Board of Contributors: Why they didn’t speak up earlier

  • In this image provided by the U.S. Army, then-comedian Al Franken and sports commentator Leeann Tweeden perform a comic skit for service members during the USO Sergeant Major of the Army’s 2006 Hope and Freedom Tour in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 15, 2006. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., apologized Thursday after Tweeden accused him of forcibly kissing her during the 2006 USO tour. AP file

For the Monitor
Saturday, November 18, 2017

The rallying cry for men who neither understand the dynamics of sexual behavior nor wish to has become: “Why didn’t the women who were groped/assaulted/harassed say something at the time? The timing is suspicious.”

Having made it to my 51st year being date raped, groped, ogled and objectified, I can say this with certainty: If you do not see the difference between sexual contact and any other physical contact, you have been actively putting your head in the sand for a long time.

I write this not to rehash my various experiences, but to explain to those who are still mystified why we did not then, and often do not now, come forward with our experiences at the time they occurred. The answer is both complicated and simple. It boils down to attitudes, reactions and doubt.

For the sake of decency, let me refer to a sexual act as a “cup of tea.” (If you haven’t already seen the fabulous YouTube video “Consent: It’s Simple as Tea,” watch it now. I mean it). Consider all the ramifications of this analogy: Would you make someone who is passed out drink tea? Do you walk down the street spraying people with tea? Do you pin people down and force them to drink tea? Of course not, that would be silly and rude. But many people do not follow these rules when it comes to sex. Why is that? Perhaps it lies in the fact that men and women feel very differently about the act.

From what I understand, the desire for “tea” lurks in the background of men’s minds from the time they hit puberty until they die. Most women I know find this baffling. Sure, we are in the mood when the necessary ingredients are there, but thinking of “tea” all the time? How could we get anything done?

This difference in attitude is the primary reason men like Harvey Weinstein are confused. If they were approached by a woman who offered them a cup of tea, they would jump at the chance. What is so bad about making a friendly offer? Um, guys, you know you are generally stronger and heavier than us, right? And if you are in a position of power, that means some aspect of our lives is now at risk unless we drink the tea you have offered us. The fact that we are in this position is so ingrained in us, many of us don’t even realize we are being coerced. Instead we drink the tea or refuse the tea but are afraid to talk about it with others because they will not see the problem if we were not at gunpoint.

When I was a teenager, my father told me how to defend myself against male attackers by hitting them in the groin. He didn’t tell me where the tender spot was for bosses who looked at me like a toy or frat boys who saw me as little more than a hole in which to pour their tea.

If you are a heterosexual male, consider this scenario: You are at a job you like, but want to move up the ladder. Your boss, a gay man who could double as Hulk Hogan, calls you into his office to discuss your prospects for advancement. You eagerly go, hoping a promotion is being offered. He lets you in, closes the door, grabs you suggestively and lets you know the promotion is yours if you drop on your knees and make him a cup of tea. You balk, not wanting tea, and he lets you know that you better not say a thing to anyone outside the office or he will discredit you and make your work life hell. Outrageous? Maybe to you, but not to many women.

Another aspect to consider is time.

We like to think that 30 or 40 years ago women were empowered by the feminist revolution, but in many ways we were still in the dark ages. I distinctly recall my mother telling me that being married meant sometimes doing things that you do not want to do, and this extended to the bedroom. In this same talk she suggested that something very painful would happen to men if they did not get their way, and as women it was our job to make sure they did not experience that.

I understand the nuance now, and considering what I know as an adult it does not seem that nefarious. But at the age of 12, I took this as a grim order: You must do what the man says – or else.

As strange as that advice seems today, the perspective of my grandmother was even further from today’s standards. After spending a difficult year in college with a verbally and sexually abusive boyfriend, I finally confided in her what had been happening and that I was breaking up with him. She had clicked with him when I introduced them, and so she pleaded with me to stay with him: “He told me he loves you!” So much for looking out for our own.

At the time I could not appreciate her reality, which was that sex was not meant to be pleasant for women unless you were a slut, and that men were always in charge. It was painful, but that’s how you kept your husband and had children. She simply did not see what I had to complain about.

When I told both of my grandparents that a 12-year-old girl I was looking after had been raped by her father, they thought it was funny. Either they thought I was making it up or they didn’t know how to react. I never mentioned it again because I simply did not want to hear what either of them had to say about it.

As hard as it is to hear others doubt our perspective, the self-doubt women develop in the face of society’s warped views can be worse.

At age 23, I visited an eccentric uncle at his summer home. In the morning I woke up with him in bed beside me asking me if he could get closer under the covers with me. At that moment, I froze, much like anyone would if a poisonous viper was placed at their feet. Why didn’t I slap him, push him, bite him? Because I just wanted him to go away. I was heartily wishing this was all a dream and this hideous event was not reality. The reality, as I saw it, was that he would have wanted me to get into a struggle with him, which he would use to his advantage. I managed to mumble something that distracted him long enough so that I could grab my things and leave the house.

When I told his brother, who had four daughters my age and younger, about the event so he could keep his family safe, I was met with: “What did you do to encourage him?”

The cruel reality was that many people in the family had known about him for years, but it was not talked about. Family members who had voiced their apprehensions were told they were being disrespectful of their elders and were making up stories to get attention. This attitude made those of us he had attacked doubt our own experiences, our innocence. We didn’t discuss it with one another because we thought we must have done something bad to have brought it on ourselves.

When he died a few years later, many women in the family came forward with similar, or worse, stories. Yet because I had been old enough and rebellious enough to make waves, I was the whistleblower. I can only imagine how many people could have been spared pain if the first person to come forth had been listened to instead of hushed.

What is the big deal after all? Is it so bad that our lawmakers think it is okay to grab women like sex toys if the situation presents itself? If this is still a question for you, I have news for you: Women are not pets. We are not dolls, we are not tools, we are not machines. Women are humans and our bodies are attached to our souls. Our sexuality is a vulnerable gift that can only be offered, not stolen or forced. When you ignore that, you are pretending that sex is something outside of us that we can put on or take off like a piece of clothing.

Why are women coming out with these stories now? Simple: There is strength in numbers, and it appears that strength is what you need in abundance to weather the pushback that comes when you finally tell the truth.

(Ayn Whytemare is the owner and operator of Found Well Farm in Pembroke.)