I have spoken and written about my experiences with sexual harassment in the Middle East, but not so much about the phenomenon in my home country of the United States. I lived a very sheltered life in rural Oregon and never dealt with the issue in middle school or high school. I didn’t experience it until I was an undergraduate student at Syracuse University. I would often joke that the misogyny that surrounded fraternity culture on campuses actually helped to prepare me for the blatant sexism on the streets of Rabat, Cairo, and Amman.
There is one experience of sexual harassment in the U.S. that I would like to share, and while it was by no means the first or the worst incident, it still made an impression on me by its subtlety.
I was once in San Diego with my parents in 2011 to visit a relative. My relative’s condo was too small to accommodate us, so we stayed at a nearby hotel. After a day of sightseeing, we were in our hotel room and my father requested that I go downstairs and bring some snacks from the car.
Upon my return from the parking garage, I shared an elevator with an older black man, a construction worker. He was probably in his fifties. I thought nothing of it; the hotel was under renovation at the time and I had seen construction workers everywhere. But I immediately regretted stepping inside when the elevators doors slid closed. The man in question was looking at me and up and down, literally undressing me with his eyes. I felt like a piece of meat sharing a cage with a starving tiger. Luckily we reached the floor of my hotel room quickly. As I was exiting the elevator, this creep had the audacity to call out, “How old are you?”
There are so many things I wish I had said, had I not been so shocked. Instead, all I could muster saying was, “I’m sixteen.”
It was a lie. I was actually twenty. In that fraction of a second I thought it would be better to pretend to be younger so he would perceive the consequences of trying anything with me to be greater. But there was no guarantee of that.
That’s the trouble with sexual harassment. Each harasser is different and it is difficult to gauge what is the best move. Women have no way of knowing which harasser is the “innocent” idiot who doesn’t comprehend the impact of his words/actions, and which harasser is a serious threat.
He said nothing more. You could see my hotel room from the elevator. As the elevator door closed on him, I walked further down the hallway than was necessary to ensure that he didn’t see which room I was staying in.
This incident stuck out to me because it reiterated the reality that sexual harassment is not about beauty, nor sexual desirability. I was wearing the baggiest of pajamas. My hair was completely frizzed and frazzled. On top of that, because I had spent the entire day at the San Diego Zoo without sunblock, I was as red as a lobster. If sexual harassment was about those things, then I should not have been a temptation to anyone in that state…yet here I was, fair game to the creepiest construction worker I ever had the misfortune to encounter.
Sexual harassment is not a misguided attempt at flirting or courtship, as so many want to claim that it is. It is a predatory behavior used on those perceived to be vulnerable. It comes from men placing a pathological amount of their self-worth and sense of manhood on their ability to dominate women.