Losing my voice when I needed it the most

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Anyone that knows me knows that I don’t have a problem speaking my mind. But I recently found myself in a situation in which, despite all of my strength and pride, my outspoken voice fell mute.

I was meeting a friend at a local Mexican restaurant for lunch. He called to let me know that he had hit traffic and would be running 25 minutes behind. Honestly, not a problem. I had a chips and salsa, and the table across from mine had just sent me over a beer. Waiting was not going to be an issue.  And it wasn’t—for the first 5 minutes.

During that time I went across to the table that had sent me a beer and thanked them. It quickly became apparent that the language barrier was going to prevent us from having any meaningful discussion as my Spanish skills are limited to say the least. A couple “mucho gusto” and “gracias” and I made my way back to my own table.

It was then that a man from the other table came over to mine and scooted in next to me in the booth. I grew increasingly uncomfortable as he made advances, placing his hands on me, grabbing my arm, my legs, pressing his face far too close to mine to speak to me. The Spanish/English language was no longer the barrier to our communication. We weren’t speaking the same language of respect.

For the next 20 minutes I found myself becoming increasingly desperate to communicate that I was not okay. I tried to make it plain to the man that I was not interested. Quickly and quietly removing his hands from my body, pressing myself up against the wall as far away from him as possible. Eventually I began to scan the room for help. I met the eyes of nearly everyone in the restaurant. Each person was aware of what was happening and offered a sympathetic look but nothing more. I’m not making a point of this to blame anyone else in the restaurant. More as a point of reflection on how often we are able to recognize inappropriate behaviors and turn a blind eye because they are “not our problems.”

20 minutes.

For twenty minutes I tried to politely excuse this man from my table, or excuse myself. If I had been on onlooker I wouldn’t have waited 2 minutes before inserting myself into the situation to ensure that the everyone was safe and being treated with respect. But somehow, as all of this was happening to me I could hear a voice saying: “This is your fault. You brought this on. You can’t create a scene and embarrass this man!

WHAT?! Since when did I start hearing this voice.

This is the dangerous, insinuating voice of subtly oppressive patriarchy. What was my crime? Sitting in a restaurant alone? And yet, I felt so guilty. When a strong, confident, educated woman who studies subconscious bias for a living is vulnerable to this siren voice, who isn’t?

I’m concerned that we aren’t having these discussions more in our schools and in our communities. How do we begin to empower women not just to stand up for one another, but to stand up for themselves? The idea that I would choose to absorb the unwanted attention rather than cause a disruptive scene is incredibly disturbing to me not only for my own well being, but for so many other women who lose their voices every day.

Let’s start talking.

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