It ended as quickly as it started. I felt his hand squeeze my butt, heard him shout “Nice!” and caught a glimpse of his back as he bolted off the subway car. I stood there, clutching the metal pole, utterly paralyzed. Did that really just happen? Did a random man just grab me and proceed to proudly proclaim to the B train that he had violated me?
Yes. It did.
I stood there, stunned. I began looking back and forth, desperately searching for a forgiving pair of eyes, a sympathetic nod of the head. Instead, I saw two young men smirking at me, their eyes scanning my Betsey Johnson dress, as if to remind me that what had just happened, if it was anything at all, was something I had brought on myself.
My brain began rapid-firing through what I might have done wrong. My outfit: I was wearing a form-fitting dress with stilettos. My posture: My hip was popped to the right. My defenses: I hadn’t checked who might be behind me, how close they were, how they were behaving. I became both defensive and mortified as I watched myself sink into the verdict that I was guilty of inciting this in some way. I couldn’t shake it as I exited the train at the next stop.
As a devoted feminist, I work to change our misogynistic culture that blames and shames women for their own sexual harassments and assaults. I firmly believe that the victim is never at fault. I write and speak about how rape culture exonerates male perpetrators of sexual violence at female victims’ expense. I know this.
Yet, when it happened to me, this knowledge, this feminist understanding, just fell away.
The physical harassment was obviously disturbing, but in retrospect, I’m actually more troubled by the response from those two judgmental on-lookers. As I stumbled out of the subway stop into New York City’s Herald Square, I felt hazy with rage and disgust. But more than anything, I felt deep, stinging shame.
Shame has enormous psychological power, and it can serve particular political and social power structures with surprising subtlety. The trick is that we internalize the shame we receive from others, and naturalize it to the point where we are unable to remember a time when we didn’t consider that given something shameful. In turn, shame becomes our own sort of internal police force, a set of constructed boundaries about what society deems acceptable and unacceptable, moral and immoral, that we seemingly enact on ourselves. It is a control mechanism that can wield immense political power.
When women are sexually harassed or assaulted, the experience itself can be demoralizing and shameful, and the social stigma around sexual assault and harassment often serves to exacerbate the shame that victims experience. Our society all too often refuses to hold men accountable for the sexual harm they perpetrate against women, so women become responsible for the sexual crimes committed against them. I cognitively knew that my harassment wasn’t my fault, but when I saw those two young men laughing at me, I couldn’t stop the process of internalizing their shaming sneers. I couldn’t stop myself from doing what society has taught me to do: blame myself.
It’s no wonder that shame is used so often for political purposes; it wields the incredible capability to convince us that we deserve oppression and mistreatment. Look around, and you’ll see shame directed at women everywhere: shame-and-blame campaigns against teen mothers, shaming women for their abortions, victim-blaming rape survivors like Jane Doe in Steubenville. Time and time again, women’s sexual and reproductive lives and choices are labeled shameful by a patriarchal power structure that remains intent on perpetuating our inequality.
I know that what happened to me last week on the subway wasn’t my fault, and I have had friends and family members lovingly reiterate that to me in the days that followed. The acute shame that I felt following my own sexual harassment serve as a reminder of just how deeply rape culture and victim-blaming are written into the fabric of our society. For someone who frequently combats victim-blaming rhetoric, it is telling that I too succumbed to that line of thinking. Even now, a week after the incident, I’m still wrestling with feelings of shame and victim-blaming thoughts. That’s the thing with shame — it traps us in a cycle of condemning ourselves rather than blaming our assailants or challenging the patriarchal power structures that enable them.
I was initially reluctant to write about my harassment, but I believe there is power in honestly, in voicing our own experiences. Yes, I was grabbed. I felt mortified, violated, and ashamed. But in the end, it has only fueled the feminist fire in my belly and renewed my commitment to ending rape culture.
Shame will not stop me.
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[Image of sexual harassment via Shutterstock]