I’ve wanted to add my voice to the chorus for days, but needed time to write some stories that feel important to me.
Specifically, as I read all the pleas to the good men (or “good men,” depending on your viewpoint) who do nothing, I want to share a few experiences where male bystanders were in a position to help me, and the difference their willingness or unwillingness made to my processing of each incident.
My first instance of harassment happened the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. Determined to get a leg up in life, I’d enrolled in Ms. Courtwright’s summer school typing class at Xavier College Prep, an all-women’s high school where I would be starting full time in the fall. After an entire childhood of riding my elementary school’s private bus, this was my first time taking Tico, the nickname for Phoenix’s public bus.
After school one afternoon, I boarded Tico and saw a group of about five guys my age, whom I noted as very cute and guessed were either present or future students at Brophy College Prep, the all-men’s high school next door to and affiliated with Xavier. They were seated at the front of the otherwise empty bus, and I walked to the back, promptly placing my nose in a book I was reading for fun.
A few minutes later, the guys walked back and descended on me, occupying seats in front of me, behind me, and in one person’s case, right next to me. The one with whom I was now sharing a seat put his face too close to mine, and started telling his friends I wanted him. A couple of the others made similar comments.
For some reason, I wasn’t afraid for my physical safety; women learn early how to detect which situations are physically dangerous and which are of the psychologically abusive variety. Even though I presumed my male peers would not physically attack me, my heart raced and my throat closed as I feigned total fascination with my book.
After these people had spent a minute that felt like a half hour exchanging remarks at my expense, one of them who’d been silent said, “Hey, guys … leave her alone.” Instantly, the pack went quiet and vacated the seats around me, returning to their places at the front of the bus.
As I’d suspected, these guys were Brophy freshmen that year. They were in a clique that attended parties in the desert, and I was in a spirit line/student council group, so we didn’t cross paths much in our high school careers. I occasionally saw them from afar and knew they wouldn’t remember me as the person they had … pranked? Hit on? Put in her place? I’m not sure how they would have described the harassment. My description is the one that matters.
For obvious reasons, I never cared to get to know them. But even though the one who had stood up for me remained friends with the bullies, I held a soft spot in my heart for him all four years because he’d recognized the wrongdoing in which he’d been complicit, and had the courage and empathy to stop it.
I spent the fall semester of my junior year in college studying in Florence, Italy. One week that semester, I took a solo trip to Interlaken, Switzerland and stayed at Balmers Hostel, known for its exciting outdoor adventures in postcard-worthy settings. The morning after my evening arrival, I marched myself to the front desk and signed up to go ice climbing that day.
I was one of eleven people who went out on my climb, and the only woman. The male instructor drove us out to an icy patch of the Swiss Alps and helped us put on our gear. While I was ascending an Alp, he made a graphic sexual comment at me. Throughout the morning, the insults continued.
Here again, I was not afraid for my safety; I was acutely aware that he’d made these remarks to voice his displeasure that I dared climb with ten men and outpace most of them. My body hanging on an Alp by four ice picks, and my shock at this mistreatment so overwhelming, I said nothing.
You know who else said nothing? My nine fellow students, each of whom I instinctively understood had more power than I to shut our instructor up, and to steer the focus over to the activity we’d all expected to be fun. Instead of bonding as a group of first-time ice climbers, we all quietly picked at the mountain.
When evening came and we returned to the hostel, the men weakly asked me to join them at the bar for a post-climb beer … knowing, I am sure, that I would decline in favor of retreating to my reserved bed to read a book.
Even at that young age, I knew not to fault myself for my silence. My self-regard intact, it was the men whom I did not respect. I lost all interest I otherwise would have had in my fellow travelers’ vacation and life stories.
At thirty, I joined a co-ed indoor soccer league, whose participants were seventy-five percent men and twenty-five percent women. Of the men, eighty to ninety percent were Europeans who grew up with soccer balls at their feet. We played every Thursday evening on the then-Sports Club L.A. basketball court, and patronized the gym’s bar upstairs after each game. On the court, I was a ferocious defender, and at the bar, an active member of this talented, surefooted tribe.
After a game one night, while I was surrounded by my league-mates at the bar, a man I didn’t know walked behind me, put his hand inside the back of my pants, and quickly removed it. As he tried to scurry away, I yelled, “What the fuck are you doing? Why did you just put your hand down my pants?” Clearly not expecting me to say anything, let alone shout my choice words, he and his startled eyes pushed through the crowd and darted toward the elevator.
In the few seconds he had to get away, some of my fellow soccer players asked me what had happened. When I told them, a few went running after the groper, who had by then boarded and descended the elevator. One of my friends ran after him and down the street, but not finding him in the relative darkness, he returned empty-handed.
The next morning, my friend called. “Katie. I’ve talked to club management. They’ve taken the description of the groper and are letting me look at the membership picture book to identify him. I’m on it.”
I received phone calls and emails throughout the week, updating me on the investigation and every person’s part in it. My sweet male league-mates were calling each other and orchestrating the groper’s admonishment like they were diagramming positions and strategizing plays for the next game.
Within days, my male friends had identified the groper in the book, reported their eyewitness accounts of the incident, seen to management’s interview with the perpetrator, and successfully advocated for his permanent expulsion from the gym.
At a pickup game a few days later, a teammate who hadn’t been present on the night of the groping made a perfect joke when he saw me, which somehow included me, rather than diminishing me. I don’t remember his exact words, and even if I did, it would be impossible to convey in writing how they were not only appropriate but reassuring, letting me know he’d heard and that he cared.
As we laughed, my teammate’s face went somber. “But seriously, Katie … are you OK?”
I was. Of the harassment and groping accounts I just shared, which are but a fraction of those I have endured in my forty-three years, one would think the physical invasion would have been traumatic, or at the very least, the most distressing of the three. But it didn’t scar at all.
I felt empowered, not only because I’d immediately and loudly taken the offender to task, but because the men in my life responded instantly and with heart, refusing to relent until the creep was dishonorably discharged from our place, where it was clear I belonged and the miscreant did not.
The story of these three that most adversely affected me was the ice climbing one, where no one had touched me and I felt not a moment of fear, but where everyone told me—whether with words in the instructor’s case, or with silence in the case of everyone else—that I did not belong, that the transgressor mattered more than I did.
This post is a love letter to the good men who stand up for women. Hopefully it shows how a man’s responses to these situations can make all the difference in how heavily a woman holds the abuse for which she is targeted. Of course, it can’t remove the pain from extreme instances, like rape.
But when men show up and say that something wrong happened, or better yet, stop it in real time if possible, it changes the experience in a way that heals.