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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Assault allegations bring up old memories, Stefanie Pettit writes

Once again my head is exploding.

The politics, outrage and daily new lows in public behavior have left a lot of my figurative brain matter on the ceiling – but now, accounts of sexual assault, groping and other sexual misdeeds are exploding from the Capitol Hill and Hollywood ranks, among conservatives and progressives, business moguls and just plain folk. How to keep up with it all and how to process it? I just don’t know.

I’m concerned first and foremost that people who speak out about their own experiences be believed and are supported and encouraged in their efforts. I want there to be justice and punishment and recognition of this awful abuse. I am likewise concerned that this doesn’t become a witch hunt and that all misdeeds are lumped in the same fetid pool and treated the same. A passing pat on the bottom, while wrong, is way different than pedophilia. With some of the so-called “lesser” incidents, all too many of us don’t understand what is and isn’t wrong behavior, where the line is between boorish activity and something else. And I worry that some people will join the conversation with bad motive and accuse falsely.

It occurs to me, too, that we might look back at our own experiences now through a wider and better-informed lens. If asked, I have always felt confident in saying that, thankfully, I’ve never experienced these awful things myself. But as I read more and more accounts, my mind revisits two little incidents … and I wonder now just what they were and if they are somehow important after all. As I said, I just don’t know.

Just before entering my teen years I was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and stopped to stand in waist-deep water, going underwater to look around through my goggles. A man standing not too far away said I should go underwater again and look some more, so I did. As I did my 360-degree turn, I saw his lower half, and he was pointing to his groin.

I was young enough not to know quite what that was all about, but also old enough to know it was weird and not something for me, so I kept doing my underwater circle away from him and swam in the other direction. When I rejoined my mother on the beach, I didn’t say anything about it.

Another time, when I was about 15, I was at the movies with a high school friend. The theater wasn’t crowded, so it seemed a little funny that a man sat down in the seat just to my left. My friend and I ate our popcorn and watched the film, sometimes giggling over silly stuff we were whispering about. I was wearing a skirt, and I suddenly felt a hand moving slowly under my skirt and up the outside of my left thigh. I leaned over to my friend and whispered what was happening. She whispered back that we were leaving, so we stood up and exited to the right and out of the theater.

We didn’t make anything of it and, in fact, didn’t speak of it again after that day. I shrugged it off. I hardly ever think of those two little moments – and in the grand scheme of things, they were little indeed. But how do I categorize them in the changing climate that is today? I can still remember the knit fabric of the man’s bathing suit and where my friend and I sat in the theater, the kind of details I couldn’t begin to recall from most anything else that took place so many decades ago. Maybe they were something; I don’t know. So what do I do with those memories now?

My high school friend and I shared a lot of conversation back then, about school and boys and all the usual things close friends talk about. Except for one thing. Several years ago when I was back visiting family and friends in Florida, I was stunned when that friend finally told me – and we were both in our 60s at the time – that she had been raped several times by her stepfather, a man I knew and had thought was a pretty cool guy. It started when she was 11. She fought him off as she got older, and he stopped. And then she heard him behind locked doors doing the same to her younger brother. With all the fury and anger she had in her, she broke through the door and laid into him, hard.

Once her younger brother was the victim, she finally told her mother. Stepdad got booted out, and a divorce followed, but there was no legal action. All of these things were going on, and she never spoke to me about it – until 40-plus years had gone by.

The secrets, the shame – that’s got to stop. We need to understand why some of us think it’s OK to act out sexually in such cruel and abusive or even just inappropriate ways, and we need to figure out how to shift power into the hands of victims or potential victims. There’s a whole long list of what we need to better understand and do, but I keep coming back to a thought that won’t leave my brain.

What’s wrong with us?

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at

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