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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Don't Even Look at Me

I only have two regrets. One involves not saying some things to someone important in my life before that person died. The other one I rectified in a dream I had last night, which is why I have it on my mind.

I was sexually harassed by a classmate in high school. This is no big secret. Some of my friends knew about it and tried to protect me from him. I even told my parents about a lot of it. (Had I told them all of it, they probably would have acted, but at fifteen there were things I was not yet comfortable discussing.) The worst of it happened during my sophomore year, when we had six out of six classes together the first semester and five out of six classes together the second. By my senior year, we only had one class together and it was essentially over. My desire at the time was for the problem to just go away. I read and reread the section in our student handbook about the school's zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment, but I never took the problem to the administration. I was worried that when I told about all the little comments, the innuendo, and, of course, that time in the library, it wouldn't sound like much. Or that he would just deny it all and it would come to nothing. Or even if they did believe I was being sexually harassed, what could they do? We took all the same classes and at least three of them were not offered at any other time, so it wouldn't work to reassign us to different schedules. What if telling just made things worse? So I did nothing. I didn't really get angry until I was in college and by that time, of course, it was too late. So that's my regret: that I didn't officially lodge a complaint of sexual harassment against this classmate with the school while I had the chance. Subsequently, he was never informed that what he was doing was not okay. It took some eight years for me to escape the power of his gaze and he got away with it.

If I simply sum up the various things he said to me, while a few of them were inappropriate, they don't sound like all that much, certainly not worth the amount of agony they caused me. How would it have sounded if I had gone to the school counselors and said, "Hey, this guy, he's really creeping me out, he's said a couple of times now that he's worried about how thin I am." I mean, that one doesn't sound like sexual harassment, does it? And I was horribly thin. But I can still remember nearly fifteen years later where I was when this conversation took place (German II) and how creepy it was because I could tell how much he got off on being able to talk about my body in this seemingly legitimate context. I also got the sense that he felt very possessive of my body and this mock solicitousness was really a way of asserting that my body belonged to him. This and other remarks made it clear to me that not only did he think about my body in a sexual way all the time, but that he wanted me to know that he thought about me this way. I am sure of this, just as I am sure that loathing and resentment was a component of his desire. But how was I to prove something that existed almost entirely between the lines?

And at fifteen, I didn't know how to say to an adult, whether it was my parents or someone at the school, that more than once I caught him with his hands in his pockets fondling himself while he stared at me. I can remember the circumstances of the first time so clearly. Our class was in the library. I had been looking up something in the encyclopedias. I glanced up, having had that eerie feeling that I was being stared at, and there he was, in a chair on the far side of the library, hands in his pockets, hands moving in his pockets, and looking straight at me. My gut immediately knew what it had seen, even though I desperately tried to think of reasons why it wasn't so. It wasn't just me, though, who saw him. They didn't see what he was looking at, but some of the other guys in the class had spotted what he was up to. I overheard one of them tease him as we were leaving the library, asking him if he'd been enjoying "stroking the lizard" during class. He hotly denied it, of course, but it was sickening proof for me that I hadn't imagined what I was seeing.

I told my friends about these various instances and they tried to surround me and protect me when they could and I developed a number of strategies to try to maintain space between us, but the fact of the matter, especially during my sophomore year, was that every hour of the school day was spent in his vicinity. That proximity--and his gaze--were the worst of it. I could not avoid him and I could not stop him from looking at me and he'd said and done enough things for me to know exactly what he was thinking about when he stared at me every day in every class. It was horrible, it made me feel sick, it even made me ponder violence, but I was worried that all the little instances, the little things that were said, wouldn't sound like enough, so I didn't go to the school authorities.

It was during my freshman year in college when the annual Clothesline Project shirts went up that I finally understood that even the gaze was a violation. The Clothesline Project addresses violence against women; individuals decorate T-shirts in colors corresponding to various types of violence (assault, rape, etc.) with their stories and hang them on clotheslines for others to see. While reading the stories on the shirts, I recognized what had happened to me. He may never have touched me (and how I had longed, in a way, for him to do so, because I was resolved that a touch would be the final straw), but he managed to hurt me nonetheless. I got very angry. But it was too late to hurt him.

I already struggled with social anxiety, but the attention of his eyes made it even harder for me to tolerate being looked at by others. It didn't help that my freshman year I was considered the Hot New Thing on Campus. I'd been pleasantly invisible (except to my harasser and my friends) in high school, so it was unnerving to discover that everyone at my small college knew who I was and that just about everyone found me sexually attractive. It made me feel very vulnerable. I ceased to feel like I had ownership of my own body. I don't want to equate my own experience to that of being raped, but I also don't want the fact that there was never any physical contact to minimize the damage that was done. To be looked at became a sexual assault, the equivalent to an unwelcome and inappropriate touch. I worked with high school kids that first summer after I went to college and fourteen year-old boys are incredibly obvious when they check a girl out and I got checked out a lot. Midway through the summer, I shaved my head. The next year at school, I didn't go out much. At my worst, I yearned to retreat from society, to never be looked at again except by those whose gaze I knew to be benign, to exist without a body at all. I improved during my final two years in college, but it was several more years (not to mention medication and therapy) before I was able to feel my body remained completely my own while being looked at by others.

I hope I never see my harasser again. He was one of the reasons I skipped my ten year reunion and I've blocked him--preemptively--on Facebook. A little while ago his face popped up in an old photo posted by someone else, which is probably why I dreamt of him last night. It gave me a nasty, sick feeling to see his face again. It pulled back up a lot of those things I never said: the curses, the gagging, the howls of fury, the unemphatic THIS IS NOT OKAY. It also reminded me of how dearly I longed to smash that face in with a metal lab stool during the long year when we had to be chemistry partners. I used to mentally rehearse it so I'd be ready when the day came. But the day I was waiting for, the moment when he'd cross the line, was actually behind me. I'd fully been the victim of his obsessive longing/loathing since that afternoon in the library. I see that now. And while I'm still angry, I'm not his victim anymore.


  1. Oh, boy. That is a truly horrifying story...and that he was just everywhere you turned for so long. And how scary to have him pop up in a dream like that. I'm so glad that you've reached some closure even after the fact. Hugs are with you!

  2. I don't really talk much about this publicly, but I was also sexually harassed, for about a year at design school (after NC, by a teacher). I think the worst part was the way it made me doubt myself, and question whether people would believe me... With the support and urging of an older and wiser friend, I finally told the administration right before I graduated. I have no idea if they ever even did anything about it; he left that school but went on to teach at two other local colleges. I still see this person around at industry events now and again and it's all I can do to keep from punching him in the face. (Actually as you can probably imagine I am more likely to just flee the room and cry). Ug.

    Anyways, my second long and sympathetic comment of the night. I am so so so sorry you had to go thru that for so long. <3 much love.

  3. Well shit. Whoever that was really needed a good beating. Lucky for him his identity remains a secret...