Before there was a #MeToo or #TimesUp movement,.. like so many others, there was me. I remember vividly the first time I was sexually harassed. It was in Trinidad, where I was born and raised until moving to the USA in my teens.
I was only 12 or 13 years old when my mother sent me to the supermarket just a short walk from our home. A man who must have been in his 20’s whistled at me to gain my attention. When that did not work, he turned to making the all-too-familiar sound that every woman in was subjected to and knew only too well: “pssssst!”-
That simple, yet seemingly harmless sound used by men to command a woman’s attention on the street, that for them is supposed to be a compliment, was (and still is) a sound that causes a sinking feeling in my stomach, and a sense of shame. It is Dehumanizing.
Being the brave young girl I was, I wanted to put that man in his place. So I shouted at him: “What happen, something stick in yuh teeth?”
Well, can I just tell you, I was unprepared for the response he belted out:
“Yes! Salt fish!” – one of the many island synonyms for a woman’s genitalia.
The shame I felt across my being was enough to make me hide for days. I scurried along speedily hoping no one else witnessed my humiliation.
Years and years of catcalls, lewd comments and outright blatant harassment later, spanning from Trinidad across the ocean to America’s workplace, I still share that heat of shame and disgust one feels whenever the eyes of strange men are undressing them, or even worse saying profane things in their native languages to each other when they are in a group.
Unfortunately, catcalls turned into my worst, most recent experience with harassment, which in some ways echoed similar allegations the world has recently come to know of by other powerful and famous men. Harassment that I had to endure because I had bills to pay. Then I did not have a job anymore, because one day I became a mother and I guess along with gaining a precious little girl I also grew some serious courage. I knew I had to finally take a stand. A stand not only for myself, but for my daughter. After all, our children’s first role models are us, the parents.
Channeling Maya Angelou, I decided to rise up for any other person who would suffer the narcissistic audacity of those who seem to believe a person’s body is an invitation to be sexually inappropriate,.. either physically or verbally. Be it through lewd comments or violent molestation, to then be robbed of their livelihood and thrown out on the street like a diseased animal when they protest and fight against the unwanted and illegal behavior. Yes! Sexual Harassment is illegal.
Sexual Harassment is a form of Sexual Violence and assault. Depending on the severity of the harassment, the toll on its victims can be similar to those who are physically violated. It carries the physical, emotional, mental, and financial burdens of having to face the insult, shame, and uncertainties along with the psychological issues being a perpetrator’s target brings. I know for me it did and there are still lingering effects of it.
No one asks to be harassed, abused, or discriminated against. No one deserves that or should have to experience it. To insinuate that because someone is free-spirited, looks a certain way, dresses in a particular style, identifies with a certain group, or chooses to express themselves differently than what is considered “normal,” is somehow an invitation to be imposed upon is wrong.
Where has the humane in humanity gone? Where is the simple common decency of respect for others? Where is the tolerance, and what gives someone the idea that acting sexually inappropriate towards another person is okay? What makes a man believe that an unassuming woman who has no idea he even exists wants to be in bed with him?
Society assumes that women are responsible for ensuring that men don’t get out of control with their sexual emotions. Well, why the hell aren’t men responsible for their own actions and behavior? We cannot control how other people choose to react or behave towards a situation, but we should all know right from wrong.
If we are going to give validity to this notion, then explain why, in other societies and cultures, where women are fully clothed from head to toe, that they are also raped and abused on a daily basis. Young girls, little children, fall victims as well.
Women, and even men should not have to be modest in order to be respected. We live in a society where beauty is considered being free and confident, and being confident is to be strong. Today, being strong is speaking ones truth. I know I spoke mine and while it resulted in loosing my job to console the “good ol’ boys club”– the truth would always be the truth which is on my side.
Every day is a challenge because there are days when I feel powerful and empowered, but then there are days when I just feel angry and frustrated. Nothing worth fighting for has ever been easy or without sacrifice. Every day can be a struggle, and some of us end up paying the ultimate sacrifice. Empowerment comes with expenses—financial, psychological, and social—but it is well worth the price. Standing up for ones’ self, standing up for others, and standing up for what is right, can change your life.
Our silence is finally broken, not because we did not have a voice, but because we were frightened into not using it. Today we demand the respect we always deserved and should have received without a fight. Now our voices are echoing off every corner of the earth, thanks to organized movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, which have inspired and created one of the most important conversations necessary in our society, and even the world. They have shamed accusers and culprits out of hiding who will hopefully be brought to justice and hopefully this revolution of sorts is not a topical one.
In my story, my future is still uncertain and might be for some time, but what is certain, is that I am determined to make every day better than the last, not just for me, but for my daughter, and for anyone who is going through their own struggles as a result of sexual harassment and sexual violence. In so doing, I have dedicated my efforts to working with organizations and campaigns to help spread awareness, education, and support for victims of sexual and domestic violence.
I encourage anyone who is a target of sexual assault to know they have everything they need inside them: the strength and courage to stand up to that perpetrator. It does not matter how powerful and intimidating your abuser is. No one has the right to violate your personal space or you. And you are powerful enough to do something about it.