I’m one of those women! I repeated to myself incredulously.
For weeks on end, I had allowed a man to do something to me he shouldn’t have been doing, all while I blamed myself.
Had one of my daughters told me the same story, I would have picked up on it immediately. If it had happened in Egypt, I would have immediately turned into a full-blown monster.
Why had it taken me so long to realize what was actually happening?
I had a brief glimpse into the mind of abused women without having an experience nearly as horrific. It has caused me intense distress, however.
Part of me still thinks it’s a petty thing. And that gets me even angrier with myself.
I train regularly in my local gym’s pool. It’s a small pool with only two lanes for proper swimming: a ‘fast lane’ and a ‘slow’ one. Fast and slow are relative concepts. I’m sort of in the middle. I’m slow compared to the strong swimmers but I’m fast compared to the many breast-strokers who use the pool. So I switch between the two lanes depending on who is in the pool and how many people are in either lane.
On one of the regular days and times I go to the pool, an older British man has been joining me in the slow lane about 45 minutes after I’ve started my training. I’m always in that lane on my own when he joins. When he joined me the first time, I suggested that we each stick to one side of the lane while going up and down so that I could easily keep out of his way. He’s a breast-stroker. I’m a faster front-crawler. He agreed.
But after an amicable couple of swims, I started getting the impression that he was upset with me. The few times I said good morning, he’d barely grunt back. I also noticed that he pushed me out of his way a few times. I had brushed against him while passing him a few times, or so I thought, and I kept getting upset with myself because I was infringing on his personal space. This went on for weeks.
Until one day, a third man joined us in the pool, forcing us into swimming circuit-style. I was behind older British man, needed to pass him because I was swimming significantly faster, looked up, couldn’t see third man anywhere, so I passed older man. It turned out third man was on his way down the lane just as I was passing older man. Third man saw me and stopped, stood to the side, I passed, and realized as I was passing older man that I nearly crashed into third man. I continued swimming. This wasn’t the first time that this has happened in a pool. It’s bound to happen in a crowded lane. But as I began swimming back, older man grabbed my arm and stopped me. This is when his lecturing of me began. I should be swimming in the fast lane, he told me. This was the slow lane, he said very angrily. I looked at the fast lane. There were four fast swimmers in it. The slow lane was completely empty when I started swimming in it. “Well, you should come at a different time, then,” he was brazen enough to tell me. This man, who I had only said good morning to a few times, then told me I was the rudest person he had ever met. And he added that he had been a member of this gym for 15 years, which seemed to imply that he somehow had priority over me.
Long story short, this incident made me look at what had been happening the past few weeks very differently. I spoke with the gym management because I wanted to understand if I was doing something wrong by swimming in the slow lane. When I briefly mentioned that the older man had been pushing me out of his way because I brushed against him sometimes, the manager mentioned CCTV cameras in the pool.
I swam in the same lane with that older man one more time after this incident. It was that time that I realized that I wasn’t brushing against him at all. In fact, I swam many times in the fast lane with much faster swimmers and I never brushed against any of them. That last time, as I was swimming with the older man, I realized that many times as I swam past him, he was deliberately pushing me. Once, I even remember thinking that his skin was rough. That was how long the ‘push’ lasted. I was livid.
I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. I called the gym that afternoon and spoke again with the manager. “You had mentioned CCTV cameras. I want you to take a look and tell me what has been happening,” I said. “I think this man has been deliberately pushing me for weeks.”
The manager looked at the videos as we spoke. Although he didn’t mention the touching, he did confirm that, while I was sticking to my side of the lane while doing my front crawl, the older man was not making any effort at all to stay on his side of the lane. He promised he’d speak with him and get back to me. Older man apologized to the manager, I was told several days later. If he does it again, tell us, I was told. I’ve never again been to the pool at the same time he goes. I’ve intentionally avoided him. I don’t want to have anything at all to do with him ever again.
What upset me most was this: If I swam in a pool in Egypt and a man touched me once, I’d think it was accidental. If it happened twice, I’d bring the whole place down on him. Because I was in the UK, this man was older (he’s probably 70), and he was ‘white’, I wouldn’t allow myself to see what was happening for what it was.
I can’t think of this as sexual harassment. My gut feeling is that this man has been bullying me out of what he thinks of as his lane. He actually called it that when the manager sat down to have a talk with him. Whatever his reasons, there is no excuse whatsoever for someone intentionally and repeatedly touching another person in the pool. Sexual harassment or bullying, it’s sick and it’s wrong.
And instead of seeing that for what it was, I instead blamed myself and thought I had been brushing against him. I had been infringing on his space. And when I saw a push for what it was, I still told myself that I deserved it for being a horrible swimmer who doesn’t know how to stick to her side of the lane.
Even after I realized what was happening, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it at the gym. I did speak with the manager. The manager did speak with the man. But I didn’t ask for this man to be punished in any way, as part of me believes he should be. I don’t think this man should be allowed in the pool at all. But I don’t want people at the gym to think of me as a troublemaker. I also don’t want people talking and thinking of me as the woman who accuses ‘respectable’ men of touching her at the gym…STAY OUT OF HER WAY.
Nothing nearly as horrible has happened to me as has happened to other women. Yet I feel very violated. And I find myself in a position that allows me to understand, if only from afar, how women self-blame and why women don’t pursue men who abuse them.
I’ve always thought of myself as bull-headed. But I find myself living in a culture where I’m unsure of my place and I’m unsure of the boundaries. It’s made me perceive things differently than I normally would. It’s made me react in ways very different from what I would have done at home.
A few years ago in Egypt I was visiting the Pyramids with friends. A young man was trying to sell little trinkets to a female tourist. He was intimidatingly close to her and she was trying to ignore him, clearly not knowing what else to do. I grabbed that man’s arm and told him to stay away from the woman. He saw I was serious and left.
Another time, I was taking an American female relative through a busy market in Cairo. A man touched her butt. She didn’t even notice it for what it was. I did. I turned around and punched the man.
I was at home. I knew my boundaries. I knew I could act. These women were in a strange country. They had no idea how to react.
I’m not sure what I’ll gain from blogging about this, if anything at all. Perhaps I just need to see my thoughts on paper. I need to process it all and figure out why I let this go on for so long. I need to understand me. And by understanding me, maybe I’ll have a better understanding of so many other women around the world who go through much much worse yet let it go.