As fresh allegations of sexual misconduct are leveled at R Kelly, Natalia Ribbe, who was sexually assaulted by her boss, writes an open letter to survivors everywhere
Dear Woman of the World,
I don’t know you, but I feel on some level we can relate to one another in this current climate. The heightened discussion around sexual harassment in and out of the work place, the cases of R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Aziz Ansari – they are all making us feel something. Some of us will feel pain, while some of us have been fortunate enough to avoid experiencing an unwanted sexual confrontation.
For me, it has brought up some distressing memories. Like the feeling I had when a man first objectified me. It was a sharp sting, as if I had been struck by lightning and all the colour and wonder was shot out of me. I became see through. Nothing but a pair of breasts and a vagina. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I want to be gawked at, I want to feel sexy. But when I am at work, and my boobs are being ogled in a business meeting, a little sliver of my confidence slides away. I feel like I might as well be stood there naked, slightly terrified and angry. It is not OK.
One particularly painful incident happened when I was in my early twenties. I was working in a seedy bar in Manhattan, where there was a manager in his mid-thirties who doubled up as a “DJ” and would only hire “hot girls”. He would ask us to wear short skirts while we slung Jello shots at university kids and danced on the bar. I have always been a very personable person, so when it came to my “technique” for selling watered down Jello shots to underage drinkers, I used humour. Yes, I was flirtatious – that was part of the job. It all felt young and fun with a touch of innocence, until one night I went down to the office to sort my cash box and ended up in there alone with the manager.
He came towards me, towering over me, his breath tinged with the smell of stale cigarettes and beer. His ill-fitting chino trousers and faded grey polo shirt were much too close for comfort, and at this point I was leaning back while being pushed against the desk, the edge of the counter digging into my sweaty palms. He was not only bigger in size than me, but an authority figure as well – I felt insignificant. I giggled nervously and made a silly joke to lighten the mood. A lump began to grow in my throat and I was thinking, “Please don’t let him touch me”. Why could I not say that out loud? My body language alone should have told him I was scared, nervous and uneasy about the situation, but he continued with his advances.
He leaned in to kiss me. I wanted him to stop but I was paralysed. He turned me around and removed my underwear, slid his hand up my skirt. My throat got tighter, I wanted to scream ‘STOP!’ but I couldn’t seem to get the words out. It was as if someone had ripped out my vocal chords. Why! Why didn’t I just push him away or tell him to stop? I could kick myself every time I think about it. In the moments that followed I wanted to cry, I wanted to run, but I was frozen. I just closed my eyes and waited for it to be over.
This was over 10 years ago, but his actions have never left my mind. I have continued to blame myself. But the main question is, why did he think it was OK in the first place? It wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to talk about what happened to me. The bravery of Rose McGowan and all the women who have come forward has made me realise that what happened was not my fault. I do not need to live with this shame. And neither do you.
Nothing happened to the manager – I stopped working there shortly after and never reported it or told anyone about it. I was so embarrassed. And therein lies the problem – how is it embarrassing to talk about something as significant as someone violating you and showing complete disregard for your value? A report by the Trades Union Congress found “In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator was a male colleague, with nearly one in five reporting that their direct manager or someone else with direct authority over them was the perpetrator”, and that “Four out of five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer”.
At that moment, trapped in the office, I did not know my worth, and that is something we need to remind each other of – especially young girls. You are worthy of respect and you should not let a man make you think you are there purely for him to assert his power over, verbally or physically. If something has happened to you, please talk about it. You are worth listening to. But I also know how you will probably feel talking about it – writing this letter has been both cathartic and extremely painful. For some of you, it will also be difficult to find the words. That is OK.
Which brings me on to boundaries. We are not really taught about them. It’s something we learn through experience. Boundaries should be respected. We are not blow up dolls. Being a gorgeous woman aged 14 or 45 is not an invitation to be taken advantage of. To every woman and girl, you do not need to live in fear of wearing what you want because some boy/man/guy/dude doesn’t have the decency to honour your boundaries. Listen to your gut, it tells you when something is right or wrong. Remember, it is OK to say NO. Your rules. Your way.
What we are experiencing right now is a movement. We are in the midst of a powerful and carefully calculated revolt against the patriarchy, who have continuously made women feel like meek mice. ‘Time is up’ is the slogan for the Time’s Up campaign, and guess what – it is. Time is up on silencing ourselves and denying how crude gestures, flippant comments and inappropriate behaviour make us feel.
For too long, women’s voices have been silenced, by both the men who acted in such heinous ways or by the shame and guilt that women have felt after being sexually assaulted or abused. The assault does not just come physically, it is also a verbal power struggle, a demeaning game where women are inferior. I am angry. I am one of the women who silenced herself and allowed the guilt to take over. I believed it was my fault I was put in compromising positions. But it is not my fault, and it is not yours.
However, we must also not generalise. Not all women have been assaulted, and not all men have assaulted women. My mentor is a man, and he has never once made me feel inadequate or preyed upon. Let us remember during this time of empowerment that the end result is to balance the sexes, not create a war of hate.
When my friend was 10 years old she was playing in the schoolyard when a younger boy came up and pinched her nipple. He kept doing this. She reported the incident to the headmistress whose name was Mrs Power.
“He probably likes you and doesn’t know how to express it,” she said. “And quite frankly, sometimes you just have to wallop boys. Give him a good whack or a punch to let him know that’s not OK.” Now, I am not condoning violence, but what I am saying is, by taking a stance we are all giving a good punch. Each story is a punch, each campaign is a punch, each time you stand up for yourself – that’s a metaphorical Mrs. Power punch.
Images: Getty, Héctor Martínez, Kinga Cichewicz