The other day, I was sexually harassed for the first time in a professional context. I have been feeling pretty severely depressed ever since. I always knew that sexual harassment was terrible, but I could not grasp the magnitude of how devastating it is until it happened to me.
The harasser was a former professor, someone I have known, respected, admired, and trusted for a long time. This person was among the first people who really seemed to believe in me, at a time when I had long been doubting my abilities. I saw myself a mediocre student at best - passionate about social issues - but just not ‘book smart’ for some reason. Then I met this professor, who apparently believed I had an extraordinary mind. He helped me cultivate my skills and I become a straight-A student and made it to UCLA Law.
Though my self-esteem was still wobbly, being the admittedly neurotic person that I am, my self-esteem had reached a level it hadn’t been in a very, very long time. By my freshman year of college, I had barely fully recovered from a 7-year struggle with anorexia nervosa and a long struggle with depression and anxiety. By the time I graduated with honors, a double major, and distinction in the major a year early, with two of my dream internships lined up, I was walking on air. And this professor had helped me get there.
You can imagine how all that had been built up came crashing down at the moment of this incident. I felt betrayed and sick to my stomach. I felt terrified and humiliated. “Is my body all he ever saw of me? Did he ever actually think I was smart? Am I smart? Was this his intention from the beginning? Did he just tell me I was smart with this motive in mind this whole time?”
I also felt flooded by guilt and shame. A knee-jerk reaction. “What did I do wrong? Was it the way I dressed? My makeup? Body language? What was wrong with me that elicited this behavior from him?” This, I am fighting against now, thanks to feminists changing the discourse around rape.
It is never the victim’s fault. He knew better. How do we stop rape? Not by changing skirt lengths or covering women or staying at home or whatever. Rapists simply need to stop raping people. Similarly, sexual harassers simply need to stop sexually harassing people. The idea of men not being able to control their sexuality is a myth. To claim that men have the brain capacity of dogs is degrading. Humans are more cognizant than that. Men have the capacity not to rape or sexually harass. Are they not civilized?
So, I am already slowly starting to recover, but I have cried every day since it happened. It has damaged my ability to trust people. Yesterday, I was with friends I have known and trusted for three years, and still, I felt tense and terrified … From the moment my friend picked me up to the moment I shut the door of his car when I was dropped off, my heart was racing and any instances - like a quiet moment - that anyone might have the opportunity to touch me, I felt panicked. I had a heightened sense of where people’s eyes would go, and I felt anger and fear at even conceiving them violating me - even with their eyes. I have never been this way before. I can’t believe a single second has traumatized me like this. And what is more depressing, is I’ve heard that sexual harassment is rampant in the legal field …
Fortunately, I have been reading feminist literature for the last few years that gives me a healthy perspective on this and I will be okay. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who hasn’t looked into feminism or is very young … that single moment has left me numb for the past few days … I feel like I’m walking around with a heavy blanket draped over my body. I have turned inward. I feel damaged.
But in Confucius’ words, "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." I will rise. This may have been the moment that sets me on the track to civil rights enforcement law (instead of the other tracks I’ve been considering, such as public defense, immigration), after all. I will overcome this and be myself again. What is atrocious is how over half of the women I have confided in have also experienced this pain - from someone they knew, respected, and trusted - which hurts far more. I’m going to channel my outrage to making sure people do not have to live in constant fear of sexual violence.