TRIGGER WARNING. Describes unwanted contact, may be triggering to survivors of harassment or assault.
* * *
No woman is immune.
* * *
“Don’t I know you from the gym?”
A trim, older man is smiling in line in front of me at the allergist’s office. He does look familiar.
I smile a little. I name my gym and he nods. “Yeah, you’re the one who’s always so serious. You work really hard. The rest of us are just there to socialize and be healthy.”
I explain that I play roller derby and need to keep up with my teammates.
“Oh yeah?” He’s standing a little closer to me now. It’s his turn in line and I motion him forward, away from me. He doesn’t move at first, though I saw he noticed my gesture. Then he reaches out to me. His hand clasps my bare upper arm from the inside – his right hand gripping my right arm – then he runs his thumb slowly over the muscle, feeling it. “Guess you need to get these strong to elbow the other guys, huh?”
I do nothing, just stare at his hand on my body, intimate, almost brushing my chest. He pulls his hand away slowly, his fingers remaining on my skin as long as possible. I make some sort of reply, smile frozen on my face. He touches me again, on my other arm this time, before smiling and moving to the next receptionist.
After I check in with a receptionist myself, I rush to the bathroom and stay there for a while so I don’t have to interact with the man in the waiting room. When I come out, he’s gone.
I spend the rest of the day thinking about this interaction and what I could have done differently. I feel like an idiot for doing nothing, then like an idiot for overthinking it. But it doesn’t feel harmless, and I feel the man’s unwelcome touch – the way he lingered on my skin – every time I think about it. I am sick with disappointment in myself and in this man.
* * *
The next day, I quit work a bit early. I’d been burning the candle at both ends for two months, working far too many hours, and I wanted to treat myself to a nice long workout. There’s a part of me that thinks about the man who goes to my gym, and how I probably won’t see him since I’m going on a different day and time than I usually go. I drive over, get changed, and warm up.
I love my gym. I have always felt respected by the men who work out there – they’re meatheads, but they’re my meatheads. I’ve received compliments from the men there several times about whatever workout I happen to be doing, but it’s always felt collegial, like they’re impressed with me rather than looking to sexualize me. They keep their physical distance and we have all sorts of conversations, about exercise, about the weather, about our jobs and of course about roller derby. To some extent, the men who work out at my gym are the reason I keep going back and keep pushing myself.
My heart sank when the man showed up, right as I was starting the first portion of my workout. I was trying to time only one minute of rest between exercises, and I had already gone long once because I wanted to congratulate one of the trainers, a non-traditional student who had just graduated from college.
So of course the man approached me between sets, standing far too close to me, smiling about my serious workout. “What are you doing today?”
“Just trying to fit in some plyo.”
“Plyometrics.” I was smiling in a forced way, trying not to be too friendly in the hope that he’d go away.
“Oh, I have a degree in exercise science from back in the day, I never heard of that.” I just nod. “Well, have a good workout.” His hand brushes my arm, then he turns and leaves. We interact a few more times as I head to various parts of the gym for interval training and stretching, and each time I’m careful to only meet his eyes for a second. My seriousness becomes a shield.
* * *
I tell my husband that night – I’m not sure why I kept it from him the day before, except maybe a fear I was overreacting. My husband is more upset than I had been expecting. He asks why I didn’t ask the man to not touch me when I saw him the second time (he asked not in an accusing way, but out of real curiosity).
“Here’s the thing,” I say. “I could be very careful and polite, and try to bring him in as an ally. I could explain why what he is doing is making me uncomfortable. And I could convert him. Or, he could become an enemy, and tell me I’m a bitch, and make my time at the gym hell.”
We talk about discussing the issue with the gym staff, but the worst offense didn’t happen at the gym. What can I really say to them? And would they support me or would they make me feel like I’m overreacting? There’s no code of conduct that I know of, no policy about how to treat others. I probably signed something when I joined a few years ago, but whatever it said is long gone from my memory.
It was only during this conversation with my husband last night, problem-solving, that the ridiculousness of the situation hit me:
I am the principal investigator on a research project on sexual harassment and assault. I am a physically strong, capable, smart woman. I play a full contact sport, and I don’t take crap from anybody. One might think I am one of the least likely targets for harassment or assault… except, of course, for the small matter of being gendered female.
The gendered role into which I’ve been acculturated rendered me completely helpless when that man ran his hand suggestively across my skin. My fear of making a scene in the waiting room, of upsetting who seemed to be an otherwise kind man, of somehow reacting excessively outweighed my physical and mental discomfort. Then, a lack of clear guidelines or reporting mechanism meant that I had nowhere to turn after the fact.
Though I have been harassed and worse before, until this week, there had been a small part of me that thought that working on this research project would render me invulnerable from further altercations. I don’t know if I thought I would just give off a vibe, or if I thought I would suddenly develop a witty repertoire of comebacks.
But none of these things happened. I was just as frozen as every other time.
I am not immune.