The #MeToo movement has been a significant topic of discussion also here in Europe, but my first knowledge of it was through Facebook with a variety of my female and male friends simply posting “Me Too. If all people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
I thought it was kind of broad, as I don’t think I can name a single woman I know who has not been sexually harassed. I soon learned that the movement was far bigger than a simple hashtag, and it made me reflect back on the variety of incidents of sexual harassment that I experienced in my life, and how I reacted to them.
I realized that minor to moderate sexual harassment was something that I just assumed is part of life, and I’m sure I have forgotten about most incidents that I experienced. I have never encountered it in the workplace with regards to a person with power over me, which is how the discussion and the Me Too movement really got started, but obviously that is not the only form of harassment that exists.
However, my most recent encounter with it did leave an impression, not because of any particular feeling of violation, but because it was the only time in my life that I really did not know how to react, and I don’t even know if I can classify it as sexual harassment. In fact, it was only after the Me Too movement that I even thought of bringing up this story in this context, as up until now I had filed it under the Story of My Life category. I would like to tell you about it, because I am curious to know what you would have done in my place, and whether you think this qualifies as sexual harassment.
It was the suckiest Monday morning ever. We had just moved to a new building in the middle of nowhere, and my colleagues were waiting for me to tell them how to unload the boxes from the move. So, I had to get up ridiculously early to be the first one there. I got on my bike, activated my GPS, and got going.
After 10 minutes, my phone battery pooped out, so I was lost. I managed to bike to a bus stop, but discovered it was too full for me to get on with my bike. So I tried to follow it, but it lost me on a particularly steep and traffic-free uphill bit of road, and so I was lost again. I had to wait a full half hour before the next bus arrived, but luckily it was virtually empty, so I my annoyance was slightly mollified and I got on with my bike.
A few stops later, a man got on the bus with his own bike and boxed me in. This is perfectly normal, and as I was getting off at the last stop I didn’t mind at all. The man waved at me, and I realized that while he did not have Down’s Syndrome, he clearly had an intellectual disability. I had no idea if he could speak, or the extent of his disability, but he was clearly capable of getting on the bus on his own to get where he needed to go. I grinned and waved back at him.
I know this is starting to sound a little condescending and ableist, but bear with me because it is relevant.
Throughout the bus ride he would occasionally grin at me. I would grin and nod back, then go back to looking out the window. He never spoke to me, but towards the end of the bus ride he got closer, pointing and tapping at his own wrist. I took this to be the international gesture for ‘what’s the time?”, and as I was wearing a watch I looked at it, tried to get my befuddled brain to form the words in German, but he kept pointing to my wrist so I extended my arm so he could look at the watch for himself.
The second I extended my arm, he grabbed me in a vice-like grip. I had no idea how unbelievably strong he was. He started forcing my jacket sleeve up as I tried to pull my arm back, and then started stroking his face up and down my bare skin, eyes closed, and finally dragging his open lips over the inside of my arm.
I was completely shocked. I tried to pull back my arm, but he just held on stronger and tried forcing my sleeve up higher and higher. I tried to stammer something out in German, but my tenuous grasp of the language failed me, and I looked around the bus for someone to help me. Every single passenger was determinedly avoiding my eye.
Had he not had an intellectual disability, I would have shouted at him, or smacked him, or kicked at his shins and pulled back my arm and asked what the fuck was the matter with him. But I didn’t want to do any of those things, because I didn’t know if he knew what he was doing was inappropriate. Had I had a better grasp of German, I would have tried to explain to him that he can’t just go up to random strangers and slobber all over them like that, no matter how much he likes skin-to-skin contact. I wanted him to stop but I didn’t want to be violent, but I did not have the words I needed for a calm explanation, and all the while he gripped my arm so hard with both hands he left red marks, and not a single passenger offered me a single word or glance.
Finally the last bus stop arrived. He was distracted by the stopping of the bus so I managed to get my arm back, and we both got off the bus. Luckily, he had hopped on his bike and with a final wave to me he started peddling off in the opposite direction, and so I thought it was over.
No sooner had I locked up my bike at my place of work that he had circled back and was trying to corner me again. He grabbed at my arms and finally grabbed at my shoulders, trying to pin me in a corner and kiss me. I kept backing up and waving my hands at him and shaking my head, but he kept coming forward and grabbing me, trying to pull me forward so as to get a better and closer grip on my shoulders. Now that I had more space to move I was able to push him away, wriggle free, and stammering that I had to go to work now, I was able to get out of there and into my lab.
I was very grumpy, and in no mood to hear my colleagues complain that they had been waiting around for my unpacking instructions.
I have since seen him circling the hospital campus every so often on his bike, smiling and trying to catch the eye of the people sitting about. I have warned my colleagues about him and, despite feeling incredibly rude and cruel for doing so, they all keep their eyes fixed on the floor so that he doesn’t feel invited to come closer and do the same thing to them. I still do not know who he is, or if he knows what he is doing is unacceptable. I have never seen him in the company of another person.
To this day, I don’t know how to characterize the incident. Is it sexual harassment, if the person doing it doesn’t really intend to invade your personal space? Did he not intend to do so, or did he know exactly what he was doing? How should one react to such a situation, torn between wanting to respect a disabled man as an adult and not wanting to treat him like an errant child, while at the same time being understanding his potentially limited knowledge of acceptable social interactions.
I am still completely confused about the entire encounter. I am curious to hear your thoughts.