There is little that offends me. I like dark, even inappropriate, humor. So I guess it makes sense that I stood there laughing after I was sexually harassed for 80 minutes during a massage I gave during my one-night-a-week job as a massage therapist.
I learned the hard way that one of the funny things about sexual harassment is that you might not know it’s happened even after it’s happened. You might stand there laughing and thinking, I can’t wait to tell my husband about this creep, as if you had seen a new Netflix show that you weren’t the star of.
You may not know that there is a lag time between the lizard brain — the oldest part of the brain which is responsible for primitive survival instincts such as fear — and real time, and it can be one of the reasons you don’t flee an abusive situation like you thought you would. Or even realize the extent of what happened until days later.
This 6’4” man, who was so big his arms didn’t fit on the massage table, knew what he was doing. And in hindsight, after my lizard skin molted, I could see it too, strategically mapped out.
It started with friendly conversation about where we grew up, and a big career win he’d had earlier that day that I congratulated him on.
How open is this one? he was surely thinking, gauging his entry point. I usually prefer no talking when working on a client, as giving massages is a form of meditation for me ― a sacred, quiet space where children aren’t, where no one is asking me for snacks, and my mind and body simultaneously get to focus on just one task. But if a client is chatty, I go with it. I’m in the service industry, after all.
The man baited me with a question.
“Do you have any life dreams that you want to pursue?” This was after we had talked about his military background, his wife and kids, his knee surgeries, and his over-seven-figure salary.
I answered something pat like, “Other than going to Hawaii more often, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.” And then like a good conversationalist, I asked him the same question back. I now know that this was exactly what he wanted.
“How honest can I be?” he said.
“It’s up to you.”
When I said this, it didn’t cross my mind that he would use the most vulgar words, with such colorful detail and size comparison to Coke cans and forearms ― and with such specific intonation and emphasis ― to tell me all about his sexual desires.
“I really want to get my cock sucked by a man again.” He uttered all the details of his past aloud in the tiny, cozy room we both inhabited, spa music playing softly in the background, his naked body on the squishy table, covered by a sheet and my hands.
Once I reattached my jaw and subsequently found my voice, I told him he should stop telling me these stories. But he didn’t ever stop.
“You have to tell me yours because I told you mine,” he said playfully, like I was a horny high schooler in a closet, not a mother at her place of work.
“What’s funny about sexual harassment is I can consider myself a strong feminist who rallies around other victimized women and strives to be a solid role model for my daughter and son, teaching them all about consent and body autonomy, and I can still lose my voice and agency when I’m the one in shock while being victimized.”
“There are only five other people in the world that know this about me,” he revealed, purposefully setting me up to wonder if he was being vulnerable instead of violating, hoping I would think that maybe he was just pouring out his heart. Then he refused the eye pillow I offered him, “I want to be able to see you a little bit.” He asked me if I was going to tell my husband all the things he had said and then suggested, “How about you tell him right when you’re fucking him.”
The words shot out of his mouth like bullets from a gun. And I was his target.
What’s funny about sexual harassment is I can consider myself a strong feminist who rallies around other victimized women and strives to be a solid role model for my daughter and son, teaching them all about consent and body autonomy, and I can still lose my voice and agency when I’m the one in shock while being victimized. Just like in birth and parenting, what you thought you’d do in those intense, prepared-for moments and what you actually do can be two very different things.
I thought of myself as more of a dick-puncher/“Get the fuck out of here” type, but little did I know that when these sleazebags are good at what they do, I may not really know what’s happening until it’s escalated far past what I’m comfortable with. My own personality, conditioning, and fear of agitating someone three times my size might overtake the superhero identity that I thought would show up.
I also didn’t realize that every single person to hear my story would have the luxury of all the details laid out nicely in front of them, dots already connected, knowing from the get-go that this dude was in fact a creeper, and that I survived.
Right now, you as the reader know this man is human garbage because I did the legwork on that for you. But I didn’t know all of that while it was happening to me. I was chugging along, doing my job, trying to be professional, while a perpetrator lounged underneath my nurturing hands, purposefully orchestrating a slow, tactical build that caught me by surprise.
After sharing my story, some people have had the gall to say things like, “I would’ve told him to fuck off,” or “Why didn’t you leave?” What their tone-deaf responses fail to recognize is that they are problem-solving from the safety and comfort of having all the facts and without feeling the effects of the cortisol and lizard brain cocktail. I now fully understand why some women don’t tell their stories. Sometimes the insensitive reactions can be as traumatizing as the event itself.
And yes, leaving the room was an option, but it wasn’t what I chose. In those moments, I couldn’t have told you why I wasn’t fleeing. This analyzation is a gift of hindsight. While it was happening, I was operating off of my personal autopilot that was built from days as a latchkey kid who handled things herself. And I thought that tough chick would cut and run. But I found out that navigating a threatening situation is so complicated that only the person in the crosshairs can understand the internal flow chart happening inside them:
This guy could snap me in half if I upset him, and we’re behind closed doors at the end of a deserted long hallway. I don’t know what he’s capable of, but it isn’t looking good. Better keep the rapport up. If I stop the massage and report him, how many uncomfortable meetings will I find myself in saying the word “cock” to Ron the awkward HR guy, and the rest of the management? Will they believe me? Will I wrongfully lose my job over this? Will this man lie about me? If I make this a thing, will he target me afterwards? My kids? Better just get through this and be done with him forever.
I never quite realized how sticking around for sexual harassment could feel like the safer option. Had he gotten physical with me, I’d like to think that I would’ve fought or bolted. I’ve taken safety classes where I crotch-throttled a man in riot gear, so I know I have it in me. But I can’t know what I would do in a violent situation because everything I thought I knew about how I would handle this was wrong.
I now viscerally get why many women don’t flee — especially at work. It has given me a newfound respect for every person who has been victimized by words, hands or worse. I now understand the nuances to why they run, why they don’t, why they tell, why they won’t. And how sometimes not exploding the situation is the safer choice.
I know we’re all supposed to be supporting women finding their voices and the #MeToo movement, but we can’t be expected to smash the patriarchy when we’re in the middle of being victimized ourselves by that patriarchy. It’s a fight-or-flight deal that none of us deserve to be in. And I didn’t know that sometimes fighting can look like allowing.
For the past decade, I worked as a birth doula and childbirth educator who also mentored women after traumatic births. And in the later part of those 80 minutes that night, as I questioned myself about how I would be affected by what was transpiring, I remembered something from my trauma training. I remembered that part of trauma comes from the feeling of being paralyzed or frozen in the moment, and not taking action ― later wishing you had done something or said something. So, in a moment of fleeting lucidity, I asked myself, What do you need to do in this moment to come out of this less scathed, Brandy? I was practicing actual self-care, not that bubble bath bullshit. I knew what I needed to do, and it wasn’t to run. The communicator in me needed to speak up in some way, no matter if it changed his behavior or not.
At the end of my massages, I sit at the client’s head, rubbing their temples, then ears, thinking healing thoughts for them and visualizing my well wishes integrating into their body which I have just tenderized. But this time, as I rubbed this man’s temples with a heavier hand than usual, I spoke up.
“You are lucky you got me tonight and not someone else. You could’ve gotten a woman who had been deeply victimized before, and your words might have triggered or paralyzed her,” I told him. “And I’m sure you don’t want to go through your life traumatizing women.” I made this news palatable to him so he wouldn’t choke me out.
“But I asked you?” he replied.
He was referring to his earlier question about how honest he should be. Like a professional predator, he had turned it on me. Never mind that I had told him to stop and he didn’t.
“I was practicing actual self-care, not that bubble bath bullshit. I knew what I needed to do, and it wasn’t to run. The communicator in me needed to speak up in some way, no matter if it changed his behavior or not.”
On my way home from work that night, I shared the whole story with a close friend. A woke, feminist friend.
“He won,” she scolded. “He asserted his dominance and power in the situation. And it sounds like you actually consented and then consoled him.”
Her words also felt like bullets. Imagine being victimized and then hearing how you did it wrong, how your primal actions had done a grave disservice to all women. My friend was too focused on the greater #MeToo movement to see that I didn’t make it comfortable for his sake. I teetered that fine line between please don’t rape me and let me speak this truth for my own future well-being, and that was for my own damn survival. I can appreciate the internal fury that all women feel when watching other women seemingly become complacent, but I am a living, breathing person ― I’m someone’s mother ― not a movement with a hashtag. After some words, compassion emerged for my well-intentioned-but-grossly-missed-the-mark friend. I knew how it felt to act differently than you thought you would. I accepted her apology.
After the man got dressed, he met me outside the room. I was grateful he hadn’t masturbated and left it for me to clean up. I handed him a glass of refreshing citrus spa water. It was the first time in 80 minutes that my hands weren’t touching his body.
“I’m gonna give you a big tip,” he said, smiling, and then held out $100 cash. Taking it would feel disgusting, like I was endorsing his abuse. But also, he owed me something for blatantly exploiting the power dynamic between paying client and service provider, between his size and mine, and then blurring the lines between my job description and his intentions. And so I took the cash. I would deal with the shame later, likely at Nordstrom.
“Thank you for the therapy,” he said before he walked away. I struggled to make eye contact with him, feeling like an accomplice to my own attack. Halfway down the long hall, he stopped and turned around, put his finger to his mouth and said, “Shhhhh,” as I stood there holding my tip.
Brandy Ferner is an author, podcaster, blogger, mother, and lover of dark humor. In addition to HuffPost, she has bylines in Romper, TodayParents and CafeMom. For LOLs and real talk about motherhood, check out her “Adult Conversation” podcast, Facebook page, blog and forthcoming novel of the same name (May 2020, She Writes Press).
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.