Rob Bell said “me, too,” are the two most powerful words in the English language.
I’ve watched those words trend on social media in the last two days, as friends have revealed that they have been sexually assaulted, or subjected to sexual harassment.
One of the questions asked, often used to discount the person’s story, is “why didn’t you say anything at the time?”
Most likely for a variety of reasons.
But I only know the reasons I didn’t say anything at the time.
Looking back, there were things that he said to me that were inappropriate, but not over the top enough to say anything. Calling me down to his hotel room to go over the case one more time before the tournament the next day. Nobody else from the team was called down, just me. The times he called me at my house just to talk, telling me he’d been listening to Patsy Cline and the way she could turn a phrase made him think of me. And the time he sat directly behind the rostrum during the finals of state moot court, and told me afterward that he just loved the little dance I did behind the podium.
But we’ve been trained to minimize or discount things that men say – or to just understand that they’re meant as compliments. So even if the comment came from someone whom you would never receive as a possible suitor, you couldn’t say anything because it would be impolite, or so we good little southern girls were taught.
Especially if he was older.
And well respected in the community.
In a position of authority over you.
Besides, you think, it wasn’t that big a deal. Nothing in comparison to what friends have experienced. Not by any means. So you don’t say anything.
Because it was just a kiss.
I had gone by his office to say I’d decided to take the job I’d been offered to practice law in another city, and to tell him goodbye. I thought it was odd that he shut the door after I came in, but I wasn’t alarmed. I wasn’t planning to stay long, so I never even sat down. I shared my news with him, thanked him for his role in my legal education, and began taking my leave. He met me with open arms for a hug, which was not uncommon, as congratulatory hugs upon winning moot court tournaments were often exchanged among coaches and students. I thought this hug would be the same, but it wasn’t.
During this embrace he asked if he could kiss me. In that instance I was completely taken aback. That was the last thing I expected. I was embarrassed and scared of making him angry if I refused.
So I said yes.
I wanted to say no. I wish that I’d said no, but I didn’t because I couldn’t move. I was locked in an embrace that would’ve made it obvious I felt threatened if I had tried to break free.
In a flash I’m thinking I don’t want to embarrass him and me if I’m making too much out of this – am I making too much out of this? – what kind of kiss is he expecting? – ewww, yuck, I can’t stand the thought of kissing this man who’s old enough to be my father! – he’s my coach, surely it’s perfectly innocent – it doesn’t feel perfectly innocent – And I was scared of what he might do if I tried to pull away.
The kiss was just a peck. But even when I tried to push back from the hug after that peck of a kiss, I still couldn’t move. It seemed like forever before I could break free.
A handful of people knew that story before now. But you learn as a girl to not tell about moments like that, because surely it wasn’t that big a deal – I mean, it was just a peck of a kiss, Sally, and he probably didn’t realize how tightly he was holding you. And after all, he’d taught you a lot and you wouldn’t have been able to learn what you did and achieve all that you did without him. You owe him a lot, you say to yourself when it’s someone who has power over you. If you say anything, you ruin all that, so you think.
And as girls we learn to believe the biggest lie of all – that when things like that happen, we probably did something to cause it. At the very least, we gave the guy the wrong impression.
And you did say “yes,” you know.
From that experience I went on to work with men who talked about women like they were nothing. I’ve been expected to sit at lunch with men whose conversation was so vulgar that I wouldn’t even think of recreating it here. I’m not talking about using profanity – I’m talking about referring to women in the vilest of ways, telling stories meant to demean and degrade women. I was often the only woman at the table, and if I objected to anything that was said, it only made matters worse. The day one of the partners used the “c” word to designate a woman over and over (a word I hadn’t heard since junior high), I picked up my plate and left the table. Later that afternoon I was lectured about growing thicker skin.
I sat through lots of meals like that while I was practicing law, thinking about all the men I knew who wouldn’t think about talking like that anywhere, not just in the presence of a woman. The truth is, men were sitting at that table who didn’t agree with what was being said either. They didn’t participate in the conversation, nor did they laugh as most of the men did at what was being said.
But they never stood up in protest. Many of them went to church on Sundays. They had Bibles in their offices. But they never were willing to say “enough.”
So while there’s a lot of power in the words, “me, too,” it’s not enough.
We need to be joined by our fathers and husbands, brothers and sons, uncles and nephews and cousins to say, “no more.”