Sexual Harassment Exists Even in Lesbian Spaces

Sexual Harassment Exists Even in Lesbian Spaces

In the midst of the Harvey Weinstein allegations blowing up into the public stratosphere and the domino effect these revelations have started to have, these past couple of weeks have honestly been an endless exercise in gratitude: “Thank God I’m gay.”

Not that one's sexuality makes anyone immune to the advances, harassment, abuse, etc., of men, but as someone who exclusively dates women, I figured queerness came with some protection. As I'm fully immersed in the LGBTQ+ community, there is a distinct lack of straight men in my life, and since the vast majority of those who have been accused of sexual misconduct have been straight men, I was left with a misguided sense of security.

This was foolish, shortsighted, and irresponsible.

The recent allegations against Kevin Spacey provide just one example of the issue of sexual harassment transcending “heterosexual interactions,” and it is so important to be aware of the fact that men are also often the victims of sexual crimes. It is a problem that is more prevalent in the queer community than we often realize or are willing to admit, and something that we perhaps even sometimes normalize. Fortunately, with brave people such as Anthony Rapp speaking out as of late, we are beginning to see a growing awareness that sexual harassment is not just a thing that happens amongst straight people.

Even so, it can still be easy for lesbians to distance ourselves from self-examination, by relegating the title of “harasser” to men — whether they be straight or gay. But sexual harassment is as much as an issue for queer women, and it’s not talked about enough. There seems to be this implicit belief among some that identifying as a woman leaves one exempt from being a sexual harasser. As a result, women will shamelessly descend upon other women with no sense of boundary or respect, forcing their bodies against strangers, refusing to accept no as an answer while no one bats an eyelash.

I’ve been that guilty, passive bystander. I’ll never forget going out for my 24th birthday to a now-defunct lesbian night in West Hollywood and chuckling on the sidelines as one of my friends was repeatedly hit on by a lesbian we had dubbed “Draco Malfoy” (the resemblance was honestly uncanny). I cringe in retrospect at how my clearly uninterested friend cowered as Draco unabashedly invaded her personal space, repeatedly tried to grab her, and refused to leave her alone.

I naively overlooked and inadvertently normalized this because two women were at play, dismissing my friend’s harassment as harmless because the perpetrator was a small, young lesbian who couldn’t take a hint.

But harassment is harassment, no matter what face it takes.

It’s a tragic truth that oftentimes our potential for empathy is limited until we experience something for ourselves. I am ashamed to say that this was the case with me, as I didn’t quite recognize these sorts of behaviors within the lesbian community for what they were until I ended up the victim.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I went to a Halloween party for LGBTQ+ women. We eventually started making small talk with another partygoer — a woman wearing devil horns who I will refer to as “Satan” who took an immediate liking to me. I wasn’t interested in her romantically or sexually and tried to make that clear, but that didn’t stop her from crossing boundaries.

I started to feel particularly awkward when she told me she had “the hormone monster.” Looming into my personal space, Satan badgered me to tell her how I thought she could get rid of this “monster.” In response to my adamant refusal, she eventually told me it could only be gotten rid of by masturbating. This wasn’t exactly a very appropriate casual conversation between people who had just met, but I overlooked it in my discomfort.

Still, I began to plot my escape but was foiled when Satan asked me if I wanted something to drink. Sensing an opportunity to part ways, I told her that I was going to grab a water for myself, but she ended up accompanying me to the bar. Before I could stop her, she ordered a water for me and refused to let me pay for it. She, however, dismissed this as a “friendly gesture” and since she had paid for my drink, I suppose I felt obligated to keep talking to her for a little longer.

But then it all shifted. As she drank the liquor she’d bought for herself, the switch aggressively flipped from “tipsy” to “drunk,” and she became overwhelmingly forward. The alarms started to go off in my head when she made a vocal show about not being able to stop staring at my cleavage, so when she asked me if I wanted to dance, I finally made my bid at an escape by saying that I needed to go to the bathroom.

Of course, she followed me.

Once we were in the light of the bathroom, Satan transformed into some ridiculous caricature of a horny cartoon character with bulging eyes and a dangling tongue. Invasively drinking me in with an unrelenting gaze, she made it clear that she liked what she saw and was apparently set on treating me like a piece of meat. I was miserable and uncomfortable yet strangely immobilized in this situation, as if all of my nerve and good sense left me as I felt diminished and weakened by her overwhelming presence.

She begged me to turn around so she could fully see me, and I reluctantly obliged with an awkward chuckle. I can’t even explain the sort of rationalization my brain was trying to attempt in that moment - maybe she just wanted to see my full costume, maybe if I just turned around, she would finally leave me alone.

That, of course, was not the case. The second my back was turned to her, she groped my ass.

The bathroom was full of women. No one did or said a thing.

I flinched immediately, rounding on her to tell her that looking was one thing, but I did not say that she could touch me. She laughed this off with a weak apology before wrapping her arms around me and repeatedly kissing my cheek as I tried to push her off of me.

Once again, no one did or said a thing.

It was such a disorienting experience — especially in the midst of the “me too” movement that had taken over social media — to find myself in what I had foolishly considered to be a safe, liberal haven of presumably like-minded women, only to be sexually harassed.

I was stunned and helpless in the moment. I honestly felt disgusting, being touched so crassly in such an intimate way by a woman who I neither knew nor liked. That sort of violation is hard to shake, and my skin still crawls, two weeks later. I wonder if it’ll ever stop crawling.

That helplessness has now given way to anger. I’m infuriated by this woman and the audacity she wielded, thinking that she had a right to my body and setting out to take ownership of it by helping herself. But I am also so angry at myself for letting it happen, for not being more firm with her after it had happened, and for even letting it get to that point. Except no, the onus isn’t on me. This wasn’t my fault. But in a grander scheme, I am not blameless. I have been complicit in allowing these things to go unchallenged for so long within the queer community through my silence, ignorance, and implicit acceptance.

So it’s time to point fingers, at myself and at everyone else. I believe there is this innate, subconscious belief throughout much of our community that woman-on-woman sexual harassment somehow isn’t actually a legitimate thing. That only straight men can be truly be guilty of harassment, while queer women get a free pass. It’s a dangerous double standard.

If I had been groped by a man in front of a group of queer women, I can’t imagine no one intervening. Yet somehow my assault became invisible because two women were involved. No mind that I was clearly uncomfortable. No mind that I vocally reprimanded my assailant before she proceeded to touch me again without my consent. It was as if this didn’t register as harassment in anyone else’s eyes because we were both queer and we were both women. But harassment is harassment, no matter the identity of the perpetrator or the victim.

CHANELLE TYSON is a Los Angeles-based writer and director (@thetysonchannel / thetysonchannel.com)

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