WHAT DOES SHAME FEEL LIKE?
The following testimony, submitted directly to Report the Abuse, perfectly articulates how it feels to try and explain the enormity of ‘small’ acts of harassment. The vile and bile and stomach churning fear. The worry that your harasser will do or say something again, something bigger the next time. The scared voice in the back of your head – filled with shame and judgement – suggesting that if you looked different or wore something different or acted different this wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
I am not going to lie to you – this made me cry. For the person who submitted the story, for every person I know who has been in this same situation dozens of times over, for me. For the survivors who have come to this project asking what they did to deserve being held down by their colleagues, whether screaming would have helped, whether not screaming meant they were in agreement somehow, whether they should have refused that last drink, whether smiling at a co-worker would have stopped their violation, whether reporting could have saved someone else from the torment and hell they are living in now. Guilt. Shame. Depression. Violation. Powerlessness. Fear.
This is a long testimony, and it deserves to be highlighted all on its own. The following also comes with a strong TRIGGER WARNING, as it is very emotional and might cause other survivors to react. It is also incredibly important and necessary.
What Does Shame Feel Like?
I am an aid worker. I am doing what I have always wanted to do as a child, as a teenager—this was my dream, and I have worked, long and hard to reach where I am today. I am articulate, well-educated, and a polyglot. Per chance, I also happen to be a woman.
Some say I am pretty, and I don’t look my age. Some say I am beautiful—the kinds that makes them think I shouldn’t be out in the field, as an aid worker, but an actress. Almost all weigh my worth on three factors—one, that I am woman and consequently, two and three, how I look like every day and what I wear. I still don’t know how I am supposed to feel about – should I feel elated that someone equates me to an actress, or should I feel saddened that that’s all there to my identity. Despite my achievements, academic and professional.
I ask myself this question often. I ask the people around me—my colleagues, this question often. Not because I gloat over the attention but because I hear an off-hand remark about my looks almost every other day. I feel embarrassed, mortified, and nervous by these “compliments,” for I always feel that they have an ulterior motive. Because my past experiences have made me cautious enough to second guess the motives of the people complementing, all the time. And so I am always waiting for a barrage of inappropriate comments to hit me, after these compliments have subsided. When I tell my (male) friends how these compliments make me feel, they tell me I am lying—for of course everyone loves being praised, especially women, especially for their looks. I can never explain adequately enough that I don’t.
Today, among other things, I am asking these questions to myself because I believe I was sexually harassed at work yesterday. I am asking these questions because in some corner of my mind, this incident has triggered an avalanche of horrible, detestable memories. I am still asking myself how acknowledging to myself that I was “sexually harassed” is going to impact me, the work I do, and the years I am still to spend in the field. For today in some corner of my mind, I am still doubtful—was it sexual harassment, I have been repeating silently to myself, since yesterday.
I came to this field as someone who has lived through years of sexual abuse from very close quarters—and felt guilty about it and remained silent about it. For a long time, I believed that it was all my fault- that I brought it upon myself, somehow. Today my rational mind knows that’s not true. On bad days however, I have difficulty accepting that. On bad days, I blame no one but myself. What happened to me, I never confided in anyone about it for the longest time, because I knew that no one would believe me. Despite all the female emancipation, empowerment and feminism of the 70s, and 80s, this I know remains true to this very day. And yesterday, what happened with me, only confirmed my belief. I wasn’t told I wasn’t believed. On the contrary, I was told, multiple times, that no one thought I was lying. However, when it came to taking what I said seriously, it was a different story.
Most times, when incidents like these occur—and I have been in the field long enough to have faced multiple incidents of these sorts- I shut up. I don’t speak about it to anyone, I don’t report. I clam up; I somehow make myself invisible- as much as is possible for me to become invisible. I retrace my steps—all my steps, all my words a million times trying to figure out where exactly I went wrong, and what exactly I did wrong to have brought the situation upon myself. And that, that sets of the trigger. I relive each incident, every experience, and every single memory like they all happened together. I feel like there is a block of cement, or a heavy stone sliding gradually down my throat, and settling somewhere at the bottom of my stomach. And yet, simultaneously I feel bottomless, because my heart keeps sinking deeper, and deeper. I shrivel, literally, wanting to make myself invisible. I get quizzical looks, and questions about how I am quiet, and silent and not roaring away with laughter, like always. On days like these, I feel physically ill—so much so that I am unable to drag myself out of bed, where I am usually lying with eyes wide open, in a fetal position. I breathe, but I keep gasping for breath. I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out and yet, I am screaming in my head. Asking myself the same questions, again and again. How did this happen? Why did this happen? And yet, I don’t get any satisfactory answers. I don’t think I ever will.
All my supervisors, when writing my performance appraisals have never failed to mention how I am always smiling, and how I integrate seamlessly into any work environment. On good days, I pride myself on this quality—I don’t have hang ups about who I talk to, or who I befriend and laugh with. I like being amiable. On bad days, I wonder if this very quality makes men think I am easy. Easy to flirt with. Easy to touch, appropriately or inappropriately. And easy to bed. Cheap. Easy and cheap. Even promiscuous sounds too sophisticated a word to use for how I feel.
What happened to me yesterday wasn’t physical harassment. It was verbal. It wasn’t the first instance of harassment for me in this office. I have experienced at least two other, what I felt personally were serious incidents (the kinds which if left unaddressed would likely lead to more aggravated forms of harassment) before this, and a multitude of other remarks, which even when inappropriate, I have let slide. One I handled myself- telling the guy that he was making me uncomfortable. The other, which was an instance of inappropriate touching, I reported unofficially, and I can only assume that it was handled. And yet, yesterday I snapped. It was implied (and to an extent, I believe, passively conveyed) that because I had never said no to flirtatious conversations with this male colleague before, I had no right to say no now. That my consent to the brazen proposition of someone wanting to have sex with me was irrelevant. I was told, the words imprinted on my brain for posterity, that it wasn’t a possibility that I was perhaps already partnered with someone else because only this guy had the right. To sleep with me. I felt debased. I felt cheap. I felt easy. I felt bile rising up my throat and choking my voice. And I wanted to report it. Officially.
I am not brave for wanting to report it. Doing the most natural, and obvious thing shouldn’t require me, or for that matter anyone else to be brave. And yet, the trepidation and heaviness in my feet, as I walked out of my office yesterday reminded me of the previous time (the only other time) I had decided to officially report an instance of verbal sexual harassment. I had been hopeful, very hopeful that last time—which was just a few months ago, because my supervisor had been a woman too. I had expected her to empathise, and understand. I had expected her to tell me that even though I no longer worked for the organisation (surprise, surprise- the harassment happened AFTER I left), I didn’t have to deal with it by myself. That she will support me if I wanted to file an official complaint. Instead, what she told me sucked the air out of my lungs. She washed her hands off it, told me to handle it myself, speak to the guy who had harassed me, and do it all with a “conscience.” To this day, her words sting me—by bringing my morality into the equation, she told me that I was lying, without even using the words, “You are lying.” Yesterday when I was on my way to speak to my colleague about it, officially, my mind went back to this incident and I hesitated, thinking if I would face something similar. And yet, I hoped. I hoped because the colleague I was going to report it to was also a friend—a good friend, one who knew what I have been through and experienced, and what I regularly face, in the field, and off it. I took solace in the fact of our friendship, and his professionalism, and in the fact that we both have always wanted to do the right thing, personally, and professionally. And this was the right thing to do. Or so I thought.
And then, as I sat in his office, and heard him talk, I started to feel breathless. First, there was the disbelief- apparently the male colleague in question was a nice guy. Not unexpected—even I too thought this male colleague was a nice guy, but then I was like, when has niceness ever stopped anyone from being deviant, or just a little malevolent—as long as they know they can get away with it. Then, there was acceptance. Okay, this happened. And then, my friend, and colleague I was reporting it to advised me to let it go, and not report it officially. I will talk to him, he said and it won’t happen again. He advised me to let it go since this was the first time the male colleague in question had done something like this. Sometimes, he said, people make “bad jokes” without realizing what they are saying, without intending, and meaning what they are saying. As a lawyer you are supposed to know, my friend continued—a repeat offence would be of a higher severity. It is the severity, and the gravity he said. Let it go, he said.
First time. Bad jokes. Intention. Meaning. Severity. Gravity. I am still grappling with the import of what I was told yesterday. Still trying to understand what these words mean in the context of harassment, sexual harassment, or inappropriate conversation at work place and during work hours. Does anyone know what they mean or they mean different things to different people, depending on the different contexts of the situations they are in?
As I sat in my colleague’s office yesterday, trying to make sense of what I was being told, a part of my brain was saying, this isn’t happening. He doesn’t believe you, was my second thought. He thinks you played a part in this, was my third thought. The other part of my brain was asking questions—which I couldn’t bring myself to vocalise. I wanted to ask my friend, how do you TELL someone that whether they like it or not, you are going to sleep with them? And how do you say this to someone, anyone without meaning it or without having the intent to do so? Maybe you are just saying it as a way of pushing the boundary—to know if your colleague would give in or not. If they say yes, you score. If they say no, it’s easy to pretend that you meant it as a “joke.” Yes, I am a lawyer. And as a lawyer, I know that when you drive recklessly, and you hit someone, you are still guilty of an offence, whether you meant or intended for the offence to occur or not. It is the recklessness that makes you guilty, your intention is irrelevant. Shouldn’t it be the same with reckless verbal statements? Your reckless verbal statements should make you culpable by the very fact that they are reckless. But I couldn’t bring myself to say any of this.
Yes, I had engaged this male colleague and his friendly banter before; I said when my friend asked. No, I had not said anything to him—nothing to tell him that I didn’t like how he spoke with me. But then again, I say, he has never said anything of this sort before—nothing similar to what he said today. You should have told him. I look at my friend, with a look of absolute disbelief plastered on my face. I know because I saw my eyes have widened in shock, and disgust in my reflection in the glass window behind him. Told him what, exactly? What do you tell someone you consider a colleague, a friend when they invite you to go dancing? Or when they tell you they might drop by your house later during the evening to say hi. Do you say, ‘please stop. I don’t like the conversation we are having?’ Or, do you say, ‘I don’t like you coming on to me like this.’ Or, better still, do you say, ‘Mind your own business.’ Yes, I could have said that I don’t like being talked to like this- but like what? I don’t like being invited to go dancing? Or I don’t like people to check up on me? Tell that to any person and they would actually think you are demented. And what if you say it? What if your colleague just laughs in your face, or try and hug you to make it sound all non-serious and then walk away, feeling smug at having caused you discomfort? And leave you to grapple with what happened and what that conversation meant. But I don’t say any of this.
Is an invitation to go dancing, to which you haven’t even said yes, flirtatious? When you don’t say yes, isn’t someone supposed to KNOW already that you are not interested? Isn’t the lack of a YES, automatically a NO? Are you supposed to know that a colleague you have barely known for a month or two, and who says he MAY drop by to say hi, wants, maybe, something more from you? And does the fact that you engaged in this conversation take away your right to say something when the same colleague brazenly, openly, explicitly suggest what is on his mind? So then, what DO you say to someone who invites you to go dancing with them, no alcohol involved, he insists. Or to someone who wants to drop by and say hi? What? Which part is it exactly that you are supposed to feel uncomfortable about? When exactly are you supposed to know that the conversation is flirtatious—and you would do better to steer away from it? Yes, he had tried to caress my cheek once and I had brushed his hand away forcefully. Is that notice enough? Does that mean I said something or do I still need to actually say something? Shouldn’t that have been notice enough? All this is going on in my head, but I don’t say this, I don’t know why.
Who measures the severity, and gravity of a verbal comment said so casually, but of such destructive import on another individual’s psyche so as to render them physically incapable of performing their everyday tasks? What would it take—I asked, for an incident to be severe and grave? Does someone need to touch me inappropriately, or rape me, I asked, for you to sit across from me and tell me that yes, what I faced was severe and grave. By not taking official cognizance, I told my colleague, he was becoming part of the problem. By asking me to not report the incident officially, he was asking me to become part of the problem too. I want this to stop- this behavior, not just with you, but with everyone. It is not okay, it is not acceptable. It has to stop, he said. I want to report it, I reiterated. Even if you complain, he said, the maximum that is going to happen is that there would be a warning given. At least, he is saying he is sorry and this is not going to happen again—that’s what matters, he said.
Sorry. So he is going to move on with his life by saying sorry. What else do you want, he says. I want some action against him, I hear my head screaming. But no words come out of my mouth. I want this to be official- but no words come out of my mouth. No one would know. And he could, and likely may do it again, I said. I still don’t say that he tried to caress my cheek, or that he told me that he LOVED my hair (I love it too, I remember I had said, and laughed.) And you may never again know, because hey, no one may report it, I said. And how do you know even know if this is the first time—how do you know he hasn’t done anything? Maybe he did, and no one reported it, so he got away with it. My friend, and the colleague I am reporting this to, just sat there and shook his head—this is futile, he seems to be saying. We are going round and round in circles, he seems to be saying. I DON’T CARE, he seems to be saying. I am up against this indifference, and I am supposed to be explaining why I feel I have been sexually harassed. And I am trying, I am really trying, and I can see I am failing.
I am reminded at this moment of what my friend, and colleague had told me, when I had confided in him about what I had previously been through. Why didn’t you tell your parents, he had asked? I would have, if I were you, he said. You need to stop such behavior, and the only way you can is if you report it and someone takes action. And there I was, sitting across from him, BEGGING him to take action against someone who had verbally harassed me, and who I knew if unchecked would definitely do something physically to me— because by keeping quiet, I would enable him. By keeping quiet, my friend, and colleague I was reporting to would enable him. But here he was my friend, and colleague saying no. No. No. No. No. No. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public, he seemed to be saying. He is a nice guy- everyone knows he is a nice guy- he didn’t mean it, he didn’t intend it. It happens. Don’t report it. No. No. No. No. No.
And what about me, I ask. Do you know how I feel; I ask my friend, and colleague. Tell me how do you feel, he says, wanting to sound sympathetic. Trying to help me navigate my feelings. I feel like my body is only for men’s pleasure—whosoever wants it, whenever they want it, I say. That’s what I feel like. Cheap. Filthy. Easy. I felt bile rising up my throat when I was hearing all this, I say, wondering if I was even hearing accurately what was being said to me. I understand, he said. Understand was a huge word coming from someone who didn’t seem to be in favour of taking any official action. No, you don’t understand. You never will, I say, so don’t peddle that to me, expecting me to believe it.
At this stage, I give up. I give up because I know there is no point dragging this further. I give up because it feels like I am dragging myself through muck, to prove that something that happened to me was wrong, and cognizance should be taken of the matter. I give up because I am tired of trying to make people understand that every time something like this happens, big or small, verbal or physical, harassment like this chips you away, little by little. It chips away your soul, it chips away at your dignity, and it chips away at your very being. You live through it, and maybe you learn too. Yes, you are somehow a bigger person because of all that has happened to you, but at the same time, you feel like you are less of a person too. I sat there and told my friend that I won’t file an official complaint because I don’t have it in me emotionally to follow it through. That I am not strong enough to defend myself, to stop this from becoming about me—about how I DIDN’T DO anything to stop it. Or how I probably, likely, enabled this colleague. No, I didn’t have it in me to be triggered day and night into reliving my experiences, is what I should have said. I didn’t have it in me to face everything that haunts me. Any of it. All of it. And I walked out of his office.
Today morning, another one of my colleagues ‘wished me’ good morning by saying “oh you look so pretty today” and came to hug me. My mouth opened instinctively but nothing came out although in my head I could hear myself say, “don’t come near me, and don’t touch me.” My hand just created a barrier so he couldn’t come close, and yet my colleague tried to embrace me. Probably, I should have said something, I guess—like stop. There were five other people looking, and since then everyone’s been asking me if I am okay or not. I am not okay, and no one is getting it. And I can’t explain. That I feel ashamed.
Is a scar.
Years after you forgot
That the wound had healed.
The last gasp of breath, that
One right there that doesn’t
Unclench your tight chest.
Shame is the
Bile that squeezes your voice
You open your mouth, only you can hear
The screams in your head.
Shame is lying
Awake night after
Night, in your bed, asking yourself if.
If you had done things
Differently; would you still
Have laid here night
Wondering if you should use a blade
To cut or a knife, but being
Too ashamed to do so.
Is a memory,
Well dusted and forgotten
Flashing you with its astonishing
Alacrity, each frame
As sharp as it happened,
Is a scar.
That continues to itch, where
A wound that never healed, had
UPDATE: After writing this post, and speaking to some trusted friends, the survivor made the decision to go forward with an official complaint – for her sake and others. The reaction has thus far been positive, and she is hopeful that this will result in sustained changes in the office’s attitudes towards sexual harassment.