The Sad Lesson Sexual Harassment Taught Me About Privilege

Photo: Allison McGlone
Allison McGone
Contributor
Self

It was the first month of my freshman year of college and I was hiding behind a tree on the Boston Common in broad daylight, holding my breath.

The weather was nice that day, so I had gone to lie in the park, in my tie-dye and cutoff overalls, and let the sunlight seep into my bare arms. I had just settled on the grass when I realized I was being watched.

A man sat down a few feet away with his eyes trained on me. Mine were half-closed and locked on the sky, but I was hyper-aware of his presence. My stillness was like a tree root, stiff but curled with potential energy. 

After a minute or so, I sprang up and bolted.

I grew up in a wealthy town in Northern Virginia, just outside of D.C. My peers were the children of lawyers and politicians.

My neighborhood was full of big brick houses and bordered by a forest that stretched down to the muddy bank of the Potomac River. When I felt anxious, I would walk barefoot on the dirt trails or the pitted road by the golf course. 

My first weeks of college in the city were surreal and often frightening. 

Men would stop me on the street to strike up a conversation, sometimes reaching out to touch my hair or body without permission.

I was followed out of stores and even physically chased down the street. Although I was no stranger to catcalling, I had no idea that it was a constant presence for women who lived downtown.

I quickly learned how to adapt: I wore headphones, walked fast, kept my head down. I stayed on high alert at all times. 

On that warm September morning, I ran because I knew I would be followed.

I ducked behind the thin trunk of an elm tree and watched the stranger sprint past, his eyes darting. I waited until he disappeared and then hurried back to my dorm, shaken.

I hadn’t realized how sheltered I was until I stopped feeling safe.

RELATED: Just Saying 'No' To Sexual Harassment Never Worked For Me

A few nights later, I was assaulted outside my residence hall.

It was late at night, and I was coming home from a party with my roommate.

Our building was in a small brick alleyway across from the common, surrounded by shops and businesses but darker than the main street. A small crowd spilled from the nightclub next door. I noticed a tall, broad figure in dark clothing pacing alone in front of the alley.

My drunk friend ducked into a window well, and I made the mistake of taking my eyes off the strange man. 

Then I felt something slam into me from behind.

I pressed my back against the wall and shouted at the man to leave. He smirked and lifted his hands in the air as if to prove innocence. Did he think I had not felt him grab my ass? 

I reported the assault not out of fear that he would find me again, but because I was angry. I imagined my assailant, ever larger, lurking in alleys and grasping at teenage girls. In my mind, he became almost archetypal. 

I wondered if he’d gotten what he wanted from me. To this day, I don’t know which answer would be worse.

The police department at my school was supportive.

They told me that I was right to report what happened. That it was assault, even though it was minor. That I was protecting others. 

The cops took down my statement. They had caught the incident on a security camera, and they played it back to me. It was bizarre to watch from the outside, but somehow I felt relieved: the video convinced me that the assault really had happened, that I wasn’t crazy or remembering wrong.

After filing the report, I sat on the floor of my hall with the lights off and hyperventilated. 

I didn’t know why I was so upset. I had seen the evidence, and my experience had been validated. But I still didn’t feel sure that I’d done the right thing.

I couldn’t imagine the fear of reporting assault or harassment and not being believed.

But for many people, that fear is crippling.

RELATED: Why It Took Me 25 Years To Admit I Was Raped

Sexual assault and harassment are extremely underreported. A survey examined by NPR revealed that seventy-seven percent of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment. Over half have been subjected to unwanted sexual touching, and over a quarter have survived sexual assault or rape.

Only ten percent of the women studied had filed police reports about these incidents, even though about a third of them experienced negative mental health consequences.

I was lucky. In the days that followed my report, the school planted streetlights in the pavement outside my dorm. A campus advisory was sent out. I received an email from a staff member making sure I was okay, and listing mental health resources on campus. 

For a long time, I avoided telling my parents about that incident, or any of the others. I didn’t want them to worry and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of nothing. 

I had not been raised to stay silent about sexual misconduct or to blame myself, but I still did.

In the city streets, I continued to be followed by strangers who felt entitled to my body just from the way I walked by. As the weeks went on, I felt increasingly self-conscious about my body and the way I dressed. 

I began to spend most of my time indoors. My dorm room had no sunlight, and I would lie in bed all day and watch the air turn grayer. I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself, and for a while, I felt like I had no way out. 

But I did.

Not every sexual harassment victim has the same resources I had, and many find it much harder to escape sexual harassment or abuse.

Sometimes the abuser is a spouse or family member. 

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Other times they're a superior at a job their victim can’t afford to risk losing, or the provider of a much-needed service.

According to the NPR report, thirty-eight percent of women reported sexual harassment at the workplace, and thirty-five percent said it had happened at home. Experts say “these experiences are more likely to be assaults and the ‘most severe forms’ of harassment.”

Some victims don’t even have access to basic necessities. 

There was a homeless shelter on the next block, and I began to wonder about the vulnerable women and men who stayed there – how could they deal with the same problems I had, or worse? 

There were no security cameras on the crowded city streets. There were no boxy rooms to go back to, and you can’t hide behind a tree forever.

I realized my small, lightless dorm would be a haven for someone with no other place to go.

I remember a night in the city when the road became a tunnel of men in the shadows, waiting.

When one came to walk by my side, I didn’t know if he was there to protect me or harm me. 

I realized then that some people never know.

But when I finally told my parents what was going on, they supported me. 

When I was thinking about transferring, they took me on a road trip through New England to look at schools.

I remember sitting in the backseat, watching sunlight splinter on the snowy windshield behind the silhouettes of my mom and dad, feeling as if the world shrank down to that single car. 

This was the safety of my childhood; something that should be a human right, but that I had learned to view as a privilege

When I finally decided to return to my school, my parents helped me move off-campus to a flat in the suburbs. 

I could take walks in the sun there, and take the train to class. There were places I could be alone, and feel safe without feeling trapped. My bedroom had big windows that let in the light.

I knew, now, that these comforts were luxuries.

RELATED: How To Know If You're A Victim Of Sexual Harassment At Work (& What To Do Next)

Allie McGlone is a writer who covers a variety of topics for YourTango, including pop culture and entertainment.