I kept quiet. As young journalist assigned to ride with a cowboy who did oil paintings, chased stray doggies and appeared on billboards for a major cigarette brand. The photographer was called to another assignment, so the cowboy and I set off on our horses before dawn. After hours riding over craggy hills and arroyos, we built a fire and put on coffee. Then the cowboy put his hands on me, grabbing my head and throwing an arm around my backside, forcing me to him, kissing me.
I pulled away. No. He got on his horse and rode away, abandoning me in the desert near remote edges of the Rincon Mountains for two hours. He eventually returned, silent and pouting. I told my editor (a woman) that afternoon I didn’t want to do the story because he was a lech. She told me to grow up if I wanted to do a grown-up job, and she sent me back to my desk to write the story. I kept quiet.
I kept quiet. When I borrowed a bicycle from my bed-and-breakfast host in Philadelphia and a car full of men drove by and yelled, Hey nice fat a--, gimme your fat p----. Then drove by a second time, slowly, with the same words. One man reached out and put his hand on my bum. I bolted down an alley, where I hid in shadows until I gained enough courage to ride back to my B&B.
I kept quiet. Anytime men went beyond catcalls in the years I used a bike for transportation.
Women on bikes are easy targets in rape culture. We keep quiet.
I kept quiet. When a man at a campus-area dance club, in one fell swoop, reached his hand down the front of my pants and underwear. My instinct was to knee him in the groin, and he stumbled off.
I kept quiet. Not the news source, a school administrator, who sidled up to me at a school board meeting and moaned breathless at my neck, I love you in silk, Can I touch you in that dress? His hands were on my waist and hips before the question was out. I said, No, then I went about my job.
I kept quiet. When the man who popped out of the trees as my college-freshmen girlfriends and I meandered through the forest, his penis in his hand, telling us to suck it. (We did laugh, and he ran away.)
I didn't report. Not the man who told me when I was 10 or 11 that I should wear a bra.
I tried to report once that I was victim of an attempted rape when I stayed at a youth hostel in Eugene, Oregon, in the 1970s. A man pretending to be a preacher there tricked my friend and me. He pulled off the heel of his shoe, with razor blades sticking out, holding it to my neck, as he unzipped his pants. I got away by using advice I once heard: If ever assaulted pretend you have a seizure disorder. He panicked long enough for me to escape. My friend and I found a phone booth and called police. I told them, A man is chasing me. They said, Call a cab, lady. We don’t run a taxi service.
I kept quiet. When the next-door neighbor came over after my knee surgery in my 20s. He said he knew I had good drugs after surgery and suggested he give me oral sex in exchange for my drugs. I slammed the door. I kept quiet. I told my husband, we got two big dogs, and we kept an eye on the creep until we moved away within the year.
My 22-year-old daughter texted me several days ago. “Aggghhhh. A really creepy man is staring at my legs.” The man at the YMCA was ogling her and another young woman on the ellipticals. I said, Tell someone at the gym! She just wanted to go home and take a shower.
Details of my experiences might be TMI, but perhaps they allow a glimpse into rape culture and why we see a parade of women on cable news telling of sexual aggression and violation. If you feel like taking a shower after reading this, remember: This is the world women face daily.
Many of us don’t report what we face with regularity. Shame, frustration, his word against mine, strength to just move on. We reach out to our mothers, girlfriends, and good men, to commiserate. We warn our daughters, students, strangers on the bus. Sometimes we arm ourselves with pepper spray. We try to be more careful, resenting the need to be more careful.
If the cowboy or the school administrator were running for office today and said he never sexually assaulted anyone, I’d probably come forward. And people would say, Why didn’t she report this 15 years ago? 30 years ago? 40 years ago?
Susan M. Knight teaches journalism at the University of Arizona.