fucking stop.

chairs

[Update 10/8/2018: A month after I posted this story, the Me Too Movement flared to life. Women all over the world shared deeply personal, painful stories of sexual assault. #MeToo brought solidarity, but not quite vindication. As a scholar who has studied the silencing of women over the centuries, I feel profoundly lucky to be alive during this moment. We’re still piecing together what this movement means, and what we want the future to look like. I hope we can continue to do this important work with compassion.]

When I was a sophomore in college working the night shift at a building on campus, a visiting professor put his hands on my body without my consent. In the days that followed, my boss got involved, university administration got involved, my family got involved. Various people heard the story, although only a few of them heard it from me. When my mom shared it with her best friends, a circle of pious ladies I'd known since I was born, one of them asked, "But what was she wearing?" 

A few weeks ago, another man put his hands on my body without my consent. This time, I was sitting next to my husband Luke in the restaurant where he works. The man who touched me also worked there, and just before he slid his hand under my ass he said to me, "Luke's my worst enemy. Because I want to fuck you." 

*

In her new memoir What Happened, Hillary Clinton describes how uncomfortable she felt during the second presidential debate as Donald Trump stalked her around the stage, looming over her like some lumpen golem. "It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching, ‘Well, what would you do? Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly, Back up, you creep. Get away from me.'" Drawing on a lifetime of practice, she chose to keep her cool, clench her fists, and carry on but now she wonders what would have happened if she had chosen option B. Like so many women who have had men try to verbally or physically intimidate them, Clinton is second-guessing herself. Maybe if I had (re)acted differently, we think, I could have stopped him

Speaking to Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Clinton acknowledged that option B "would have delighted my supporters, enraged his supporters, and it would have been troubling to a lot of people still trying to make up their minds. Anger from a woman, at least up until now, is seen as off-putting and somewhat frightening to people." At the time, two days after the Access Hollywood tape went public and "grab 'em by the pussy" became part of our national vernacular, all signs pointed to a Clinton victory. SNL's cold open than weekend introduced Kate McKinnon's character as "President Hillary Clinton." Even at that relative high point in her campaign, Clinton knew that telling Trump to back off would have hurt her, not him. Still, the idea that in situations of sexual harassment or assault, the woman is responsible for the outcome is powerful enough to make even one of the savviest, most resolute women in modern history question herself. 

*

The party was going full tilt by the time I arrived. I'd had a long, difficult day after learning that my grandmother was in the hospital, so Luke suggested I come out to the restaurant to get my mind off things. They were celebrating their stellar New York Times review, published earlier that day. Tables were laden with Shake Shack burgers and sandwiches from Parm, champagne flowed from methuselahs, beside a towering ice sculpture (of course you can get an emergency ice sculpture in New York City) a DJ presided, pumping Drake over the sound system. Restaurant people, who so often facilitate the excesses of others, sure throw a good party when the occasion arises.

After meeting some of Luke's coworkers, I sat down at the bar to wait while he gave his best friend Jamie a tour of the space. A guy slid in next to me and started saying something about the art installation hanging over us. I noticed a cut on the bridge of his nose. "Do you work here?" I asked him, being friendly against my better instincts because this was my husband's workplace. "Yes," he said, swigging from a champagne bottle. "I work here." His knee was touching mine. I moved my leg away. "Do you know my husband, Luke?" I asked. Calling out my marital status is a defensive move that usually helps ward off drunken come-ons. Not this time. He knew Luke. He put his hand on my lower back, and told me my husband was his worst enemy because he wanted to fuck me. 

At this point Luke returned, not noticing what was happening to my left. He was about to go introduce Jamie to another colleague when I grabbed his arm and quietly pleaded with him not to leave. And then I felt fingers sliding under me. I turned around and said "Can you fucking stop?" at which point Luke realized what was happening. "That's my fucking wife, what do you think you're doing?" He and Jamie hoisted the guy out of his seat and got him out of the restaurant. I sat, stunned, still feeling his fingers creeping up under my ass.

The next morning, Luke sent an email to the general manager, the HR director, and director of operations. He detailed what had happened from his perspective and mine, including in the email the guy had sent Luke that morning (in which he'd flaccidly apologized for "causing drama and upsetting" me). 

"This was NOT okay," Luke wrote to his bosses. "I know he's a manager. I know it's hard to find replacements. [...] And I know in this era of politicians, and anyone else, saying and doing whatever they want and getting away with it, it's easy to overlook things like this. I will not overlook this."

Over the course of the day, I replayed the events in my head and wondered what I could have said or done differently. I thought about an ex-boyfriend I'd had in grad school, a good-hearted but deeply jealous man who was always quick to accuse me of flirting whenever a random guy spoke to me. "Consciously or not, you did something to make him think it was an option," he liked to say. 

Luke periodically updated me on what was happening. They spoke to the guy. They reviewed the camera footage. In it, they said, it had almost looked like Luke and he could have been holding hands around me, he'd been that close. As I waited to hear the outcome, I thought about every other time a man has touched me without my consent.

*

I liked my job. The Andlinger building was quiet and I could actually get readings done between patrolling the hallways, jangling a comically large ring of keys like a cartoon jailer. I liked being alone among the books in the darkened rotunda, muted with the heavy silence of a church. I liked the cozy office, barely big enough for me to spin around in the swivel chair. 

Apart from me and a handful of night owl academics, the place was empty during my shift. Professors sometimes came by to check for packages, as he did that night. He was a visiting academic I had met once or twice before. This night, he didn't just peek in the door like everyone else did, he squeezed into the tiny office and leaned up against the desk, looming over me in my swivel chair. He asked about my classes and suggested I enroll in his. Younger academics were always trying to hawk their own courses. It was January, so (to answer my mother's friend, at last) I was wearing a piece of fur around my neck for warmth—not really a scarf, just the trim from the hood of one of my mom's jackets. He spontaneously reached out to feel it, and grabbed my breast. 

I bumped into a friend as I walked back to the dorms after my shift. Midway through our very normal conversation, I started shaking and blurted out what had happened. My friend walked me to the campus center to talk to my boss, and sat beside me while I called my mom.

*

Sophomore year wasn't the first or most difficult time someone has touched me without my consent, but it was the only other time I chose to talk about it. The trouble is, I have a hard time using the words. I have a hard time naming it, which must be some cosmic joke because I wrote half my PhD dissertation on onomastics—the study of naming. I use stand-in labels like "the event" and "the incident," stand-in verbs like "grabbed" and "groped"—a word so inane, so dopey it should only belong in speech bubbles. It seems the restaurant manager who slid his fingers up under me shares my difficulty. "Luke, I have no words for what happened last night," he wrote in his morning-after email. 

I looked at his instagram. He looks happy, normal. He has a wife about whom he writes things like "#veryluckyman" and "Happy #internationalwomensday to the most beautiful woman out there." I felt sick. Somehow it might have made more sense if he'd been lonely and desperate, or very obviously depraved, but he seemed like everyone else—nice, woke even—and I wondered how you could possibly trust anyone, ever. 

Luke doesn't have trouble with the words. His own email began, "Last night, my wife, Jessica Kwong, was sexually assaulted by [name]." His shock, his outrage, his protectiveness helped me in the moment, but his candidness—that made all the difference. Not once did he doubt me, or try to downplay what had happened, not for a moment did he hesitate to advocate for me, even at the risk of causing discord at a job he loves. I didn't have to ask him to call it what it was, he just did. 

He's fired, Luke texted me later. I stopped in my tracks on the sidewalk and read the words again. The adrenaline ebbed and I suddenly realized I'd been bracing to defend myself all day. That was why I had written down a crystal clear account and emailed it to myself immediately afterward, why I had spent the day preparing rebuttals for every possible question they might come up with (How much had she had to drink? What did she say to encourage him? Why didn't she just walk away if she felt uncomfortable? What was she wearing?). 

Amid overwhelming relief and gratitude to Luke and to his company, I felt a scrabble of guilt. How would he explain to his wife why he'd been fired? I wonder if other women feel that guilt too, however illogical it is. When I called my parents to tell them what had happened, my own loving mother asked, "I guess you couldn't get up and walk away?" It's reflexive, the second-guessing. Jill Filipovic calls it "a particularly feminine psychological turmoil." We play out all the alternative narratives, asking ourselves what happened, what went wrong, how we could have stopped it.

One of the few complaints in the New York Times review we'd been celebrating that night was that the restaurant should hire more women. Apparently one of the servers had told the Times critic a dirty joke about one of the dish names, the kind of joke that's currency among the lads, locker room talk as our current president might say. The critic—a man—hadn't laughed. "It’s hard to imagine many female captains who would be O.K. with calling Marilyn Monroe 'Jack’s pie,'" he wrote.

He's right, but at least two of the women already on the restaurant's payroll are the general manager and the HR director. I wish I could believe that the outcome would have been the same if they hadn't been the ones to receive Luke's email that morning, or if I had spoken out instead of my husband. Even now I'm hesitating to post this because I know how easily a woman's words can be turned against her. 

When I find myself dwelling on what happened, I try to take comfort in the idea that the more women we work with and admire and vote for, the more men there are who don't laugh at the joke and who call sexual assault by its name, the more those who feel entitled to women's bodies will learn that their actions have consequences. The more they will fucking stop.

Image by Nirav Patel

Jessica Kwongsexual assault, me too