ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
The Price of Silence
I am not Rose McGowan.
I’m in basic black leggings on the couch, and my heart is starting to do that prickly cactus thing that happens when I see the latest headlines. I’m watching famous women in white cascade down the glistening steps of the Grammys. My ears are ringing as P!nk belts out a ferocious middle-finger response to the patriarchy, and the ghost of my twenty-year-old self is raising my fist at the TV in solidarity.
But I am not twenty. I lost my right to speak out against the sexual harassment that upended my career when I came forward with a claim against my government employer more than ten years ago.
I am curled up on the couch, buried beneath a very contained life purposely created to keep me safe, sitting in the rage that I still can’t outrun. I am forty, comfortably coupled, moderately medicated, anxiously waiting for the prickly cactus pain in my chest to go away. I am grateful that women with a platform have ignited a firestorm of truth around reporting sexual harassment, but the smoke from that fire doesn’t provide cover for women like me.
Women like me.
The smiling picture clipped to my blouse guarantees my entrance past the man working the front desk each morning. His jokes about my backside follow me into the elevator. I wear pink stilettos in an act of defiance, a pastel reminder to my mostly male colleagues that being a woman and understanding the complex web of laws that our clients navigated with us are not contradicting philosophies. I am one of five women embedded in the halls of one of our nation’s oldest patriarchies. We are tasked with presenting workshops and trainings, advocating for clients and providing crisis counseling. But to our male colleagues and our male supervisors, we are window dressing. We have enough security clearance to have access to the city’s secrets, but without the gravitas and structure that scaffolds our male colleagues we stand out like that old Sesame Street song.
One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.
They pull us aside in the cafeteria to make small talk, joking that they watch us from behind on the closed-circuit tv system that is supposed to keep us safe. I sit with him in an interview room and his hands reach out to cover mine. “Stand up and turn around.” he says, as he uses my body to punctuate a point that he is making. No amount of college education or buttoned-up collar or tightly pursed lips or fierce indignant glares can protect me. Saying no, changing the subject, feigning illness, looking away… when you are not seen as an equal, your voice and body language don’t register as protest. We are breasts and trouser-covered asses, long wavy hair and high heels. We think we can protect our clients from the patriarchy of a broken legal system, but we can’t protect ourselves.
The men who take custody of our careers count on us to be friendly in the face of our fear, to reassure them after we are taunted and ogled, to wear our shame like a silent badge of honor. This is how we are taught to keep our jobs. By smiling. By not fighting back. By not making waves. And eventually, by cannibalizing each other’s opportunities to save ourselves. Our desks are pushed tightly together, behind huge glass windows looking out onto the hallway. They leer at us when they walk by like we are fish at an aquarium. We swim in circles to avoid them, but there is no coming up for air.
There was no Rose McGowan in my chosen career path who could pave the way for me. There was no hashtag, no movement, no collective public rage. Before the birth of social media, the silence was terrifying. The loneliness of being victimized made me dream of the white noise that would follow after crashing my car into a wall, made me dig my nails into the skin hidden beneath my clothes. I finally tell my story to shake the sickness off. If only to hear it said out loud, when no one else could find their words.
In a room of women who created policy and change, I whisper the truth about the gross abuse of power, the gifting of opportunities to those of us who acted pretty and played along, the repeated violation of the clients we were supposed to be saving. Our director listens, carefully. The pause before her response is the first time I felt hopeful, but I misread her initial absence of anger.
“Perhaps you might feel better working somewhere else.” she says, softly.
No one is coming to save me.
They whisper to me that the contract that keeps us precariously balanced somewhere between success and obscurity is too fragile, too important to risk. I am collateral damage in a greater fight, and unwilling to give them my silence.
I turn around, and there is no one behind me. Not a single female colleague of mine is willing to come forward. This is why we don’t tell. Because when we do, we often stand alone. This is how they win.
I speak out anyway, because anger and pride and fear are motivating when you are twenty-something and the world has betrayed you. I didn’t understand that demanding to be treated with respect at my workplace was a bold idea. I file a report. I make it official.
Everything collapses around me. Gloria Allred doesn’t rush in, though I’d secretly hoped she would. There is no public apology; no one forfeits their power or steps aside. My attorney warns me against speaking to the press. Women haven’t created The Future is Femme T-shirts. No one gives me a pin. No one sings for me.
I give two depositions. I tell my story over and over again. I briefly wonder what it would feel like to jump out the window of the mediator’s office. Would the moments of flying feel like relief?
My attorney tells me that the burden of truth lies in the pages of my journals. In my therapist’s notes. In anecdotes from my ex-boyfriends. I am on trial, with no #RoseArmy to link arms with. When you speak up about being violated, your perpetrators are suddenly entitled to everything.
As if they haven’t taken enough already.
I appreciate the current public outrage around sexual harassment but wonder, where was the collective gasp when my claim was leaked to the press, when my harasser’s lawyers made me out to be a money-hungry nymphet? Where were the women’s rights pundits when I was told that because I had been raped before, because I had gone to therapy, because I had been on antidepressants, because I was a sexual human being, because I was a woman, because I was blonde, because I wore pink, because I laughed instead of screaming, because I knew their secrets, because I needed this job, that I deserved this? That I was asking for it. That this was how men talk to each other.
It’s about damn time that someone lit the match. I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been hoping that you’d call. That you’d notice. That you’d put the pieces together. That you’d tell.
I told my story then, even though I knew what my epitaph would say.
It would say that I was a slut. I had asked for it. I must have been terrible at my job. I should learn how to take a joke. I shouldn’t be so full of myself—I wasn’t that pretty anyway.
I’m done believing that.
For every Rose McGowan, there are hundreds of men and women like me. My sexual harassment was born from silence and ended with silence. When I chose to speak out, it cost me my voice. Now you are singing to an audience of millions. You are being interviewed on morning talk shows, changing the public vocabulary around harassment and the harm it causes. I am so glad that you are here. Thank you for showing up.
I only wish that I had known you when I signed confidentiality agreements and non-disclosures to balance my pain and my healing, my adrenaline and my dreams, my rage and recovery. The law says that a settlement is not an admission of guilt but when you tread water for years in the current of repeated depositions, isolation, doubt, hypervigilance, and career limbo, a settlement feels like someone is finally believing you.
A settlement feels like winning.
I spoke up before I was wise enough to realize that what felt like self-preservation would instead end my career. I was sexually harassed in the shadows and then quickly retreated to the shadows because I was convinced that the public exposure would break me more than the touching and joking and leering and massaging did.
Our perpetrators win because we are threatened with lawsuits and subpoenas. They force us to imagine being exposed again and again, being stripped naked in front of a hungry audience. They make sure we know that every detail of our private sex lives will be illustrated for the media like a bad comic strip. If you raise your voice, you must be willing to fight them off, again.
Come at me. I dare you to touch me again.
One can only imagine putting on the battle gear to fight this war when you are fourteen. When you are gay or trans. When you are undocumented. When you have been abused before. When you are so close to that promotion, that diploma, that necessary raise.
I am begging you to remember that most of us are bound by fear, by confidentiality agreements, by overdue rent checks, by the eyes of our children who plead with us to come home. We are bus drivers and day laborers, cafeteria workers and law clerks. We are therapists and architects and teachers and bus drivers and probation workers. We have too much to lose. The clock is still ticking on our pain. We would love for time to be up, for alarm bells to ring, for someone to say “game over.”
If wealthy, powerful, successful, smart women can tell their stories and still be dragged in the media, it is not yet safe for women like me to come out of the shadows. Look around you. What have you tolerated? What truths have you ignored? Who have you doubted, questioned, minimized in hopes of not making waves? I am not safe until we are all safe, and neither are you.
Put on your pins and clear your throats, friends. Some of the most ferocious warriors in this battle are women you’ve never even heard of.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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