011118 #MeToo: Women share stories beyond the hash tag
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From left, Sharon Huber, Lauren Cholette, Peg Howell, Berni Bader and Andie Pluto-Smith.

#MeToo: Women share stories beyond the hash tag

By Emily Topper
Coastal Observer

Bernadine “Berni” Bader didn’t tell her parents what happened. She didn’t tell her friends. She went to confession, told her story in quiet whispers and asked for forgiveness.

She was in the living room with her uncle, a man in his 30s. Alone on the couch, he unzipped his pants, grabbed her hand and forced her to touch him.

Bader was 14.

“I thought, ‘There must be something wrong with me that he did this.’ And I think women do that, we just want to blame ourselves so quickly,” she said.

She kept her story to herself for over 40 years until the #MeToo movement began last fall in response to revelations about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. She felt empowered. So did other women, also members of an advocacy group with Bader. They agreed the stories need to be told; they kept quiet too long, out of guilt or fear.

The only person Bader told at the time of her abuse was a cousin, just a few months older. The uncle had done the same thing to her. Don’t worry, Bader’s cousin told her at the time. He’s getting married soon and that will solve his problem.

“I believed her,” Bader said. “I had no reason not to, being very inexperienced in that area.”

Bader is now 67. She’s since abandoned Catholicism — “I’m a recovering Catholic,” she says — but still finds herself caught in the guilt from the incident. Though she eventually went on to tell her husband, she still hasn’t told her parents.

“You hold these things in all these years,” she said. “And I so admire the women who came forward with these high-profile people.”

Bader said she empathizes with the women who she says were “lambasted” for not coming forward sooner.

“We women don’t like to make waves,” she said. “We’re not wave makers. And I come from a family who is very tight-knit. I’ve been carrying this around and the other person involved, there’s never been any repercussions for him at all. But I think I’m just tired of carrying this. Let the chips fall where they may, I’m just ready to be done with that.”

Drinking coffee on the couch in her Litchfield home, Bader points at a canvas photo hanging on the wall in her living room. Her daughter, Kimberly Love, is pictured in her wedding dress, posing with her husband on the beach.

“While raising her, because of my experience, I told her, ‘If you ever feel threatened at all, family included, you get out of there. And you tell someone,’ ” she said.

As Bader knows, it’s not always a stranger who commits the wrongdoing.

“Sometimes it’s somebody you trust,” she said.

Years later, a married minister, who was her boss, pulled Bader on to his lap. He also frequently blocked doorways to prevent her from passing. She didn’t come forward about it.

And while Bader knows that both circumstances were wrong, the incident with her uncle carries a heavier burden.

“They’re both wrong, but the one with my uncle, I never forgot about it,” Bader said. “And over the years, I’ve felt very guilty about it. I have not seen him in years and years. He’s up in the Northeast.

“But I know he has grandchildren,” she said, getting choked up. “And I always hoped that nothing happened with them because I didn’t say something years ago.”

Sharon Huber of Pawleys Island, 74, felt the same type of guilt when she considered coming forward with her story.

“It’s because it involves family members,” she said. “You wind up getting into the denial factor.”

From the time she was 11 until she was almost 16, Huber was sexually abused by her stepfather. She had four younger half-sisters.

Huber told a school social worker, who didn’t intervene. She told her mother, who didn’t do anything, either.

“I think she did believe me, but it’s hard to tell,” Huber said. “She couldn’t deal with it, she had these other kids. She was a weak person her whole life. I have no reason to blame her, I’m a partial product of her, but it was her fault.”

Bader said going to confession brought her relief at the time.

“But I did not do anything wrong,” she said. “Just because I didn’t knee him or elbow him, that doesn’t mean he didn’t take advantage of me. Because he did. It annoyed me that I didn’t do something, but finally telling it is freeing. Why am I protecting these men? They are the ones to blame, they are the perpetrators. I guess I’ve had to learn how to forgive myself, even though I didn’t do anything wrong. It took me a long time to realize that.”

As women come forward now with sexual assault allegations, many ask why they didn’t speak up about them years ago. Reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the relationship a victim has with an offender often plays into why assault goes unreported. When the offender is a stranger, between 46 to 66 percent of crimes are reported; with partners or former partners, that number drops to 25 percent; when the offender is a friend or acquaintance, the number drops to as low as 18 percent.

Sexual assault crimes are high for both male and female victims. In South Carolina, 45.9 percent of women and 17.8 percent of men have reported being victims of sexual violence.

In addition, one in 71 men and one in five women report a rape in their lifetime.

Out of those crimes, only 9 percent of alleged rapists are prosecuted, and only 3 percent will spend a single day in prison.

As a college student, Mary Kirk went to a party with her three roommates. After two or three punch cup-sized drinks, she felt so nauseous that she knew she needed to go home.

“I think I was 24 or 25 at the time,” Kirk said. “A guy who was a friend of my roommates offered to take me home. I barely got into the car when I knew I had to throw up. But he took me home and kindly helped me to the door.”

Then, Kirk said, he forced himself inside her home. Her bedroom wasn’t far from the front door.

“He pushed himself in,” she said. “I had been sick, I was really groggy and out of it. I tried to fight him. I said, ‘No,’ many times. I passed out, I guess. When we woke up early the next morning, he was trying to do it again. I was more myself, so I screamed and yelled. He left and I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell my best friend. I didn’t tell my older sister who I talked to about everything. I didn’t tell anyone.”

Kirk is now a retired teacher. She’s 62 and lives in Litchfield, where her house is decorated with touches of blue and silver – tastes she picked up from her mother, who taught her early on about the proper way to be a lady.

“My mom was a very beautiful woman who was also really smart and talented,” Kirk said. “She tried to teach me to be a lady.”

Kirk straddled the fence. When she was in high school and didn’t get asked to prom by the boy she liked, her mother told her that she’d have more of a chance if she stayed quiet. Some of her perceived faults at being a lady, she said, led her to have low self-confidence.

“At the time, I didn’t even have it framed as rape,” Kirk said. “I thought I had been stupid for getting drunk at a party, because ladies don’t drink. So it was my fault that I was in that situation. That’s how that instance stayed in my head, but it was violent. It was a violent assault on my person and the sanctity of my personhood, as something separate from someone else and in my own control. When the term ‘date rape’ started being used, I went back and realized that it wasn’t my fault. It took me, I’d say, 10 years to even frame it as a rape.”

Kirk gets sick when she takes narcotics. It later occurred to her that she had been given a date rape drug.

“Not only was I raped, he planned it,” she said. “He picked me and planned it. I am sure he did. I have still felt like it was my fault in some little place inside me. This isn’t brave to me, to tell this story. It’s necessary.”

The power dynamic between Kirk and Bader’s perpetrators is one that both women and thousands of others have found in the workplace.

In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 90,000 charges of employment discrimination from employees working for private or state and local government agencies. Of those, nearly one-third – 28,000 – alleged harassment.

The EEOC estimates that the number is significantly lower than the number of harassment cases that actually occurred in the workplace, stating that only 6 to 14 percent of workers file a formal complaint due to fear of disbelief, retaliation and career damage.

Bader never reported the married minister who pulled her on to his lap. While working in technical writing, Kirk dealt with fellow employees who had naked pictures of women both on their office walls and on their computer screensavers. When her contract ended, she left the company.

The president of a company she later worked for made lewd comments to women, often kicking them in the rear and making comments about bikini-clad women in company internet forums.

Kirk addressed the harassment with the president but it persisted. Again, she left the company, this time to pursue teaching.

The story isn’t surprising to Lauren Cholette of Pawleys Island. She was working for a telecommunications company in the early 1990s when she was picked up by a coworker twice her size and paraded around the office. He was yelling vulgarities and sexual comments.

“He picked me up and threw me over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes,” Cholette said. “I’m 5-foot-2 and weighed 130 pounds at the time. There was nothing I could do except yell, because this guy was huge. Some of the other guys laughed. I was mortified, I was embarrassed, I was humiliated.”

Once she was put down, one of her fellow coworker’s told Cholette that she should forgive the man because he had been “coked up” from using drugs. The closest female supervisor, in a nearby office separated by glass panels just 15 feet away, never came out of her office to address the situation.

“That was the worst betrayal of all, that this other woman let this happen to me,” Cholette said. “She had to have heard it. Did it make it harder for me to do my job from that day forward? Did it make it hard to deal with getting any type of respect from anybody? Yes, it did.”

In a predominantly-male workplace, Cholette knew it wasn’t about sexuality.

“It’s always about power,” she said. “It’s ‘I have power over you, I can do or say this with impunity.’ “

Cholette didn’t take the incident to a different supervisor.

“I said, ‘It probably can’t do me any good, and it will probably do me harm,’” she said. “I assumed that it might be the basis for an excuse to get rid of me. I assumed that if there was somebody that was going to be fired for it, that it would be me.”

Like Kirk, she later left the company.

Peg Howell worked as a business consultant after a career working on oil rigs. A Harvard MBA graduate, she faced workplace harassment from multiple men while working for a Boston-based chemical company.

“It was shortly after I graduated from business school,” she said. “There were only three women in the top 200. It was a very power-oriented company.”

She dealt with a name-calling boss and a CEO who put his hand up her thigh while headed to a company meeting.

When the head of human resources checked in with her about the harassment, he put his hands on Howell’s shoulders and began massaging them.

“I stood up and turned around,” Howell said. “Like, ‘What are you doing?’ He grabbed me and kissed me square on the mouth. A tongue kiss. I don’t even remember how I got out of that. I was afraid to say something like, ‘What the hell did you just do?’ because he was the head of HR.”

By the time the company’s other female employees filed a lawsuit against the company for sexual harassment, Howell left the company.

“I kept taking it to the top,” she said. “On my way out the door, I talked to the CEO. I said, ‘I can’t be a part of it anymore.’ In a way, it cost me my marriage. I got divorced while I was working there. I keep thinking about that. I went into that job as a fully confident, Harvard MBA grad who just got a cool job helping turn around this company. I came out of there questioning who I was, what direction my life was going to take and getting divorced. It set a really rough course for the next 20 years of my life.”

Howell said the environment rocked her self-confidence.

“It makes you wonder,” she said. “Is that really what you have to do to be able to succeed?”

With the #MeToo movement shedding light on a decades-long problem, women are hoping that things will be different for the next generation — and that women will keep talking.

“You have to get the word out,” Howell said. “That’s what’s holding Harvey Weinstein down.”

Andie Pluto-Smith agrees. The 37-year-old military vet has lived in Pawleys for the last three years with her husband, David, and their three children.

“My 9-year-old told me I’m a hero for doing this,” Pluto-Smith said.

She said she’s trying to teach her children — her daughter and two sons — about consent.

“Most of the women I know have somehow been sexually harassed or assaulted,” she said. “I am trying to raise my daughter to know that she is allowed to have rights over her body, that she is allowed to say no.”

Pluto-Smith was first assaulted when she was 8 years old by her foster brother.

“He sexually assaulted me for two years,” she said. “I told my parents and they didn’t believe me.”

Eventually, her foster brother was placed into a different home because he was aggressive with other family members and for behavioral problems – not because of Pluto-Smith’s story.

“Nothing happened to him,” she said. “Telling my parents … it definitely made me less likely to believe that I could reach out, get help. It made me feel as though there would be no help going forward, and it made me question if I was doing something to encourage it.”

When Pluto-Smith joined the military at 19, serving as an aircraft hydraulics mechanic, she was raped twice.

“Both times, I was too drunk to say no,” she said. “I was too drunk to say yes, either. Every time a woman comes forward, she is questioned. It is always the woman’s fault, where she’s told she’s done something to invite this. I just want things to change. I don’t want this to be the norm, anymore.”

Pluto-Smith went to therapy, where she was misdiagnosed and given a prescription that made her unfit for duty. She was then discharged.

“That was 15 years ago,” she said. “I’m still fighting to get my PTSD from military sexual trauma put on my disability, 15 years after the fact.”

She eventually did find therapy that helped her. And she continues to talk in the hopes that her children will learn that they have control over their own bodies.

“My daughter, her body is her own and she has the right to say no,” she said. “That’s my hope, that I will raise my boys to treat their partners with love and respect, and to remember that consent is always paramount. And the same for my daughter. Love. Respect. They matter.

“If you haven’t told someone, try to find that one person that you can talk to. Sometimes if you can just open up to that one person, it makes it easier to talk about with other people. It’s easier to talk about once you’ve broken that down. I want everybody to know that it does get better.”

And to speak out, regardless of the type of harassment, if at all possible.

“There are a whole lot of reasons why you can’t always go to HR,” Howell said. “But the first thing you can do is document it. You can write down every single detail and keep it at home. If you’re in a workplace where you have female friends, start to see if other women have been harassed by the same person or people. And then you see an attorney.

“I wasn’t raised to be litigious. There’s the saying about when someone does you wrong, to turn the other cheek. But there are times when you don’t turn the other cheek, because in doing so you allow these men to harm other women.”

Speaking up now, Howell said, is the difference.

Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement. “She made it OK for women to talk about every type of harassment and situation,” Howell said. “Because it happens everywhere, all the time. We’ve been telling our stories. The difference is now, people are listening.”

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