionally, and economically racist responses that generate a whole additional set of concerns.
My ability to speak out publicly was inhibited by unconsciously internalized belief systems, patriarchal power dynamics, a fear of villainization, and institutionalized misogyny.
It has rendered my protest, my subjectivity, and my outrage inaudible. How can we value the depth of a woman’s experience without demeaning her for having it?
I will not keep silent any more. I will not stay silent to be unoffensive, or for fear of retaliation, or for any other of the myriad reasons that have kept my mouth shut. I have become a mother of an incredible daughter and I will not compromise in my commitment to stewarding the next generation of wisdom keepers. I want our daughters to grow up in a world where it is safe for them to adventure out, travel around, and even simply walk around at night. Perhaps, part of adulthood is embracing the responsibility to take a stand.
What is it about sexual harassment and violence that it is acceptable for men to do it, while simultaneously taboo for us to speak about? There has been a social failure to recognize harassment as abuse at all. Typically we dismiss such incidents as trivial, isolated, or personal. I believe my testimony and the testimony of individual women in general substantiates a dimension of social reality that otherwise goes ignored. #MeToo.
I will start with writing about the “small” incidents I experienced over the years. The ones whose impact often serves to limit women from doing what I ventured to do- travel all over the world, alone, at a young age.
This is the collective punishment I received for choosing to not obey societal norms of appropriate restrictions for women's bodies and behavior.
There are too many micro-incidents to possibly count and many of them I barely remember. They have been confused in my mind so that I only recall some details, a gas station, the navy blue hat one man was wearing, and fantasies I had afterwards of how I wish I had responded. Some of these men blur into each other and I don’t remember, for sure, which country I was in. I realize these incidents are not small at all. They are “big”, cumulative, emotionally wrenching to revive. They are too many.
There was the, almost daily, being groped on crowded busses by men in India. I carried a pin in my hand, ready, to poke these men as I would feel them start to grind up against me. There are other stories I prefer to tell – where I came out resilient and proud. Such as being approached, after dark and alone, on the beach in Kerala by 6 men. I got away using karate kicks and yelling Kali mantras. These are moments of power where I mobilized, rather than froze, and over the years these memories have provided me with a fierce strength.
Then there are the moments when I felt less heroic. The ones where I couldn’t find a voice that gave no fucks. There have been the years of sexual harassment by men where I felt a need to decline them gently, without appearing insulted, indeed almost charmed by it. It was as if I had to find a way to say no which also flattered them on some level.
Sexual harassment refers to the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power. Central to the concept is the use of power derived from one social sphere to lever benefits or impose deprivations in another. (MacKinnon 1991)
There was a painful disparity between my experiences of these micro-traumas and the accepted “guys will be guys” cultural norm.
I was made to feel crazy for feeling traumatized. I’m appalled, now, at how I tended toward pathologizing myself for the way I felt! Questions such as these circulated in my mind; 'Was I over reacting? What if it's just the undeveloped parts of myself that respond this way? What if I could simply say, x, y, or z? Why am I making this so hard?' Looking back over the years, from this place, I don’t know what I was afraid of exactly, but it caused me to severely limit my involvement in these communities.
It didn't make it easier that many of the people involved echoed these beliefs about my experience. Almost none of the people seemed surprised it was happening - more surprised I would be distressed by it and I have been routinely encouraged to downplay such incidents. I’m not sure which was more damaging, the abuse, or the lack of support by the community. If the people around these men don’t hold them accountable for sexual harassment they are helping them to continue to do it - no matter their lack of malice.
I have felt disillusioned, misled, angry, and insulted. What men did made me uncomfortable and they weren’t picking up on my cues or listening to my boundaries. I have harbored feelings of embarrassment, being demeaned, and feeling complicit. Sexualized contact from men in positions of power is confusing and inappropriate, and made learning and professional environments intolerable for me. Men in authority leveraged their power and sexually exploited our dynamic.
Then, there was the time when not finding my voice had more dire consequences.
I left for India for a year and a half when I was 21 years old. I had been celibate, wearing all white, and had barely spoken in 6 months. I was in a deep yogic process of transformation involving meditation, yoga, pranayama, silence and deep surrender. Being in such a serene state allowed a calm acceptance of all that is - a tranquility where nothing could really touch me. Nothing was an issue. People came and brought me food, left flowers at my feet, and I kept on with my practices. It is difficult to describe the peace that gradually filled me over the course of that time.
It was the middle of the night. It all happened so fast. It was my guru that did it. I kept my vow of silence and said nothing. This haunted me for years - my silence, my inability to raise a voice that had been so little used for so long.
Afterwards, in the dark, I crept up to the roof of the ashram and sat in the light of the moon. All the power I had previously transferred onto the guru flooded back into my system. Six months of deep practice had left me with an unparalleled serenity in response to the betrayal. I held his poison while simultaneously holding infinite space, tranquility, and oneness with the universe.
The peace I experienced immediately after was profound. It has been mine to return to over the years- it is my talisman.