“This happened to me in high school. I was waiting for my bus outside and he was leaning on the building right behind me, masturbating. I told my parents, and a few friends at school, and all I got was a shrug. Meanwhile, I had finals that day and obviously didn’t do well.”
“This happened so often to me on public transportation as a kid, I often refuse to take it anymore as an adult.”
“I was physically attacked and raped by someone pretending to be an Uber driver in 2014 and I know how scary the feeling is. It’s so hard to shake those encounters.”
“I had a similar experience on a train in London ten years ago and I still think about it.”
“When I run, people are so creepy. I’ve been followed more than once. I don’t know why men feel that it’s fine or funny to mess with women.”
“Some guy touched my ass at a work event. Even though he was fired because it was his third strike, the situation still messed with me for a month or two. I can’t imagine the repercussion of something worse.”
In the days that followed the incident, I felt more fragile than a god damn faerie’s wing. But it was the responses from women above, and dozens more, that broke me in two. These were small notes sent via social media, penned in solidarity. Each carried the same message: I know exactly how you feel, and I am so sorry.
I appreciated those small messages. But they sure as hell didn’t make me feel better.
After sharing what happened on Instagram, my private message center bloated with stories of vile men; the kind that believe their own momentary physical pleasure to be more important than a woman’s ability to feel safe in this world.
Shit Got Weird
Last February, I was traveling to Seattle from Portland. There were nearly 200 women signed up for my event—I teach women to invest with these big, fun workshops—and it was my biggest crowd yet. After a few years of entrepreneurship, I’m getting into a nice little groove with my business.
All I had to do was get on a bus.
A Greyhound bus is no one’s preferred way of getting from Point A to Point B, but I’m a low-maintenance traveler and the ol’ Greasepuppy is cheaper than other PDX to SEA alternatives. My ticket was for one of the “nicer” subsidiary lines, called Bolt Bus. The faux-leather seats must’ve been attacked by rabid raccoons? In every single row? Impressive, really. Similar to a Greyhound, one does not wear shorts, tank tops, open-toed shoes, or drink out of an open container—for fear of airborne fecal particles—on a Bolt Bus. Them’s the rules.
He paused when he first saw me, telegraphing his change of mind. Instead of a few rows in front of me, where he first dropped his faded duffel, he moved to the seat directly across from mine. Fuckin’ hell is this, I think to myself. He looked like he might say a few words, so I fumbled through my electronics and plunged headphones deep into my skull sockets. I opened up my laptop, sending him a clear signal: This bitch is closed for chit-chat.
I watched from the corner of my eye as he positioned himself towards me, instead of forward in his seat like the rest of us respectable, God-fearing humans. His back up against the window, his legs propped up on the seats, as if to look out *my* window, not his own. I wanted to move seats but thought it’d be too obvious, too rude, or even cause an altercation.
The bus disembarked from Portland’s bus depot. I pretend-stared at my computer for a slow-motion fifteen minutes before I was overwhelmed with the urge to look over at him; to keep tabs on this man who made me so instantly uncomfortable. My hope was that I’d glance over to see him napping peacefully or, I don’t know, engrossed in a well-researched Vanity Fair article about the melting polar ice caps?
No such luck. His naked penis was held upright by his hand and it was—what timing for me—spewing ejaculate. Just beyond the vulgar scene, his glassy eyes were (still) staring into me.
I yelped oh my God and leapt from my seat, darting to the front of the bus before I could process what was happening. In the same way that you jump away from an oncoming car before you realize it’s about to smash into your guts, thanks to the brain’s finely honed attack-response mechanisms. The primal fear in such a moment is that actions will escalate. If the barrier of basic human decency no longer existed between us, what other social and moral codes did he believe no longer applied to him?
Would he physically attack me? Would he attack another woman on the bus?
The Greyhound Masturbator isn’t far behind me, following me up the aisle while yanking at his zipper, yelling she’s lyin’ she’s lyin’ she’s lyin’! He’s got everyone’s attention, now. Next, I’m forced within inches of him by the bus driver, who stumbles through questioning. After a few clumsy, terrifying minutes, the driver boots him off the bus.
I Just Want to Do My Job
I didn’t insist that the cops were called.
I panicked. I was now wholly responsible for a bus full of irritated hound-dogs. Why is this lady causing such a commotion!!? Passengers were now up out of their seats, and I had to announce what happened. I cannot remember exactly what I said, only that the English language failed to provide me with the right words: That guy, he masturbated at me? To me? In regard to me?? Passengers sat back down and grumbled as I filled out an incident report with the bus driver.
I was worried about a bus-wide uprising, yes, but there was another reason I didn’t insist on calling the cops: I NEEDED TO DO MY DAMN JOB. Though I was pumping with adrenaline and chattering harder than one of those creepy teeth wind-up toys, I couldn’t help thinking, am I going to be late for my event? I can’t be late for my event.
It’s a similar flavor of the story we’ve all been hearing a lot lately, thanks to the highly necessary #MeToo movement: A man seriously impedes a woman’s ability to do her job. The woman doesn’t report or seek justice because doing so will make it even harder for her to do her job. Woman harbors feelings of shame, anxiety, and trauma, further hindering her ability to do her job. The cycle persists with only the occasional, mild disruption.
Common reactions like mine—the not wanting to muck up everyone else’s life, the not wanting to report because it would impede my own ability to make a living—it’s all very convenient for abusers.
(Of course, abusers can be female and victims can be male and non-binary. But in my case, and in the cases of the thirty or more women that messaged me on Instagram that day, sexual harassment and abuse often fulfill the formula of man on woman. If you would like to tell a different story, I encourage you to do so.)
How Much Does Sexual Terror Cost Women?
How much does sexual terror cost women? It’s beyond measure, but it must be in the billions of dollars of productivity (and paychecks) lost. Jobs left, or never taken. Jobs not offered because of rejected advances. Days called in sick. Projects not pursued. Ideas never born, instead lost to the fog of trauma.
The image that this stranger vandalized onto the side of my skull took weeks to scrape away. For a month, at least, I didn’t have title to my own thoughts. To make it worse, the experience drudged up memories of every other instance of (way worse) assault I’ve experienced in my life. It’s like being forced to grab a fistful of old tacks from the back of your brain’s junk drawer and squeeze them in your palm as you walk around throughout your day. Carrying ‘em just like a normal person with a totally cool, totally normal handful of rusty tacks.
And as for the event, well, I still went up onto that stage in Seattle, and did well. But I was distracted, miserable, and drained, likely from the adrenaline and cortisol hangover. Who knows how much better I could have been if I had my full self to give? Could I have been funnier, more charming, more articulate? Could I have better impressed that person in the audience with a connection? Could I have made more sales? Perhaps most importantly, could I have actually enjoyed my job, instead of dreading the very idea of getting up and doing it?
What more could I have accomplished in the zombie-like weeks that followed the incident? Even now, how much daily zest have I lost to the religious scanning of every single set of male hands on the subway, on the sidewalk, at restaurants? Clearly, thinking that every man is out to get me is not healthy for my life, and for my work. But I’ve learned that hypervigilance is a common response to assault, and is not something one can easily control.
Why write about this gross dude’s dick?
I can’t claim to teach women about money and financial freedom without talking about all of the factors that lead to financial inequality—even the immeasurable, sticky ones. (I just had to go with sticky.)
I’m not sharing this story because it’s original. It’s like, the least original. This story is important not because it is unique, but because of its ubiquity. I know a day is coming, soon, where this will happen to another friend, colleague, sister. And then I will say to her, I know exactly how you feel, and I am so sorry.