Op-Ed: The continuing trauma of sexual harassment

I was an 18-year-old college freshman the first time I was groped by a man. It’s now more than 20 years later and I can still recall his hands roughly squeezing my behind, his fingers sharp and poking—I can still recall my fear. Followed by absolute incredulity that a strange man, one whom I was simply passing on the sidewalk, thought I was his to grab. That was my teenage naivete, which evaporated that night as this college boy clutched and pawed at me, liberally touching me as if I was part of his science project, there to poke and prod at will. What made him think that was allowed?

How does a little boy morph into a bullish man who thinks a woman’s body is his prerogative to grope?

After that first unwanted grab, I stupidly concluded that this man’s creepy behavior was an isolated event brought on perhaps by alcohol or college idiocy. I made excuses for this stranger when I should have yelled. I should have slammed my heel into his kneecap. I should have clawed at his face, his eyes. I am still angry at myself for letting this man get away with mauling me that evening.

But I was young. And I thought his behavior was an enigma. But then, over the years, it’s happened again. And again. And again. I can recall each and every incident in detail.

I was wearing a bell-bottomed, yellow polyester ‘70s Halloween costume. I was in the middle of a peaceful morning jog. I was walking through a crowd with a group of girlfriends, eating soft-serve ice cream. I was even once holding my date’s hand when a stranger walked by and grabbed my buttocks.

I am way beyond my days of teenage innocence and no longer think this type of aggression is rare. I am, however, astounded by the notion that some men think my body, any woman’s body, is their birthright. Is theirs to fondle and grab at will.

I don’t know what triggers this inflated sense of entitlement, but I do know this; it isn’t simply an affliction of powerful men like film producers, politicians, CEOs and Hollywood stars. It isn’t just the influential and the commanding. It’s a well-liked college boy, a professional, an athlete, a fellow gym rat, a man cruising by on a bicycle.

The men are as varied as the women they grab and pinch and fondle.

I am a casualty. Several times over.

Most of the women I know have also been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention or physical contact at some point in their lives. These incidents often haunt us.

Did I do something to bring it on? Will it happen again? Why didn’t I scream or punch or kick?

I don’t have a good answer. But it’s been 25 years since that first man decided I was his to grab and I am still angry at myself for not causing a ruckus. For not rightfully declaring my body my territory. For not making him think twice before doing this to somebody else.

I wish I had left a scar on him.

Because we are irrevocably changed that first time we realize that, in the eyes of some men, our bodies are not our own. Our legs, our breasts, our hips are theirs to grab.

And often, there is little we can do about it.

That is horrifying and it must stop. We all must be part of the solution. We women cannot be weak or timid or self-blaming in the face of sexual aggression.

We must speak out. Our little girls need to learn there is a time to be loud and strong and to cause a scene.

And we need our men involved in this too. We need them to take a stand. To speak up and take action when a brother or buddy or co-worker displays repulsive behavior—even if it’s just so-called, filthy “locker-room” talk.

We cannot wait and watch the vulgar attitude escalate into physical manhandling. By then, it’s too late.

He now feels entitled and powerful and omnipotent. She feels angry and afraid and powerless. We need to change that.

Sometimes I wonder if that man who first groped me decades ago now has a daughter of his own. Even in my darkest, most vindictive moments, I do not hope for her to become a victim.

It’s heartbreaking to know that even if I wanted to, I don’t have to wish for his daughter to become prey.

She likely already has.

Joelle Babula is a former journalist and currently a nurse practitioner living in Baltimore City.

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