Why “Respect Your Elders” May Be a Bit Subjective…

Within the past year, sexual assault has become a more pronounced, hot button topic, from Trump’s, “grab ‘em by the p***y” comment, to the now retrial of Bill Cosby. I think with the more open culture of people disclosing their rape and sexual assault stories, survivors (or as my nonprofit refers to them, “warriors” or “badasses”), the more people overlook the simpler types of sexual assault that is out there.

For example, catcalling. When young women walk down the street past a construction site in the city, it is inevitable that they will be catcalled. Either they will be whistled at, or inappropriate remarks about her appearance will be shouted in her direction. They may even experience a combination of both. But situations like this create a discomfort and violation of their personal sense of safety. Whether or not the construction workers aim to act on it and actually follow through with some of the threats they make about wanting to touch or feel that person’s body, it does not negate the fact that it is an intimidating situation, and people tend to walk faster down those streets.

A more commonly overlooked example that I have noticed has been much more prevalent lately is older people making inappropriate comments toward younger people, and humiliating them when the older person is in a position of power. Not necessarily a position of political or societal authority, but just a place where the younger person would be considered “out of line” for standing up for themselves.

A few weeks ago, I was confronted in a situation where I was a house guest at my boyfriend’s brother’s fiancé’s house for a wedding shower. I sat politely at the table, among all men, and we respectfully discussed politics, national issues, and numerous other topics, both controversial and not. There was a maintained level of respect towards each other, and my boyfriend sat right beside me, so I felt comfortable speaking freely.

After the conversation ended, the father of the bride-to-be, easily in his sixties, married, and surrounded by his family, turned to my boyfriend and asked if we would like to go in the pool, and alluded to bringing bathing suits. My boyfriend responded, “Yes, we brought bathing suits and would love to use the pool.” Then, the older man looked at me, said, “You don’t need one”, and winked. Although I put on a brave face, while surrounded by all men, in an unfamiliar place and laughed along, in that moment, I felt completely out of control of my surroundings, and vulnerable. I knew speaking up in reaction to his comment was inappropriate, and that now I felt like an object of his affections and not an equal human being, would be looked at as me overreacting and creating an unnecessary situation. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable anymore, so I excused myself, walked into the house, and locked myself in a room.

I thought I was crazy for feeling how I felt. I thought maybe I was overreacting and that I shouldn’t be so sensitive. However, I called a friend, and when she was JUST as put-off as I was, I realized that this isn’t a ME problem. This probably happens to people all the time. I felt powerless and disgusted. I didn’t want to go near him anymore, and truthfully, wanted to leave the house immediately.

I think people fail to recognize this as sexual assault because nothing physical happened. He never actually touched me, so really, what did he do wrong?

Well…

Sexual assault is an all-encompassing term. It describes any BEHAVIOR (i.e. physical or verbal) of a sexual nature used to coerce, manipulate, abuse or torture a person. The intricacies vary depending on the state, but the above definition is the overarching federal definition. This fits. It was a verbal attempt to make me feel uncomfortable. Why else would a 60-something speak about seeing a 20-something naked? I doubt he actually expected me to skinny dip in his pool in the middle of the afternoon. But him saying that in front of his family and friends was a power move. He knew I wouldn’t fight back and he would get away with it.

That behavior is not okay! I don’t care how old they are, or where they are. It should not be acceptable to be talked to like an object or less than an equal. In that situation, for safety and my own “survival”, I decided that not speaking up was the most effective thing to do. Otherwise I put myself at risk of being ostracized and possibly starting a bigger issue. But socially, this is a call to action!

If anyone has ever been in a situation like this, where you were overpowered by a person older or in a position of authority to you, tell us about it! I promise, you’re not alone! This happens so often, and we need to teach people that it’s not okay!

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