It occurred in broad daylight, in the parking lot of an amusement park stadium; in a professional setting.
I was responsible for setting up promotional material for a public event. I arrived in a company van filled with cups, tee shirts, give aways, table, chairs, speakers, microphone, electronic equipment, bag of balloons and a helium tank.
It was summer.
The weather was perfect.
There were two of us onsite at first. I was new and excited to be taking part of such a huge concert event. We were giving away tickets to the show and after our promos I would be backstage where all the action was happening. I thought I was doing something with my All Access badge draping around my neck.
My counterpart served double duty as a manager in the building and the face of the company at events.
He was wildly popular and well loved.
There weren’t many “folks” in our business. The company had precisely five blacks working there and he was the only one of us in management. Our town didn’t have an outlet for the black community, we were it; so every time we did an event it was critical to succeed so that we could build upon that success and do more.
At this time in my career I was learning how to take what we had and make it better. There were Senior management folks in other departments whose brains I began to pick to learn all that I could so our Urban department could be stronger, productive and profitable.
I was in the midst of revamping a semi popular segment with my male counterpart which would build his career and launch mine. I wasn’t his biggest fan but I knew the fastest distance between two points is a straight line. If all went well our whole team would benefit and so would the community.
So this day needed to go off without a hitch.
He set up the tables, chairs and equipment while I began decorating. I don’t remember much conversation between us. I’m sure we chatted but an actual conversation doesn’t come to mind.
I do remember with crystal clarity, that the side door to the van was open, I was standing outside of the van facing inward, leaning in to attach balloons to the helium tank and blow them up.
Big purple balloons.
I had to blow them up, knot them then tie them off with thin yellow ribbon.
Back then my style was bohemian. On this day I was wearing an army green seamless tank top, hip hugging maxi skirt to my ankles and sandals. The bangles on my arm could be heard clanging as I went about the business of balloon expansion.
That is until I felt a warm finger slide into the elastic waistband of my skirt, air hitting my exposed lower back and the distinct feel of a mans wet tongue run up the top crack of my behind.
I spun around faster than a dreidel during Hanukkah and managed to clip him in the face with my elbow.
In just one second my mood shifted from elation to stark shock.
He backed away from me holding his face, laughing.
“What?” He said “No?”
My mind was reeling. “Yes NO!” I sputtered. “What the f$@&!”
All he said was “I thought you’d like it.”
I remember my whole body shaking with rage as I walked away. No idea in that stadium parking lot where the hell I was going but I knew it was the f$@& away.
Other members of our team began showing up. I put on a professional smile and joined my team. I barely remember being backstage at the concert. I was gone in my mind shaking internally with shock.
That night I replayed every moment I encountered this freak m•€£erf¥<ker over the course of my time with the company.
I interrogated myself. “Had I flirted with him?” I found him repulsive and vulgar so no. “Did you lead him on in any way?” I did not like his creepiness so no if anything I tried to avoid him. “Did you give him ANY indication that you would be okay with him licking you?”
The most damning thing I had to ask myself “If you found him attractive would you be this upset?”
Pause. Thought. Pause.
Answer: F¥<K YEAH I’D BE UPSET!!! Who wants some random man putting his tongue between your butt crack in the middle of a parking lot in broad daylight WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION!!!!
I knew he was a freak. When he was in the office he would just say things that were way out of line.
The women in the office would just laugh it off and say “Oh that’s just how he is.”
I soon just followed the other sheep and pretended he wasn’t a walking phallic erection.
But I was seething. I was horrified and then to add insult to injury I gave myself what was most probably the stupidest advice ever handed out anywhere with the exception of “Go ahead Adam take a bite.”
“You are probably over reacting because you are a survivor of rape. You’re taking this way too seriously, he was just playing around.”
I was a teenager when it happened. Kidnapped, drugged, repeatedly raped and discarded like garbage in an alley in West Philadelphia. In the aftermath I couldn’t speak and lost memories. It took years of counseling for me to heal.
But I made it through whole.
Anger subsided as sanity kicked in “he was just playing around …with your ass, without permission, with confidence and with some balls I might add, this man violated my body and that just isn’t right.
But was I willing to “take a black man down?” That’s treasonous.
I wanted him to repent and apologize sincerely so we could all just move forward. After all maybe I was complicit by not telling him his jokes and activities which lead up to this culminated event were offensive.
I would give him one chance and I had faith he would get it. He would understand.
The next morning I went into my office area which I shared with one other woman. I sat at my desk, I opened my email and drafted a careful letter to him.
Since I’ve started working here you’ve…
I listed the former offenses he had made, telling me he was really good at head and he wanted to lick my p*$$^, asking me to come to his office to proofread a letter and when I bend over to read his computer screen, clicking the mouse to reveal a photo of his d*<k instead of a letter, leering at me when I walk by, sending emails of him going what looked like up on a woman, the growling and moaning, the weekly dirty jokes in email, all of it had to stop. I told him I was offended and disgusted at his audacity to lick me like a kid as if I were some dime store lollipop given as a treat.
I reminded him that we were on the precipice of doing some incredible things for our community and that we had to work together and sexual games had no place where I was concerned.
His response was fast. “I understand. I’m so sorry. Meet me in the studio and I’ll officially apologize.”
I was elated that I was able to get through to him. I didn’t necessarily want to be in a room alone with him but I felt like I was overreacting again and I went.
When I walked in he was standing across the room looking at me with a smile. “I’m glad you set me straight” he said. “I appreciate it, you don’t take no mess girl.”
I said “listen, as long as you understand that that email is not a joke and that I’m serious about this business, we’ll be fine. I’ll leave it alone. But no more! No jokes, no pictures, no touching! Okay?”
I felt we were going to be okay. He stood across the room staring at me, smiling, and he said “I get it.”
He started walking toward me, arms outstretched, hands rapidly opening and closing as a child pantomime of “gimme.” There he stood after hearing me clearly and without reserve reiterating that I didn’t want his touches; imploring a hug as he said “now give us a smush…”
He wanted to hug it out? Really?
I turned, walked back to my office, pulled up the email and forwarded it to my GM.
When I read this back in the face of the “grab her by the pu**y Donald Trump debates going on today, I’m pretty sure that my whole story sounds made up, too incredulous to be true.
I’m sure critics would debone me for not reacting, reporting or quitting after the “I’d like to lick your p^<<y…” remark and some may believe I was “asking for it” by bending over in front of a man.
“What did you think was going to happen?”
Take one moment to move past that incredibly insensitive thought process, past the giggle of the absolute insanity of the situation and one more step past the way I tell the story and marinate on the fact that a man who has no connection to a woman other than sheer proximity, decided in his brain that she was a sexual object to be handled at his whim.
That is sexual assault.
I’m telling this story merely to illustrate that there are people in this world who are wholly capable of being a public face and private horror.
It’s easy to disbelieve a man would say or do inappropriately sexual things because if you’re a good man you know you wouldn’t therefore your imagination refuses to go there.
Some men are sexual predators. They wear suits, smiles and have pearly whites and clean fingernails.
They aren’t comic book villains.
The phrase predator sounds ominous but it’s not.
It’s the Billy Bush sidekick instigating, it’s the mental tricks played on a woman to test her vulnerability “how about a hug for the Donald!” It’s done with a smile, it’s done with cold calculation not visible to the public eye, it’s more than a promise of furniture, furs, rent, dinner or a drop in your drink.
It’s politeness right up to the point that they are not.
Women are groomed to smile in the face of vulgarity. We do the polite “stop that” but our uncomfortable smiles are taken as green lights.
So yes it is possible to be offered a seat in first class cabin then groped in an airplane, it is possible to be felt up in the same home his wife is in, it is is possible to be aghast at a man casually walking into a room full of half naked women, it is possible for a man to slide his hand up her skirt, shove his tongue down her throat or lick the top of her ass.
These men exist and as long as we deny their existence or excuse their behavior they will continue to thrive.
After the man in my case was investigated by HR it turns out I wasn’t the only one.
Other women had simply quit.
I feel that I’m one of the women who; despite the horror associated with rape; despite the male predators I’ve encountered and continue to encounter; has experienced many more positive loving, kind, caring men who’ve crossed my path and balanced my heart than damaged it.
The shame of it is, I’m one of the lucky ones.
Iya Isoke is Poet Laureate, Emeritus for the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
She lives in Philadelphia where she works, plays and observes the subtle nuances of life.
Then writes about it.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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