“Why did you do that?” he asked.
The guy was doubled over, but still on his feet, in front of the go-go box where I was dancing. I had just kicked him away from me, the square toe of a John Fluevog shoe hitting him slightly below the belt.
“Why did you do that?” — a question I can still recall more than 15 years after the fact, long after the details of his face and the song that was playing in the club had faded from my memory. I started screaming at him, oblivious to whether anyone in the crowd surrounding us was paying attention. He had tried to assault me. Even back then, I knew what the word was. He wasn't just trying to flirt. It was a step beyond harassment and I had to stop him.
Back in the early 2000s, I spent Saturday and Sunday nights DJing at a club on Hollywood Boulevard that no longer exists. It was a large, multiroom venue and, in the biggest room, there were go-go boxes on the edges of the dance floor and a stage underneath the booth where I would play. On the nights when professional dancers weren't occupying those spaces, anyone could jump on a box or hit the stage to show off their moves. Sometimes, on my breaks, I would do that, too.
I was dancing until I lost track of everything but the beat. Then I felt a hand on my leg. It wasn't a friend trying to get my attention, nor was it an accidental brush. It was lingering and unnerving. I noticed the guy standing on the floor below me, with his hand on my knee. I backed away from him and told him to stop. He moved and I went back to dancing.
Minutes later, I felt a motion at the base of my skirt. I looked down to see a hand reaching where it shouldn't. My foot flew faster than thoughts could enter my brain, lest that hand reach what I presume was its target.
When #metoo trended recently, I shared the short version of that old memory to friends on Facebook. That incident stood out as poignant because of what remains the stupidest question I've ever heard: “Why did you do that?”
The answer is obvious. It should be obvious. It isn't, though, to men who think that pussy-grabbing is an appropriate way to introduce yourself to someone. Even though this guy was at fault for not following a lesson that even 3-year-olds can grasp — “Keep your hands to yourself” — he tried to turn the blame on me immediately.
And maybe I internalized that blame. The story wasn't a secret; in fact, I think I told friends not long after it happened. Still, it was something that I turned into an anecdote best left for drunk chats and lines for the ladies room. It was one of those things that I told people who I knew would get it, people who I knew wouldn't judge me. That's probably why I chose to share it via a Facebook post in the midst of #metoo, instead of a more public forum like Twitter. That I felt I couldn't share it with strangers on Twitter, however, points to the bigger problem.
There are assumptions that people often make when you talk about harassment at clubs.
Sexual harassment, assault and rape can happen anywhere. These acts of intimidation and violence can happen no matter how old you are, what you look like or what you're wearing. We know that — and yet, in day-to-day life, we can't escape the shame-and-blame messages. We're told from youth that our clothing is a distraction — that if we look a certain way or act a certain way, people might get the wrong message. We're taught to be careful, stay safe, protect ourselves. We are only now, in recent years, starting to talk freely about how our lives are impacted by the threat, and reality, of unwanted advances. So how do we talk about harassment and assault when the setting is a nightclub, where the crowds can be large, the dancing is wild and the booze is flowing?
There are assumptions that people often make when you talk about harassment at clubs. They might judge you for the lifestyle they think you lead. The old victim-blaming questions may become more pronounced: What were you wearing? How were you dancing? How much were you drinking? Then they might wonder why you didn't have some guy around to protect your honor.
None of that matters.
That incident on the go-go box was certainly the most dramatic such experience that I've had at a club, but it's not the only time someone got grabby with me. As for verbal creeping, that's happened often enough to where I can't recall every instance offhand. I could tell you that this is all a part of living the nightlife, but I don't want to normalize this anymore than we already have. It shouldn't be a part of going out. That kind of behavior is just as unacceptable in a club as it is at work, on a bus, at school or anywhere else.
On a grand scale, #metoo was intended to show how common sexual harassment and assault are. On a micro level, that little hashtag could help some of us feel like we're not alone. When I heard from others with similar experiences, it solidified some loose thoughts.
I'm not afraid of clubs. I don't live in fear of what could happen on the dance floor. Instead, I'm disgusted with people who think that a big crowd and a few drinks are cover for harming others. I'm enraged by those who think that we're up for grabs. And I'm sad that it's taken so long for us to begin talking about it.