This story was published in the book “Sexual Harassment: Women Speak Out”, a compilation of stories edited by Amber Coverdale Sumrall and Dena Taylor, published by the Crossing Press in 1992 in response to outrage and frustration over the treatment of Anita Hill.
The following story happened over 40 years ago. I now confront harassment instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Now, I have better tools than denial, though I must admit that pretending there was no problem served me well for a long, long time.
Trigger Warning – This article is about being sexually harassed and threatened and has content that might be upsetting for some readers.
“Hey, chick! You wanna play with my balls?” The smooth-looking young man stood in front of his fraternity house, juggling a couple of tennis balls. He bounced them on the sidewalk in front of me, blocking my way. “Not these, of course,” he smiled. “I’ve got a special pair in my pants, just for you.” He nearly fell over, laughing at his joke.
Yet another idiot, I thought, looking through him and walking away. It was my junior year of college. I’d left my small university in Santa Cruz and moved to a big campus in Los Angeles. My apartment building was at the end of Fraternity Row. I’d gotten used to ignoring dumb comments from the men hanging around in front of their houses. But this fraternity had a particularly bad reputation. During parties, people whispered, women were sometimes snatched off the sidewalk and forced inside.
Very early the following Sunday morning, I passed this place again on my way back from buying groceries in the 24-hour market. Usually, Fraternity Row was empty on Sunday morning, but this time the Saturday night party wasn’t over yet. Several men –5 or 6 or 7? I can’t remember exactly, surrounded me. Hands clutched me everywhere, pulling me towards the house. Looking around, I could see nothing but a circular wall of men’s bodies.
“Don’t worry, honey,” leered one. “We’re going to show you a good time.”
Impossible! These nice young men were going to…. Nonsense! I dropped my bag of groceries and pulled against the men’s hands to step as close as I could to the man right in front of me. “What would your mother think about what you’re doing?” I asked indignantly, staring into his eyes. His mouth dropped open and he let go!
I turned to the man next to him. “If you have a sister, do you want someone to do this to her?” He let go too! As I started to speak to another man about his girlfriend, they all let go. Somewhat ashamed and sheepish, looking at me with puzzled eyes and at each other not at all, they picked up my groceries and handed me the bag.
The next day, I complained to the campus police department.
“Boys will be boys,” laughed the officer at the desk. “It was just a joke!”
“I want to speak to the Police Chief!” I snapped.
“He’s too busy!” he snorted.
“I’ll just wait here until he’s free.” I took a seat.
The officer glared at me, made a few rude remarks, but finally ushered me into the Police Chief’s office. After I told my story, the Police Chief looked at me doubtfully. “It’s funny that no one has ever complained before.” He stood up and walked me to the door. “Don’t worry,” he added reassuringly, “I’ll look into it.”
“I’ll bet,” I thought. I stomped down the street, trying to think of what else to do. Finally, I shrugged it off, telling myself, Oh, well, nothing really happened.
Later that month, I sat in the big lecture hall for my organizational psychology class. The professor, who I’ll call “Dr. Benton”, an impish man in his early 50’s, was giving his usual humorous talk. I took copious notes, enjoying his jokes, not minding at all feeling alone in the middle of 99 students.
Just before class was over, Dr. Benton announced, “The following four students need to make an appointment with me.” To my amazement, mine was one of the names he called.
Somewhat concerned, I walked up to the podium. “I’m Irene,” I said, hesitantly.
“Good!” Dr. Benton smiled warmly. “Your paper about that community center in Watts was brilliant. The best I’ve seen in years. Why don’t you come to my office around 3 this afternoon to talk about it?”
“I . . .I’m still in class.” I felt shy.
“Well, what about 4 then?”
“Okay.” I hurried away, overwhelmed at the praise, puzzled as to what he wanted to talk about.
Precisely at 4, I knocked softly at Dr. Benton’s office door. The door jerked opened. “Come in!” Dr. Benton laughed. “Don’t look so shy!” He took my hands and led me into his office. “Such cold little hands!” he exclaimed; then pointed to a chair. “Sit down!”
Wide-eyed, I looked around. In between the papers and books stacked everywhere, there were all sorts of art objects. A sculpture of a naked man and woman intertwined. A framed painting of a woman doing something that had never occurred to me.
Amused, Dr. Benton watched me staring at the painting. “What do you think about that?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered. “What did you want to say about my paper?”
“Your paper? … Oh, yes! It was brilliant!” Dr. Benton gushed. “Did you really go alone into Watts?” Before I could answer, he leaned over and touched my hair. “Such pretty curls,” he murmured. “You’re a smart girl. There’s a lot I could teach you as my private student.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, I could help you out . . . get you working on special projects.”
Pleased that he thought so much of me, I scolded myself for feeling uncomfortable. He’s just being friendly, I thought, and smiled at him.
“Would you like that?”
Still too shy to look at him for more than a quick glance, I nodded. To my astonishment, he lunged forward and kissed me passionately.
When I didn’t respond, he asked gently, “Don’t you know how to kiss?”
“Yes, but….” I stood up, forced myself to look directly into his eyes, and sighed, “This isn’t what I had in mind. I think I should go.”
“Too bad. You’ll be missing a lot,” Dr. Benton smiled meaningfully. “Both scholastically and personally.”
Still facing him, too full of bewilderment to feel anything else, I backed out of his office. On the way down in the elevator, I remembered that the other three people whose names he’d called had also been women. What were their appointments like?
As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, a young woman shoved a leaflet into my hand. “Come to our meeting tonight,” she urged.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“About women’ rights! So we can stop being oppressed.”
I laughed at her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! I can do anything I want. Women aren’t oppressed unless they’re poor, or minorities.”
She sighed. “You’re just deluding yourself.”
“Nonsense!” I handed her back the leaflet and walked away.
For the next few weeks, I felt restless. I had trouble sleeping or concentrating on my studies. Finally, I decided to go to the Student Counseling Center. The counselor assigned to me was a very respectable-looking man about the age of my own father.
“What’s the trouble?” He sounded sympathetic.
For a moment, I hesitated. It would have been easier to talk with a woman. But, after all, he was a counselor. Talking was what I’d come to do. “I think it’s about relationships. Last year I was into all this free love, hippie stuff. But it just didn’t feel right for me. What I’d really like is to know a couple of men as real friends. But when I turn down sex, men just don’t seem to want to bother with friendship. And then these strange things keep happening to me.”
Without going into details, I told the counselor about the men on Fraternity Row, my professor, and a few other unpleasant incidents. “What am I doing wrong?” I could hear my voice tremble.
The counselor listened. Then he eased his chair closer and patted my knee. “I think that you’re just hung up about sex. You need a relationship with someone a little more experienced, that’s all. I’ll take you out tonight, and we can get started.”
Oh, no, I thought. Not again! I stood up, shaking my head. “No, thank you.” Polite as usual, I sighed, and walked out.
For hours I wandered through that old ivy-covered campus, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. This world is a pretty crazy place, I thought. You can’t count on anybody. I’ll just have to figure things out for myself. Suddenly, I remembered the words of the philosophy professor from my small school the year before. “You keep asking me for The Answer, Irene,” he’d say, sadly. “And I haven’t got it.” He’d killed himself a few days after school was out.
I can’t let that happen to me. I started walking faster. I came to an open place where the sunlight reflected a brilliant golden-green on the grass, blinding me for a moment. Standing there, soaking up the warm sun, I thought there’s no reason to look at anything if it hurts too much to see. I marched home to my apartment, right along Fraternity Row, smiling cheerfully into the face of each man hanging around outside. And for some reason, instead of harassing me as usual, each man smiled cheerfully back.
Published: October 9, 2018 | Last Updated: October 9, 2018