The Airplane Incident

Ten years ago, on a flight from Kabul to Dubai, a man sitting next to me on an airplane pretended to be asleep, leaned over, and grabbed my breast.  Besides elbowing him away, I did nothing.  At the luggage carousel, he invited me back to his hotel room, I hissed NO—my voice gone from a closed-off, panicky throat–grabbed my suitcase and left.  I didn’t tell anyone this happened for several years.

As the #metoo campaign became very visible, I started thinking more about this incident.  It is not the only time I’ve experienced sexual harassment, but probably the most isolated incident—the easiest to describe.  I told myself “If this happened now, you would react differently, you’ve changed a lot in ten years.”  Then I realized, I might be lying to myself.  I doubt that myself of ten years ago would believe that she would just sit there and seethe and panic and take it.  But that’s the thing about sexual harassment and assault—you can’t really predict your reaction to something so deeply upsetting.

So why am I telling you about this?  Why did I type the words “my breast” in a Mormon blog?  Because I think this may be an incident that could help someone understand.  I’m going to try and explain to you what happened, and what I remember, and what I regret, what I’m mad about, and what is still uncomfortable to me.  Because I’m at a point that I can talk about it, and I know that so many other people can’t.  I know that this wasn’t the most serious sexual assault—it was relatively “mild” (I say with sarcastic and angry scare quotes) and it was a long time ago.  It’s common.  You may not believe how many women this happens to.  And I teach about things like violence against women in the developing world.  So maybe I just have the vocabulary to talk about it now.  I don’t know.  I realize I’m risking some pretty harsh comments and judgment from every side.  Apparently, I care about something else more than I fear your reaction.

I was taking one of many “R&R” breaks from the two years I spent working in Afghanistan.  It was summer and very hot.  Usually, I was very careful about covering up my legs, arms, and head when in public spaces, but I had just had it with the modesty requirements that were so miserable.  I was ready for this break.  So I wore a t-shirt with sleeves that came to my elbows.  After we got on the plane, I took off my cardigan and headscarf, and looked down at my bare forearms.  I felt a little pleasure of freedom.

I was sitting in an aisle seat in coach.  A pudgy man, 30-40 years old, wearing a tracksuit, was sitting next to me in the middle seat.  I don’t remember if he smiled and said hello, or if I did.  What I do remember was that a few minutes after take-off, he nodded off to sleep, and slowly leaned over towards me.  I just leaned towards the aisle.  It was a cramped plane, and as a plus size woman, I always feel self-conscious about my body on airplanes, like I’m culpable that the world doesn’t fit me.  He leaned over farther, his head resting on my shoulder.  I arched my back uncomfortably to the side–too far out into the aisle–the armrest digging into my ribs.  I just wanted to get away from him, but I was strapped into a small seat on a small plane thousands of feet above the ground.  (Probably, as I think about it, thousands of feet above Iran.)

About halfway through the flight, his arms crossed, he reached into my space and grabbed my breast.  I froze.  What?  Is this really happening?  Is this an accident?  Is he awake?  My breathing got faster, I flushed, there was a kind of hollow ringing in my ears.  What do I do?

I immediately felt guilty about my bare forearms.  Was I asking for it?  Should I yell?  No.  This plane is full of Afghan men.  Who knows how they would react to a public accusation of assault.  I had bare forearms!  Should I get up and tell a flight attendant?  How could I drag one of those poor, modestly dressed women into this.  As a western woman, I thought I had more protection in this kind of situation than they would.  It didn’t feel right involving them.  I knew there were some DEA agents who I knew from Embassy meetings, sitting a couple rows behind me.  Should I ask for help?  Get this guy a well-deserved whuppin’ in John Wayne style?  That could create a diplomatic incident. It was reactionary—and maybe an overreaction.  I mean, he was just grabbing my breast, he wasn’t raping me.   And I thought I would lose major face begging for help from people I had to work with.  An Embassy in a war zone is a testosterone-filled environment, and I worked in a job dominated by men and law enforcement.  I didn’t feel like I could risk my street cred by asking for help.  I had some cutlery left over from meal service.  Could I just stab this guy with a fork?  I found the place in his thigh that I would aim for.  Tempting.  Really tempting.  But this guy would probably just claim he was asleep and it never happened, and that I was a psycho American, and maybe he would get violent, and what could I do?

I don’t know how long these thoughts took.  A half a second?  Ten seconds?  A minute?  I was frozen—with a very unwelcome physical intrusion on my person.  So I just elbowed him hard and hissed “sit up.”  And continued to painfully lean into the aisle, trying not to cry.  He played dumb, and tried to lean on me a couple more times.  That was the longest two and a half hour flight of my life.  Apparently my elbow was just a “hard to get” come on for him, because he remained persistent into the baggage claim area.

I think it was at least five years before I ever told anyone about it, and that was in the context of a conversation with a group of women I feel very safe with talking about sexual assault.

So what should I have done?  Probably, just gotten up, gone back to my Embassy colleagues and said, “hey, can I switch seats with one of you, the jerk next to me is getting handsy” while rolling my eyes.  That would have saved my cred, and defused the issue.  Or I should have just trusted in the power of the women in positions of authority, told them what happened, and asked to be moved.  In all honesty, most Afghan women I know are incredibly strong.  They probably received training on how to handle crap like this.

But I froze.  And who knows—that might be my reaction again.  I like to think, in moments of self-reflecting bravado, that I would have un-hesitatingly wielded that fork.  But let’s be honest I’m basically pretty careful and polite.  And it’s not as if age can erase that panicky moment of fear adrenaline.   I might do the exact same thing again.

So, here is an unremarkable story about an unremarkable situation (unremarkable in number, not in egregiousness) that happened 10 years ago.  And it has taken me ten years to talk about it publicly.  And still I fear your judgment.  Maybe you think I was actually foolish and immodest.  Maybe you think that I shouldn’t be talking about such a minor assault—that my #metoo pales in comparison to the also-common crime of rape.  Maybe you think I’m exaggerating my fear and my reaction of freezing in the moment.  Maybe you think my reaction wasn’t logical.  Guess what, I’ve felt all of that.  But it seemed important to tell a story that I’m able to tell.


  1. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. We’ve all been there, in different situations, times, and stages of life. And it is difficult to confront – to fight off. We’ve been trained for most of all lives to be quiet and accept it as inevitable. But we MUST keep bringing this incidents up, and learn to shout when they happen, and make them very, very public and UNACCEPTABLE. Again, thank you for being brave and telling us.

  2. Thanks for your witness, Karen. I hear you, and I promise to work on being the kind of colleague who wouldn’t have made you worry about risking your cred by mentioning this crap.

  3. Thank you for this — speaking up with experiences like this is extremely powerful, in my observation. I can’t imagine how difficult it is though. Thank you for doing it.

  4. I want everyone to understand how incredibly common this is– not only that it happens (I don’t know very many women who haven’t had body parts grabbed by strangers at least once) but that Karen’s response is what so many of us experience. This isn’t isolated, and it’s so common as to make you want to cry.

    I could list my own, but they are stories just like this. A breast grab in a crowd, a crotch grope in line at a concert, a strange man trying to kiss my neck at a turnstile. My own personal worst was the guy I drove home as a designated driver believing that meant he had the right to have sex with me. I spent years wondering what I could have done differently, if what I had on mattered, if I shouldn’t have volunteered to drive him home… you name it. I also told no one for years, because I KNEW the questions I would have faced, and I knew it would have been a he said/she said. The stories go on and on and on and on.

    Comforting ourselves with “not all men” diminishes the responsibility that we all bear for the society we’ve created and the burden we’ve placed and continue to place on women.

  5. I’m so sorry. I know that panicked fear too well to judge or dismiss it.

  6. Karen, this story really touched a nerve with me. I live in a country right now with an extreme dress code, but I try to wear normal-to-me and Mormon modest clothing whenever I can get away with it, which is only in my neighborhood and in the airport, as long as I can stand the staring. I hate that not wearing a full-length robe over my clothing signals that I’m somehow acceptable to assault. I hate watching women who are fully covered being harassed or worse in some places. I hate that women everywhere are blamed for being assaulted because of their clothing, no matter how much fabric they are wearing. I feel trapped in my abaya and I feel trapped into wearing it too. I am so tired of women being told we are the problem.

  7. What makes me most sad about this story is the fact that you –still– feel the need to be defensiveness and head off inquiry into what you might have done to “deserve” it. This is assault; you are not at fault; full stop. And anyone who doesn’t agree is divorced from reality.

  8. I relate to this so much!!!! I had something similar happen as a teen at a friends house. I boy I’d just met decided to share the sofa with me and using a blanket, put his hand up my shirt. I spent the entire movie freaking out, play scenarios of how to get out of there (he was super popular, everyone loved him, and I was a nervous new-girl with zero credibility), and 100% frozen.

    It’s really hard to explain the frozen-ness. It’s one of those things that doesn’t really make sense unless you’ve experienced it.

  9. orangganjil says:

    This story and comments like Tracy M’s are shocking to me. I had no idea this stuff happened so frequently and it makes me mad as hell. What is wrong with people?

    Thank you for helping to open my eyes.

  10. Aaron Brown says:

    Thank you, Karen. It’s important to hear these stories.

    Aaron B

  11. Jennifer Webb says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have had similar experiences of unwanted touching and groping from strangers and acquaintances. It’s appalling and unbelievable at the time. We’re afraid to speak up because, unfortunately, a significant portion of our society apparently thinks this is culturally normal behavior. Exhibit #1- The Trump/Access Hollywood tape. Exhibit #2- Bill O’Reilly. Exhibit #3- Harvey Weinstein. The list keeps growing. I am disgusted by this low level of behavior and blatant disrespect for women. We can do better.

  12. Thank you for acknowledging your plus-sizedness, Karen — it did not act as a shield to you the way so many, men and women, assume. Sometimes I am afraid to talk about things that happen to me because I get the eyeroll, “Like anybody would grope her!” You can be old, you can be over- or underweight, you can be dressed like Mother Goose. Doesn’t matter. Still happens, all the time. And there’s this weird confluence of body shaming that can keep those of us who aren’t pretty young thangs from speaking up.

  13. Thank you for your courage to be publicly vulnerable. Our chance of responding appropriately to sexual harassment increases the more we read about others’ responses and think about what we would do. That‘s why this post is so important. The more sexual harassment stories we read about publicly, the less victims will fear to call out the perpetrator immediately (or whatever is appropriate in specific situations). What we wish we had done in hindsight becomes the action we’re not afraid to take in the present. It becomes a normal response.

  14. Karen, I think you are brave for sharing your story. I’m sorry this happened to you. I understand so well the response to not do anything, to not say anything, to just try to get it to stop. I think he did too. It’s implicit in all of these interactions.

  15. This is why my wife carries a gun. So far 2 miscreants have been run off with an armed response in the last 24 months. Once in a walmart parking lot and the other time by a vagrant who cornered her in the church library. Its amazing to me that she is such a target.

  16. Thank you for sharing this. It is only in the past year or so that I’ve realized that this kind of thing is so common, and it’s largely because of women that I knew being brave enough to share their stories that my eyes have been opened to the reality that to be a woman in this culture is to be constantly on the defensive in ways that I never understood before.

  17. Oh, for shame that you should suggest guns are the answer, bbell! You think Karen should have started blasting away in the airplane?! That because I don’t care to become a murderer, I am therefore responsible for any assault I suffer?!

    I don’t want to live in your world, and I sure as heck don’t want you making the rules for living in mine.

  18. I have too many stories like this. The first when I was 8 or 9 and the last about 3 years ago.

    This incident is why I will not allow mt daughters to fly on a plane without being accompanied by an adult.

    About 17 years ago a 20-something me was seated next to a disgusting older man. I immediately knew by the way he was leering at me and rubbing his barr arm against mine that he was a problem. While he tried to engage me in conversation I got the attention of the flight attendant and asked for a seat change. Fortunately I was seated in an exit row so a really tall man was more than happy to take my seat. As I was leaving the man angrily told me “well you got what you wanted.” Yes. Yes I did.

  19. Ardis makes several (very) important points I want to second.

    Size and dress and appearance seems to have nothing to do with unwanted sexual advances/groping/assault. We’ve been screaming that for years, but maybe finally we’ve reached a critical amount of voices that it might finally be heard. Men target women in all ages of life, in all states of dress, in all sizes, in all marital and educational and nationality statuses. It just doesn’t matter, and we have got to stop assuming we are responsible.

    Stop telling women to dress/act/be differently, and START TELLING MEN TO STOP HURTING US.

    I also second her thoughts on guns not being the answer. Assault and groping happens everywhere. I should not have to threaten a man’s life (and be prepared to kill him) just so I can walk down the street, or attend a concert, or jog through my neighborhood. That’s absurd. Not only is it absurd, but it further puts the onus on women to protect themselves aggressively, instead of TELLING MEN TO STOP HURTING US.

  20. Elizabeth says:

    A good hard punch to his crotch would have probably stopped him, but I am not sure I would be able to do that. Can we assault back? Is that the answer or does it just make it worse? Anybody try that?

  21. I did. I fought back. I bit. I kicked and I screamed. It didn’t make any difference. Men–generally, of course– are bigger. I got assaulted anyway. I got held down and hurt, and I was left wondering for years if my fighting actually excited him more.

    We lay still and they ask why we didn’t fight. We fight like hell and we get hurt anyway and they ask why we fought. We are blamed regardless.

  22. The $64,000 Answer says:

    In 1995 a Western European television station commissioned a study of the reactions of male rape victims (or, at any rate, those male rape victims that disclosed what had happened them in that year to law enforcement) to their assaults. Just 17% physically resisted their rapist (in 83% of the cases, incidentally, it was a single assailant, not a gang-rape situation). 23% tried to talk their way out of the situation—obviously, unsuccessfully. By far the largest proportion, a full 60%, froze up completely and simply waited for it to be over. Most of the victims were young, able-bodied men.

    Behavioral psychologists now speak of the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction, with the last of the three being by far the most common among both sexes. Unfortunately, juries and even some prosecutors and police forces don’t understand that. Nor (not to beat a dead horse into a kind of cheval puré) did one or two of the posters in a recent thread on this site. For them, it’s not “real” rape or sexual assault unless the victim physically resists until beaten to the point of insensibility; weapons are used; clothing is torn; blood-curdling screams are emitted, etc., etc.

    I’m very sorry that this happened to you. What you describe is not only common, but absolutely typical. In many cases the perps actually prefer a crowded public environment in which to carry out their crimes, having learned by experience that victims are actually less likely—partly from embarrassment, partly from sheer disbelief—to kick up a ruckus.

  23. Elizabeth says:

    Tracy M, I understand about “telling men to stop hurting us” but there will always be some jerk who is only interested in his own desires. There is “what should be” and “what is.” Unfortunately, “what is” are sexual predators who will always give it a try, if only to feel the power of being able to upset a total stranger. We have to figure out how to take back that power.

  24. During ww2 at the end of the war my grandfather was serving adjacent to the Russian zone of occupation. His assignment was to protect by any means required german civilian women from being gang raped by Russians crossing into the US sector.

    There were multiple firefights in his area as US soldiers simply shot down the Russian rape gangs as they attempted to sneak into areas and attack German civilian women.

    At one point his unit encountered a 12 year old girl that was on a bike being chased by a squad attempting to do her harm. This incident ended rather quickly with a magazine from his BAR being expended.

    Obviously its not 1945 in occupied Germany. But when you are cornered with your toddler in an empty locked church by a vagrant a 9mm comes in handy.

  25. Karen, I’m sorry this happened, and glad you told this story. From your other stories, I’m pretty sure you’re one of the strongest, most courageous people I’ve met.

  26. Elizabeth: for me, reading about sexual violence these past several years has made me start believing that some human beings are simply evil. I am not happy about having come to believe this. But if there will always be sociopaths who derive pleasure from exercising power over others, I nevertheless hope that we can change the culture of violence that still prevails among the remaining majority of humanity. Our collective track record on treating women as fully human is pretty dismal, but the wave of witnessing occasioned by #metoo indicates a refusal to accept that treatment any longer. It’s up to us men to hear what all of you are saying and work to transform masculinity. Some days I despair about whether or not that’s possible (one of my students shared some pretty head-desk-y stories today). Nevertheless, I persist.

  27. Yes, there will always be evil men, but when men do evil things in most contexts, we don’t just shrug and say, “well, there’ll always be bad men, nothing we can do.” No. We demand that they be held responsible.

    I truly think that most men simply have no idea of what women experience. Many of us probably cross lines without even knowing or thinking about it, and most of us probably allow other men in our lives to do so without even knowing or thinking about it.. We need to demand it of ourselves that we act like human beings responsible for our actions, we need to demand it of ourselves that we become aware of what the women in our lives are experiencing.

    Yes, sometimes there is nothing a woman can do to cause a man to take responsibility for himself. But the response to that reality is not to tell women that the responsibility is on them to protect themselves from reprobates. The response is to refuse to tolerate that refusal to take responsibility.

  28. The $64,000 Answer says:

    Mr Bell:-

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t work so well when one is cornered by one’s co-worker, boyfriend, fiancé or husband. As, statistically, is most likely to be the case.

    In any event, talking about the use of deadly force in the kind of situation described by Karen—even if it were to happen in the U.S., in a concealed-carry state—is meaningless. Hardly any victim in these circumstances is going to pull her Glock out of her handbag and start blazing away, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

    The solution to this problem does not consist of loading yet another responsibility onto the shoulders of the victim, but rather concerted action by the community to restrain and deter the perpetrator.

  29. The $64,000 Answer says:


    Exactly so. Well said.

  30. Karen, I have experienced this on a plane, too. I froze, too, and got out of it by pretending to be asleep for hours before landing in Newark. It happened to me on a long car-ride with my BYU-Idaho home teachers. He thought I was asleep, and the backseat was dark. I just kept fake-sleeping, terrified and embarrassed and assuming it was my fault for sitting in the backseat with a boy. I legit took responsibility—I let myself be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was fully clothed, and wearing a jacket. And yet, his hand had slipped in, and he was cupping my chest, this man I was supposed to ask for priesthood blessings.

    I get the desire to “take action,” but speaking out about our experiences IS action. Refusing to accept these experiences as normal, typical experiences is action. It should be rare that a man feels entitled to feel up a woman because she seems accessible. This change won’t come because more women are armed. This change won’t come because more women wear more layers and avoid leaving their houses after sunset. This change will only come when we stop making excuses for inappropriate behavior, when we stop expecting creepy dudes to lurk around corners, when we stop considering it normal behavior or “locker room talk,” when we stop listing what a woman should’ve would’ve could’ve done, and when more of us are outraged and disgusted by sexual harassment and assault of all shades.

  31. Elizabeth,
    As I understand it, the current thinking is that sexual assault and rape are things that can happen to you, but they are not things that are your fault. You may or may not be able to resist and, while resisting, you may or may not succeed. None of that makes you complicit in the assault, not that I think you are saying such things might. Assault is its own sort of natural disaster and nobody really knows how they’ll react until they’re overshadowed by it.

    That said, Tracy is correct that every assault is preventable in the sense that the person assaulting you could choose to do otherwise. Making it less socially acceptable to engage in harassing behaviors is seen as something that might prevent some sociopath from taking that extra step or, possibly, some good kid from deciding to try out sociopathy for an evening.

  32. bBell,
    The US military record on sexual assault, including amongst the greatest generation, is far from spotless. That said, I’m glad your grandfather decided to not assault the women around him. May more soldiers go and do likewise.

  33. It occurs to me that a sharp elbow to the gut or ribs would have made your position clear and you would probably not have been further bothered nor had to be embarrassed by publicly making something of it. I’m sorry you experienced that all the same. No excuses for people of either gender being inappropriate like that. Sometimes a person can be too nice.

  34. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Karen. It is important.

  35. The $64,000 Answer says:

    “It occurs to me that a sharp elbow to the gut or ribs…”

    A high-risk strategy. Sometimes it works, if the perp is willing to sit there and take it without responding in kind. If he isn’t—and there’s no way of telling in advance—the victim now finds herself in a physical contest with an assailant in which it’s almost certain that she isn’t going to win.

    Most women haven’t grown up with any experience of fisticuffs. Expecting them to deploy force effectively the first crack out of the box is like putting the average Joe on ice skates, giving him a hockey stick, and expecting him to shut down Wayne Gretzky.

  36. Embeecee, she literally DID elbow him, and he still bothered her and still approached her at baggage claim. Honestly. Why is how she reacted in this situation not good enough for you? Who the heck are you to render that kind of judgement anyway?

    Karen, thank you for sharing this story. One only has to look at your remarkable record of most exceptional achievement in studies, law, government, and academia to see what a force of courage and will you are (I have many friends who do incredible things but few rebuild democracy and rule of law with incisive theory and brick by brick on the ground wearing a flack jacket(!!)). Yours is one of those exceptional examples that prove the rule: “if it can happen to her, if it can freeze her, it can happen like that to ANYONE” stories.

  37. Wait, there almost seems to be glee in some of these suggestions of responding with sexual violence with violence. Now I understand that we have a culture that celebrates that sometimes (fathers who “jokingly” allude to perpetuing gun violence when discussing curfews for their daughters or people who describe having to beat all the suitors at the door) but as a religious people, how can we even discuss that as the perferred option, not even taking into account the fact that Karen’s personality may not (I’m projecting here, but it’s a pretty safe projection) want to ever hurt anyone if she can help it.

    Let’s just stop it ok?

  38. I’d be interested in any sociological data on what the most effective prospective deterrents are for rapists/sexual assailants/etc. Obviously I agree with not blaming women, regardless of the circumstances, and I’m not talking about at the point of attack (i.e., weapons or countermeasures). Instead I guess I’m wondering if Tracy’s emphasis on “TELLING MEN TO STOP HURTING US” has worked in other places, and if so, how. I’ll admit that I have a preconception that no amount of socialization or training is going to deter a man who wants to be a rapist, but I hope I’m wrong.

  39. Wondering says:

    The suggestion of weaponizing women to protect against unwanted contact or assault is absurd. The last time I dealt with it was last year. In the chapel. Before sacrament meeting. I was preparing to play the organ and a newer middle aged brother in the ward would approach and give me an handsy little shoulder rub each week. I would shy away but it took several weeks and discussions with my husband and a good friend to figure out how to build up the courage to say something. Besides the freezing response, don’t underestimate how strongly women are trained to be nice or polite and put up with intrusive behavior and avoid offending men, especially when it’s something that many people could read as simple friendliness, like these little shoulder rubs. How and why should a woman have to explain how inappropriate an intimate gesture feels from a near stranger?

    I finally snapped one week and snarled, “Don’t touch me when I’m at the organ,” and he’s given me plenty of space since then.

    What good would a weapon have been, particularly when many people might have read this as a friendly gesture, and it didn’t come close to violating any criminal statutes? Even the more serious experiences I’ve had at other times during my life wouldn’t have been improved by the addition of a handgun.

  40. It’s interesting that so many people are interested in telling Karen how she might have handled the situation, or in thinking about effective deterrents, when she literally did nothing wrong, and the entire fault in this situation lies with the dude who decided to feel her up. Even “TELLING MEN TO STOP HURTING US” puts the onus on women to fix this.

    I think that instead it’s up to us men to keep our !@$^# hands (and other body parts) to ourselves unless we know, because we asked (on the basis of more than a moment’s acquaintance), that a woman wants us to touch her. We need to live this standard ourselves, we need to teach it to other men, and we need to speak up when we see someone doing otherwise.

  41. Ardis, that was a beautiful, true, and unfortunately so necessary response to bbell’s idea of a solution.

  42. Tracy, such a good follow-up to Ardis’s comments — thank you. As exhibit A, remember that in response to the 15+ women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual assault and rape, Trump has said “she’s too ugly for me to sexually assault” about several of them.

  43. Elizabeth, a good hard punch to the crotch is fun to think about but in reality that is not really a possibility on a flight from Kabul to Dubai. In all likelihood, Karen would have been the one removed from the plane in cuffs following the flight, not the assaulter.

  44. Whenever I hear the Trump comment I can only think, Trump is too ugly for any sane woman to have consensual sex with. Creepy, vulgar, crude. Is Melania drugged or is he just too old for her to have to worry about anymore?

  45. Embeecee, in the post Karen says she elbowed him.

  46. My original

    “Stop telling women to dress/act/be differently, and START TELLING MEN TO STOP HURTING US.”

    was specifically directed at men. It’s men who have to say this, because in the current social structure, men generally only listen to men. Women have been saying this forever, and it’s not working. Men have to start speaking up.

    I appreciate the comments from men on this thread giving their support and understanding, and I echo Cynthia L’s entire sentiment.

  47. Since he appears to be asleep, there’s a 1% chance it’s random. Move his arm. If he wakes up when you do tell him that’s unacceptable what happened and he needs to remain in his seat. If he does it again, slap him. Hard.

    Keep in mind cultural differences, may have signaled to him that your bare arms was a come on. Similar to how Afghans view women at pools in Europe etc. It’s not legitimate, but it is worth pointing out that some cultures do need to be changed. That has no bearing on how we should properly promote and conceive of modesty.

    When I was in high school, the orthodontist assistant constantly rubbed her breast against my arm. None of the others did it, and she wasn’t any larger chested than others that I remember at least. Being a typical young male I was both a bit interested and uncomfortable.

    Never thought anything of it until this story. I’m assuming it wasn’t intentional like this Afghan plane guy sounds. But it goes bith ways. And in my case, I’m not sure I could actually confront the orthodontist assistant and say, please stop randomly brushing your chest against my arm.

    I’ve had other similar experiences with girls brushing very closely against my genitals as well (concert and movie). One felt rather intimate and eliberate as she brushed up against me along between her back side and then she was gone…or I moved away. Don’t remember.

    Again, hadn’t thought of it until this post. Never thought of myself as a victim though. Not that it implies judgment of the author. But I’d rather not have my son or daughter stress too much over it but just move on and forget it.

    I guess I could point out the 30 airport friskings, 25% of which have a distinct shapely feel to them where i feel I’ve been caressed more than frisked. Nothing has made me more disgusted than those. My daughter equality was shocked and almost in tears when she asked me why they were just patting around her waist and under arms. No one has ever really touched her there and she was pretty confused. I’m glad we didn’t obsess on it though. We just explained what had happened and why. But she still felt violated.

  48. I’m sorry, Karen. You did nothing wrong. For what it’s worth, I have never done any better than freezing in the moment. You capture so well the thoughts that have flooded and paralyzed me when something like this has happened to me.

    Telling men to stop hurting us is a whole lot better than “You ladies get your act together and [dress differently/look differently/fight back/respond differently/whatever].” Except my experience is that some of the worst offenders think they’re doing women a favor, think they’re wonderful guys. Have NO IDEA, like zero, they’re hurting us in the first place. Can’t even conceive that we might be human in the same ways they are. Oh, they’ll pay lip service to the idea sometimes. But until we can get one half of humanity to stop seeing the other half as Other, this, or something like it, is what’s going to happen. With shocking regularity. To nearly every woman you’ll ever meet.

    To so many men, we females are a species apart: dumber, weaker, better, baser, purer–all variations on the same theme that lets them write off our experience as irrelevant whenever it suits them. Is it any wonder that almost all of us can say #me too?

  49. I’m sorry, Karen. You did nothing wrong. For what it’s worth, I have never done any better than freezing in the moment. You capture so well the thoughts that have flooded and paralyzed me when something like this has happened to me.

    Telling men to stop hurting us is a whole lot better than “You ladies get your act together and [dress differently/look differently/respond differently/whatever].” Except my experience is that some of the worst offenders think they’re doing women a favor, think they’re wonderful guys. Have NO IDEA, like zero, they’re hurting us in the first place. Can’t even conceive that we might be human in the same ways they are. Oh, they’ll pay lip service to the idea sometimes. But until we can get one half of humanity to stop seeing the other half as Other, this, or something like it, is what’s going to happen. With shocking regularity. To nearly every woman you’ll ever meet.

    To so many men, we females are a species apart: dumber, weaker, better, baser, purer–all variations on the same theme that lets them write off our experience as irrelevant whenever it suits them. Is it any wonder that almost all of us can say #me too?

  50. Bpe, I cannot even find a starting place with your comment. I just can’t. Please reread the post and many of the comments above you.

  51. it's a series of tubes says:

    Wow, BPE takes an award of some sort for that comment. And not a prestigious one, either.

    To the OP, and to many others who have commented on these related posts over the past little while: Thank you. As the father of three daughters, thank you for helping me to better understand these issues as they confront you. I’m ashamed to admit that, while to my knowledge I have never been a harasser or otherwise acted inappropriately toward any female, I’ve certainly not done a very good job of understanding, or even seeking to understand, these issues from a female perspective. Thank you for helping me take a few baby steps.

  52. Thank you so much for this post. I know how exposing it can feel to share what you went through with strangers, but your story is so important. It wasn’t until just in the past couple years, after reading other women’s courageous stories, that I was able to start confronting my own shame about my freeze response. People who have not been through it have no idea how shocking and destabilizing it is to have someone violate your bodily autonomy like that and not even bat an eye. All of the people suggesting what you could have done better, or trying to minimize what happened to you, are part and parcel of rape culture. Shame on them.

  53. Elizabeth says:

    john f, I am afraid that arrest would be the result, and probably not just on a flight from Kabal to Dubai. The same result would happen on a flight from LA at NY, as well. That is the problem.
    Karen, thank you for sharing. I was only 7, what could I do but freeze?

  54. Kristine N says:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m so sorry you felt this way:

    “I mean, he was just grabbing my breast, he wasn’t raping me.”

    I hesitated to share any of my #metoo stories because, hey, it’s not like anything REALLY happened. I’ve never been raped. It’s only ever been words or a hand in an inappropriate place. It’s not REAL. And yet it is. It is still a violation, and a betrayal of trust.

    I hear you and I believe you.

  55. Thank you for sharing your story! I, like many others, have had similar experiences. It was only recently that I realized that I could name it what it is: sexual assault. It wasn’t just an uncomfortable situation, it was assault.

    I’m sorry this happened to you; thank you for helping others understand!

  56. wreddyornot says:

    So, so sorry. I’m listening, trying to empathize, and trying to learn. I’m wondering what I, as a man, should do besides listening and learning and behaving. Of course, I like to believe I would have come to your aid with sensitivity and kindness in your circumstance, but we will never know that. In the recent “Inadvertent Objectification . . .” posting, I noted inherent sexual inequalities. It seems to me that men need to change their own ways and quit taking charge, exercising power, and telling women how to act. The power needs to be equalized. But what do you think I should do? Is listening, understanding, and behaving myself enough? Or should I be doing something more?

  57. ” Except my experience is that some of the worst offenders think they’re doing women a favor, think they’re wonderful guys. Have NO IDEA, like zero, they’re hurting us in the first place. ” This. And they’ll pull a Boromir asking for the ring if called on it “HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST I’M A BAD PERSON you KNOW me I’m NOBLE and GOOD See now you should feel so bad for character assassination that you’re all but obligated to give it to me”

  58. Thank you.

  59. EnglishTeacher says:

    bBell, for what it’s worth, I’m glad your wife was able to fend off her would-be assailant(s) using a firearm. I don’t read bBell’s comments as prescriptive; they refer to one woman’s choice and the means she chooses to protect herself. If a woman wants to carry a gun on her person, for protection, legally purchased, and properly trained, then why is this a problem as a deterrent to sexual assault? If a woman doesn’t feel comfortable with using or carrying a firearm, I doubt anyone would advocate she purchase and carry one anyway. There are multiple means of self-defense and women who take charge and employ them have my utmost admiration. I have been considering purchasing a firearm myself, and live in a state that would regulate that purchase down to proper training in order for me to take it home. Break-ins and theft are on the rise in the area I live, and it’s something I’ve come to worry about enough to consider keeping a firearm stored away in the event I’d need to use it in self defense.

    To the original post and ensuing “me too” moments: you have my utmost sympathy and empathy, like so many other women who I’m sure have read this and refrained from commenting, or who will share their stories one day. It has happened to me on buses, on a mission, at home, abroad, on public streets and living room couches. It has come from boyfriends and crushes and total strangers. I think about moments that, like the original posts’, were trivial compared to so many other survivor’s stories, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t deeply affected by them. Thank you for sharing your story with us; may you find some peace among your fellow brothers and sisters.

  60. Karen H., thank you for writing. I’m sure it was difficult (at least the choice to write) and I can’t say it’s an easy or cheerful read. But it is valuable and needs to happen. (Although that doesn’t mean anyone should feel an obligation to write or speak. I would preserve that space for individual choice. Hence the ‘thank you.’)

    What to do about it? The easy stuff: don’t be a perp myself, tell others not to assault, support women (and men) who speak up or ask for help in the present. The intellectually challenging stuff: think hard about the justice system, the role of violence on violence, retribution, proportionality and enforcement. (Look, for the fork wielding and the gun toting, there are half-a-dozen reasons why violence on violence is problematic and I’m a little surprised that — judging from some of the comments — it needs to be said.)

    And then there’s the impossible stuff of stopping it in the act. Impossible because I never know at a useful time and place (unless I’m the perp, in which case see above, i.e., don’t.) I’m just off a flight that was a physical battle ground. Nothing to do with sexual assault in either direction (not to say I’m immune, but I am nowadays a fairly well behaved old white guy so low-but-not-zero risk), but just because the fellow in the middle seat next to me was a very uncomfortable tall skinny teenage boy who seemed to be seven feet of elbows and knees. Pretty innocent; there were actual blows, but none of them intentional and none of them returned. But the point is that NOBODY else on the plane knew any of this was happening. So even if they’d wanted to, and even if there was something practical they could have done, nobody was in a knowledge position to do anything.

    I thought your “what should I have done?” paragraph was just right. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But once you’re in the spot, those suggestions are great. I recall YM./YW lessons play-acting what to do when somebody offers you a drink or a toke. The whole idea was to think it through in advance so there was less chance that you’d freeze on the spot. Think it through in advance. Not freezing is (maybe, partially, to some extent) something we can fix, at least for our next generation.

  61. That’s a great comment, EmJen.

  62. The $64,000 Answer says:

    “The whole idea was to think it through in advance so there was less chance that you’d freeze on the spot. Not freezing is…something we can fix, at least for our next generation.”

    It’s an intuitively sensible idea, Mr Kimball, and there was a time I’d have thought the same thing. But it doesn’t seem to work in real life. A great deal of military training is aimed at developing just this kind of instinctive, prepared response to a high-stress situation. Soldiers go over it day after day: contingency-planning, developing muscle memory, carrying out exercises and then engaging in post-mortems to refine their default conditioning. They have far more time and mental energy to devote to this process than any of the rest of us, who have day jobs and mortgages, typically do.

    And what happens once the first shot is fired? As any sergeant will tell you, 90% of it flies out of their heads and they stand there like deer in headlights until said sergeant, quite literally, kicks them in the backside and bawls in their ear: “Take cover!”

    I’ve spoken with a heck of a lot of victims of sexual violence, of both sexes, who have experienced it more than once. Despite endlessly reliving the first assault, they weren’t necessarily more ready to respond with a non-freeze action to later ones. It’s purely anecdotal on my part, but I’m starting to form the impression that if the first was especially traumatic (which does not necessarily equate with “carries the longest prison sentence”), they might have been even more likely to freeze when confronted with the second.

    There are innumerable variables that can influence a freeze-or-not-freeze reaction. Among them are the time of day—personally, I’m a great deal more feisty at one o’clock in the afternoon than I am at one in the morning—or whether one is taken by surprise as opposed to seeing a bad situation unfolding, or even something as simple as whether one has had a good breakfast that day.

    I honestly don’t think that the answer lies in training people not to freeze in these situations, not least because they do nothing to prevent the situation from arising. Restraining and deterring those who cause them is, in my view, much more likely to yield benefits.

  63. “It’s men who have to say this, because in the current social structure, men generally only listen to men. Women have been saying this forever, and it’s not working. Men have to start speaking up.”


    I agree that men calling out other men is greatly needed. While many of us pat ourselves on the back for not being “that guy,” most of us have been in a Billy Bush-type situation of overhearing, or being otherwise aware of, inappropriate behavior. While I didn’t laugh along with it, I’ve certainly been guilty of ignoring it.

    That said, hearing it from women also helps. For instance, I’m profoundly grateful to a college girlfriend for explaining how insulting the male gaze can be. She trained me to keep my eyes at what she called a professional level. It might not seem like much, but it helped me understand how women feel about constantly being judged by their looks, and how unfair it can be in a variety of situations, but particularly in the workplace.

    Hearing the extent of sexual assaults, and how women feel about it, has had a profound effect on me. It’s no longer possible to shrug it off and think it isn’t my problem.

  64. $64,000: If we’re constrained to either/or thinking (“the answer”) then I agree. Training not to freeze has a tinge of victim blaming (not intended but unavoidable) and is not likely to yield enough benefit (as you argue). But if we can live in a both/and world then I’d argue that practicing not to freeze is a worthwhile add.

  65. Governing Myself says:

    This thread is an example of why it is so difficult to speak up when experiencing sexual assault. Many of the comments are directed towards the survivor as if it easier to ward off sexual assault than to not sexually assault. I believe that some commenters, such as BPE, want sexual assault and the blame associated to remain ambiguous. Why is that? I am an adult, a sexual being, I have managed to live a rich and full life without ever sexually assaulting another person. I don’t randomly fall asleep and grab the crotches of men I’m sitting by. Why are there so many individuals who want to leave space for accidental sexual assault? Some of the responses to this post are concerning at best, if not, revealing and scary.

  66. Tip to men who want to respond well: Stop using “as a father of daughters” (or any other way you are related to women). As Hunter Harris wrote in regard to the Harvey Weinstein fall-out: “You don’t need a daughter to feel guilty about working with a man who preys on young women, or about not acting to stop him. You just need a conscience.” It doesn’t reflect well on you that you “didn’t notice” until you had “skin in the game” (i.e., a woman you actually care about).

  67. it's a series of tubes says:

    AuntM, your point is well taken, although I think your last sentence might be a bit harsher than warranted.

  68. Not a Cougar says:

    $64k, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the cultural dynamics of this assault. Yes, sexual assault needs to be prosecuted, yes, men (and women) need to be held accountable for their predatory actions, even where they don’t cross a criminal line. But if, as I understand from the OP, the predator hailed from a country with nothing approaching respect and/or equal rights for women, what do you do? All the training in the western world isn’t going to change that predator’s actions. And, I agree with the OP, Afghan women are tough… and extremely few of them will ever get to travel on an international flight, and almost certainly not without a male relative as an escort (at least not the ones I saw when I was there). To boot, the predator in the OP was also almost certainly socialized to believe western women are all sexually available (or at least that’s what I took away from both the training I received before entering Afghanistan and my experiences watching Afghan men interact with American women). Please do not take any of my comments as criticism of the OP. She was a absolutely in a no-win situation, and I am grateful she is willing to share her experience.

  69. it’s a series of tubes: I would say it was direct, not harsh. I recognize that while I did not name you, you may feel particularly targeted by my comment. Truly, your use of “as a father of daughters” is so common, and my comment about its use is meant for the many men who comment and read here.

    Tip #2 for men who want to respond well: Avoid tone policing.

  70. The $64,000 Answer says:

    Not quite sure what I’m being asked, NAC. I’ve never been to Afghanistan; I have spent some time knocking around Iran, just next door, and for that matter most of the rest of the Middle East (with the exception of the KSA, which I haven’t visited). The men in that part of the world know full well that putting their hands on a woman to whom they’re not married is (i) a criminal offense; (ii) a sin; and (ii) something that’s quite likely to get them knifed by her male relatives. Nor do they think that attacking foreign women is somehow hunky-dory. You may be sure that if there had been a large policeman in uniform, sitting in the third seat of the row on that flight, Karen’s perp would scrupulously have kept his hands to himself.

    That being the case, I can’t see that cultural factors enter into it. A predatory individual thought he could get away with committing a sexual assault, even though he was perfectly well aware that he was breaking the law by so doing. That, though, is as likely to happen on an Allegiant flight to Denver as on an Ariana flight to Dubai.

    For the record, I don’t believe that there’s much profit in “training” malefactors not to do wrong. To look no further for examples, I have no doubt at all that Messrs Weinstein, Toback, Trump, Clinton, Cosby, O’Reilly and others of their kidney are entirely familiar with the criminal statutes of their respective jurisdictions regarding sexual offenses. I also believe that they realize that their actions cause their victims distress. The impression I have formed is that they derive no small degree of gratification from that fact.

    Rather than attempting what in my view is the impossible task of seeking to carry out conscience-transplant surgery on each of these distinctly unpromising subjects (Mr Weinstein, I gather from news reports, is currently snoozing and texting his way through the expensive course he’s taking at the sex-offenders’ clinic, from which he will soon emerge every bit as amoral and self-centered as when he entered), a better approach would be to establish a régime in which offending of this kind is followed by swift and certain punishment. Even the dimmest and most devious among us will not break the speed limit while a police cruiser with flashing lights is filling the rear-view mirror.

    All this is, however, probably a discussion for another thread.

  71. I dunno, though, 64k. The Weinsteins and Cosbys of the world being too far gone I’ll give you. That level of conscience-less predation is rare, though.
    There are far too many men who genuinely DON’T think pushing too hard or asking too much or taking advantage of ambiguity is a bad thing. Indeed, I’ve seen your comments encouraging just that education with at least one such good man on a similar thread last week. Is there no room to encourage those individuals to better understand their actions? No room to teach them a greater capacity to consider what it is to be female (as you did on the “Inadvertent…” post)?

  72. The $64,000 Answer says:

    It wasn’t rare in Karen’s case, KLN. And if you ask your female friends and relatives, you might be surprised how many of them have similar stories to tell. That was the point of the whole “#metoo” business. (We haven’t even mentioned what a similar conversation with your male friends and relatives might reveal, though that too is best left for another thread.)

    Education has its place, though in my opinion it needs to happen very early indeed if it’s to do any good. You’ll have observed on that other thread that I talked myself blue in the face with my adult interlocutor, it would appear to singularly little avail. Moreover, there we were discussing coercive, but not criminal, behavior. The two may represent different points on the same continuum, but there are real distinctions between them nonetheless.

    I believe we make a category error by treating criminal conduct with non-criminal approaches (“teach rapists not to rape,” etc.). Any number of public-service announcements and moral exhortations were directed at drunk drivers, but it wasn’t until driving licenses started being confiscated and repeat offenders started doing time that its prevalence began to diminish. Master Brock Turner notoriously may have spent just three months behind bars, but I’m willing to bet that that will have a far greater effect in keeping him on the straight and narrow for the remainder of his life than all the courses on “toxic masculinity” offered by Stanford University ever could.

  73. Thank you for sharing your story.

  74. 64k, you and I are in greater accord than I seem to have made clear. Harassment is everywhere.
    Drugging actual scores of women like Cosby or using that level of industrial control (Weinstein was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood) to harass that many people IS much rarer than a man seeing how much he can get away with on a plane, on the subway, with a colleague, with a date. Karen was not (so far as we can tell) attacked by a Cosby or a Weinstein. It sounds a lot like she was attacked by a run-of-the-mill man. The latter is a problem that feeds into the former. If we catch and correct the latter, is there a possibility it will be less likely to become the former? You seem to agree that it might, at least in some cases and if properly approached. This is precisely the case I was making.

    It’s the fact that it’s everywhere and that my friends and relatives are in many cases not innocent (I have my own #metoo’s) that prompts me to speak of education. I know a lot of men who believe themselves to be good people and do these things. I think they’ve been encouraged not to think about what it would be like to be female, and encouraged to view their sexual desires as so strong as to be barely controllable, and I think that cocktail frequently results in men who can’t understand why they should be considered bad people for putting a lot of pressure – physical or verbal – on women to physically gratify them. I want to hope that education on the negativity of their actions would help them.

    This is different than “teach rapists not to rape”. I know a TON of men who perform acts that qualify as harassment. I even know a few who have crossed the line from coercive to criminal, and they are no less likely to think their consciences are above reproach. I don’t think all of these people are serial rapists. Do you think Mr. Jensen is? Too obstinate to agree, maybe, but is that the same as a rapist who can’t be taught not to rape? Do you understand that it’s not only individuals who know their actions to be wrong who are guilty of criminal sexual harassment?

    Furthermore, I agree that if education is insufficient to prevent this behavior – that is to say, if #metoo continues to be something that such an enormous majority of women can say about their experiences with vast numbers of men – then we have reason to seek stronger solutions. You speak of criminal punishment for criminal actions, and speak of the likelihood of my friends and relatives being guilty. I couldn’t agree more. I am, however, frustrated at the implication that such a monstrous number of men would have to be jailed to stop being awful instead of merely asked. You may be right. I reserve the right to find men unreservedly depressing if you are.

  75. Not a Cougar says:

    $64k, your response to KLN seems to presuppose there are not already harsh penalties for sexual assault. It was less than a decade ago that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law allowing for the death penalty for the rape of a child, and national and local news coverage is replete with stories about sex offenders being prosecuted. Yet, despite the harsh penalties and public interest in sexual assault, there is a seemingly unending supply of would-be predators willing to commit the full spectrum of sexual offenses.

    From your statements, I assume your recommendation is less prosecutorial discretion for lesser sex offenses and harsher punishments for the same. In your opinion, how do you condition the citizenry who make up the jury pool to convict people of those lesser crimes? More importantly, how do you convince victims to consistently agree to go through the painful process of a trial? And assuming for argument’s sake we can indeed accomplish all of that, going back to my previous post, how would any of that have helped the OP’s situation?

  76. Karen I believe you, and empathize with your impossible dilemma. I see it as a net good that the outcome wasn’t worse, and it’s almost entirely to your credit that it wasn’t. You absorbed the evil done to you without seeking immediate justice, following the correct misogynistic protocols that preserved your eventual escape. I recognize the damage done, including the perpetuation of the system that keeps these ugly protocols active. Bless you for speaking out about it and enduring this round of scrutiny.

    I haven’t read every comment, but some of them are calling for more of the same kind of protocols. I want you to know I see it and support you, and still hold onto a weak hope that these evil injustices, that have more or less been in place for all of recorded history, won’t endure forever. However, I don’t have any confidence that what currently passes for the elders of Israel will fight to dismantle this system, sometimes called rape culture.

    I would never survive the scrutiny that would come to my stories. You’re a stronger woman than me.

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