Thursday, February 09, 2006

why, part 2

So, I was thinking about landmark incidents/iconic happenings in my life regarding the evolution of my view of my own sexuality.

There was Barbie.

There was high school.

There was college--basically, a huge step backward, all things considered.

There was this time in Italy.

--when I was at HUF, when we got an unexpected day off from classes. Most people spent the day in Florence, but I was determined to get out, go somewhere, anywhere, as long as I could be on my own. Living with 40 people in a villa can get a little crowded, and I felt the need for some space. I borrowed a Rick Steves Backdoor from someone and picked a destination. The day went just as I planned. I was deliberately alone and enjoyed it. Until it was time to go home: the plan went decidedly off the rails. Making it to the train by sheer luck and the kindness of one very nice mustachioed Italian man, I settled down in an empty compartment. Empty, that is, until one old, mostly toothless, grizzled guy with two younger men came in and sat down. Despite there only being 4 of us in a 6-seat compartment, it was suddenly very crowded. Rather than space themselves out, they sat as near me as possible--I ended up crammed against the window, rubbing shoulders with one of the younger guys, who was definitely closer than he needed to be, while the leering old man sat across from me. And my serene day of silent solitude was interrupted by the garrulity of the old guy: having introduced himself and his two "nephews," he proceeded to engage me in conversation that quickly went beyond my Italian conversing ability and comprehension--until I finally (oh so innocent!) grasped the import of the crude hand gestures. Deciding I was done with this conversation, I decided to get my journal from my backpack and look occupied. As I sat back down in my seat, I sat down right on top Nephew #1's hand. And had to pummel him in the shoulder to get him to move it--he just sat with it right there under my butt like he meant it to stay. And they laughed and laughed. I started to leave, but being by the window and furthest from the door left me at a disadvantage. It was immediately blocked. The old man made the nephews switch places, promising that nothing more would happen. Nephew #2 is a nice boy, he said. Not at all reassured, but unable to see any way to force my exit--it was one against three--I grudgingly sat down and hoped for the best. Conversation ceased. I found myself struggling to even maintain a pretense of writing in my journal; somehow, the ceaseless flow of words that has characterized my lifelong experience of myself had dried up, been dammed up by the filthiness of the situation, the absurdity of the situation, the realization that despite how utterly ridiculous I found it all, nevertheless I was physically at these three mens' mercy. Pulling into Florence, I got ready to go long before the train actually stopped: backpack ready, muscles tensed to GO as soon as possible. But it didn't matter: the old guy made sure he was between me and the door. Grabbing me in a huge bear hug, he nuzzled my neck in a grotesque goodbye kiss before I was allowed out.

And that's what happened.

It happened because I was a woman, and because I was alone. Because there was no one to stop them, and nothing that I could do about it. It could have been worse. I knew that at the time, and I know it now. But it doesn't make what did happen any better, the fact that it could have been worse.

I didn't tell anyone when I got home past curfew that night back at the villa. No one knew I was late, so no explanations were necessary. I'm not sure many people had noticed I was gone at all. There was no one to tell.


Scott Lybrand said...

I've been thinking about this post for several days now, wanting to comment but not knowing what to say. Everything I think of sounds trite.

I will just say this. You made me think about my sister and my mother. Their lives. The times things like this may have happened to them. Because they are women. I wonder what they've kept to themselves.

So, I guess, thank you. For making me think.

JTB said...

Thanks, GR.

Anonymous said...

A few weeks ago I had a girls' getaway with some other Christian women. During that time, several spoke up about how they had been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual mistreatment. One of the gals then said that she believed almost every woman has been a victim of this, and the rest of us shook our heads "Yes". We all knew what she was talking about. GR rightfully wonders when he thinks about what the women in his life have endured, and yet have kept to themselves. Is it shame that keeps us quiet? Yes. But I think we also simply don't know what to do. Thanks, JTB, for not keeping this part of your life to yourself. I think you will be stronger for having given it a voice.

JTB said...

I just went to a discussion panel on "why do the Vagina Monologues on a seminary campus?" One of the things I asked this panel of professors, social workers and seminary students was, how common is "low-level" sexual assault/harassment? One of the panelists responded, "how many women in this room have not experienced some form of harrassment?" No one raised their hand.

It's not that I repressed this memory, or have been living in denial, or anything like that. I've just never revisited this incident. I guess I figured there was no need to--what good would come out of it? But it has been good to retell this story, if only because it makes me more aware of how illusory my "safety" is, and how many women don't even have the comfort of that illusion, but live daily with the knowledge that they are vulnerable.

Jared Cramer said...

Thanks for bringing to reality this aspect of a woman's life. It's terrible and I'm sorry. I'm sorry you experienced it. But I'm more sorry that the church, at best, ignores it, or, at worst, is complicit in it.