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Sam Cook column: #MeToo: Three women share their stories

Sam Cook

The stories come pouring out of the three women seated around the table. Stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault from 20 or 30 years ago. And from recent months.

The dam broke for these kinds of conversations after the exploits of movie producer Harvey Weinstein were made public. Then came the flood of "#MeToo" responses from thousands — millions? — of women across social media, women who now felt empowered to speak out.

Like many men, I suspect, I have been stunned by how rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault is in our country. I was clueless. Had these violations happened to virtually every woman? Apparently. Have all of us, as men, been complicit in this either by our overt actions or our silence? I think so.

I spoke to three women I know and asked them if they would be willing to share not only their stories but their thoughts about this watershed moment in our country. They all agreed readily.

I will not name them because to do so likely would open them to potential harassment or personal attacks in today's charged social media environment. I have known each of them from a few years to many years. They are professionals, living in Duluth or close by. They range in age from the mid-30s to the mid-50s. All read this column before it was published.

How many times did these things happen to you?" I asked them.

"Harassment? Hundreds. I couldn't even tell you," one said.

Another: "I couldn't count them."

I asked them how many of the women they knew had suffered sexual harassment or sexual assault.

"One hundred percent," one said. "My Facebook feed was '#MeToo,' '#MeToo,' '#MeToo.' "

"I think if you're a woman, you've been harassed," another said.

How many times had these three women experienced actual sexual assault?

"Five times that I can think of," one said.

"Three to seven times," said another.

"I can think of two distinct times," said the third.

None of those incidents, they emphasized, constituted rape.

"I've been held down on a sofa and forcefully kissed," one said. "I've had a guy say to me, 'I'm stronger than you. You're not going to stop me.' A lot of men think they're entitled to do this."

Another woman agreed.

"It's definitely a power thing — seeing what you can get away with," she said.

They recounted some of the places where these incidents had occurred — on a school bus, at a bar (while working), in a dorm room ("times 10"), at concerts, in hotel rooms, in their own homes, in other people's homes, in the workplace, at summer jobs, on a dance floor.

"Just because you're dancing with me doesn't mean you can reach in my pants," said one of the women to whom that had happened.

One woman, working at a bar, had a patron follow her into a supply area and reach under her top to grope her. She had to work the rest of that evening, continuing to serve the man who had done that.

The offenses ranged from "a perceived 'friendly' back rub" to some that were so graphic the women were unwilling to share them.

"Just know that it happened," one said.

"I'm 37," said one of the women. "I look at the 21-year-old me and am embarrassed I didn't call the police. Now, I would call the police."

During our conversation, one of the women suddenly recalled another incident from her past that she had forgotten all about.

"Some of them were so long ago, they've been buried," another woman said. "The Weinstein thing opened the box."

"It's jogging your memory," one of the women said. "We're questioning everything. We're analyzing our behaviors in a way we didn't analyze them in our 20s."

Their reactions to harassment or assaults, at the time, had been disbelief, shame or "wanting to throw up." All of the women said that when they experienced harassment or a sexual assault, they had second-guessed themselves.

"Maybe it was because I drank too much."

"I didn't leave."

"I didn't say 'no' earlier."

But that isn't what women are feeling now, they said.

"A lot of women are hearing about this array of inappropriate behavior — and the light bulb is, 'That wasn't OK. That wasn't OK! I need to say something,' " one of the women said.

But where will all of this go? I wondered if these three believed that this tide of women speaking out publicly about their experiences, calling out the offenders, would result in lasting changes in the way men and women interact. All three believe that it will.

I hope that's true. I'm encouraged by what's happening. We'll know we're beginning to make strides on this issue when all of the women speaking out are joined in their cause by a significant chorus of men's voices, too.

Unfortunately, throughout history, our examples at the highest levels — from Jefferson to Clinton to Trump to Franken and others — have only served to perpetuate the kind of behavior that these three women brought to the table this week.

We cannot change that. But we can start the conversation at home — between mothers and fathers and sons and daughters.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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