“Beauty provokes harassment, the law says, but it looks through men’s eyes when deciding what provokes it.” ~ Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
My father was a traveling salesman for a book publishing company. Part of his compensation package included a leased company vehicle that he would sign for every few years. We had recently moved from Hopkinton, MA to a rural Central Ohio town in the summer of 1986, and I remember the day he picked up his new van like it happened only moments ago. Inside the car dealership, the lights were so bright it hurt my eyes and the air smelled of stale doughnuts, burnt coffee and chemical-laden air freshener. While my father signed paperwork and smoked a few Marlboro Reds with the representative, outside, my siblings and I were restless for being there so long and stayed with my mom waiting in the parking lot for our father to return with the keys and drive the new ride home.
As if they’d know one another their entire lives, my father and the sales representative sauntered outside in the afternoon sun, smiling and laughing, probably sharing stories of the sales trade. My father introduced each one of us and the salesman kept his sideways glance fixed directly on me, when out of his mouth came the words I will never forget, about being a knockout of a redhead, those long legs of mine, advising my father he better watch out with me and the boys that would no doubt be hanging around, and maybe he’d bring me back in a few years for a test drive with him and my own car?
I was ten-years-old when this inappropriate salesman thought it was funny and completely allowable to take note of my young-girl looks and dream of my future physical stature, giving no regard to my blushing face, nor my father beside him. His lingering gaze bore holes of shame through me and his unflinching smile was sinister sweet. Back then, I was too young to understand the implications and innuendos spoken that day. After all, I was only in the fifth grade. Yet, the entire presence of that tasteless salesman–including the outfit he was wearing, his moustached and confident face, smug demeanor, and crushingly detrimental words–have haunted me for over thirty years.
My late father was a good and decent man–absolutely not perfect–but, good, decent, and protective of his children and he handled the embarrassing situation with dignity. And you can be assured that we never saw that salesman again. Though, a few years later, when it was time to exchange company cars, I begged to stay at home and read my book, to which my father did not argue, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Fueled by the news in Hollywood of harassment and abuse that too many women have sustained, I’m sure you’re aware by now of the hashtag #metoo that’s swirling around social media and inviting women to share their personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Within my own circle of friends and family, it is disheartening to learn how much pain has been inflicted and endured in the name of sex. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, in solidarity with my sister-friends, that at ten-years-old, that sleazy car salesman without filter nor decency nor couth, was not the first male to assert his sexual advances or desires over me, nor would he be the last. Though, there are some stories I am not willing to share, and this is my prerogative, while willingly choosing to not let their egotistical, sick, dominating power clutch hold of me forever. I have forgiven, but it’s difficult to forget.
As a caveat to my story, I feel compelled to write and say to all of my readers, that despite my personal stories, devastating experiences, and real struggles with the type of boys and men that harass and abuse, I have known more boys and men in my lifetime that are good, kind, decent, loving, protective, and respectful. Let’s not forget that for as many abusers there are in the world, there is still abounding love, light, and hope around us, and boys and men who will work with us to fight against the social and moral injustices of sexual harassment and abuse.
If you are struggling with your own story of sexual harassment, abuse, or violence and are in need of help, please contact a local therapist specially trained in this type of trauma. You may also contact RAINN or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE.
“You are stronger than you know.” ~ Lori Osterman