Last spring, I ran into the grocery store with my youngest child to pick up some last-minute supplies for dinner before heading to school to pick up my two oldest. As I was bagging some sweet potatoes, a man approached me. He was just an ordinary looking man. Fifty-something. Cropped gray hair. Glasses. Collared golf shirt. Khakis.
I noticed he was holding a single banana. I was friendly to him. I returned his small talk, and when I was done with my sweet potatoes, I made a move to steer around him and out of the produce section. As I squeezed by him, he grabbed my tricep to finish whatever he was saying. I awkwardly smiled, pulled away, and quickly left the area.
Something about how close he was standing and how decisively he grabbed my arm made me anxious. I was on the next aisle quickly grabbing some granola bars, and he rounded the corner.
He still had no cart and no groceries besides that single banana. He said something meant to be witty like, “Funny seeing you here!” Or, “Long time, no see!”
I nodded and continued my awkward smiling as he followed me down the aisle holding onto my cart and commenting on my purchases. I thought I had managed to get away from him when I went back to the yogurt section, but as I snuck up to the cash register, he was miraculously right behind me in line.
Again. Holding a single banana.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never gone to the grocery store to buy a single banana. A bunch of bananas? Maybe. But one banana is just … weird. He was standing so close to me that I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. I side-stepped into a wide stance and turned sideways. I also picked my baby up and held him on my hip and acted supremely busy trying to find my wallet as he chatted on and on about how cute my baby was.
Then it got weirder.
He reached toward me presumably to grab my baby’s little chubby foot that was sort of resting on my butt. As his hand reached toward the baby’s foot, he slid his hand up the back of my upper thigh, and then he cupped my butt cheek in his hand momentarily before grasping the baby’s foot and continuing to talk about how sweet and cute babies are.
This is the point where I wish I could say I am brave and that I punched him in the face. But I wasn’t. And I didn’t.
I stepped away quickly, and the cashier looked at me for a second in the eyes.
“Are you two together?” she asked.
I quickly said, “No!”
She nodded and called over the tallest and burliest bagger that I have ever seen. She asked him to please escort me, my baby, and my groceries to the car. I ran out of that store as fast as I could right on his heels.
When I got home, I texted my sister. I told her how I froze. What if he had done that on accident? What if he was just a really friendly guy, and he accidentally touched my butt? How many times have I accidentally grazed the body of a stranger on a crowded subway? What if I made something into a big deal when he didn’t mean it? What if I embarrassed him?
My sister who is everything I wish I could be in terms of bravery and grit insisted that I call the store immediately and report the man to the manager. She suggested maybe I should call the police.
“What did he look like?” she asked. “Could you identify him?”
I realized that no, I couldn’t. I can’t remember his face at all. I remember his general age. I remember he was dressed nicely. But I was so busy trying to avoid him while I walked around smiling that I am not sure I ever looked him directly in the eyes.
That night, I told my husband when he came home. As anger rose on his face, he asked a few questions, and then he said, “What were you wearing?” I stared at him for about five seconds. “Oh my gosh,” he quickly said. “Nevermind. Of course it doesn’t matter. I’m so sorry.”
I said, “A long peasant skirt and a T-shirt with a cardigan. But even if you saw a woman in a string bikini standing in the milk aisle, it still wouldn’t be OK to touch her.”
“No. Of course not. I’d never do that,” he said.
I know that to be true. No person is perfect, but I happen to be married to a man whom I adore. He is gentle, supportive, and always striving to be better at life—as a husband, as a father, and as a human.
Yet that slipped out of his mouth almost immediately.
Who are we then? Me—a woman who smiles as a creep follows her and her baby around in a grocery store without putting up a fight. My husband—who is an infinitely better person than me and who had something downright crazy slip out of his mouth.
I would argue that we are both a product of our society.
I don’t want to be called over-emotional, crazy, or some sort of swear word because I tell a stranger that he is making me uncomfortable. I am so concerned about being polite and kind that I didn’t stand up for myself. My husband has been influenced by society as well where people often blame a victim. Maybe I was wearing tight pants? Maybe I smiled too much? Maybe he thought I wanted it?
I know my story is mild and much less terrifying than most stories. I hadn’t even thought about that day in months until the hashtag #metoo started trending on social media weeks ago. It made me think, “What should I have done differently? What can I tell my children?”
If I could relive this moment, I would have told that man immediately when he began touching me in the produce section to please leave me alone. I would have told him he was making me uncomfortable. If he persisted, I would have sought help so that I was no longer alone and reported him to store employees. I’d like to think if he grabbed my butt in the checkout line again that I’d go ahead and punch him in the nose, but in reality, I’d probably wimp out. But I’d like to be the type of woman who punches creepy guys in the nose. I’ll start with at least defending myself verbally instead of smiling.
Next time I will be ready.
I will teach my daughter to defend herself as well.
If someone is making her uncomfortable, her safety is more important than a strange man’s feelings. She needs to say something, scream, get away, or even physically punch, slap, or shove the person. Then get away. Find help. Try to look the person in the eyes, so he knows you will recognize him if asked to identify him at a later time.
For my boys … they have an amazing example in their father about how to treat women with respect. It is hard for me to imagine my sweet chubby-cheeked babies growing into men, but I also know it will probably happen before I know it.
First, it is important to realize that harassment goes both ways.
Even though men typically harass women, men can be harassed or assaulted by women or other men. However, if a man walked out in a dark parking lot to his car and saw a woman leaning against her car nearby, I’d bet he wouldn’t feel the sense of trepidation a woman would feel if the scenario was reversed. I hope I can teach my boys to recognize that real fear and respectfully try to diffuse the situation by either looking away, walking away, or just indicating somehow that they will not try to harm the woman with whom they are sharing space.
Secondly, they should be outspoken with their peers. If they hear a friend talking about a girl in a way that is disrespectful, they should call them out. They should make sure to be careful listeners and pay attention to how their words and physical presence is affecting the people around them.
Most importantly, they should remember that under no circumstances should they ever touch anyone else without enthusiastic consent.
I hope that I can do what I need to do as a parent to raise my children into adults who respect themselves and others; who are kind but not afraid to stand up for themselves and others; and who never stop striving to make the world a better place.
Do you have a story to share? Have you ever had a similar experience? What is your best piece of advice for parenting children who know how to respond to these sorts of situations?