By Rebecca Kling
When I found out I was pregnant, the last thing on my mind was dealing with unwanted attention from men. I was finishing my dissertation in nineteenth-century literature from home, and most days I didn’t even bother to change out of sweats or put on makeup. It was a glorious new chapter of my life, and despite the bloating and nausea, I felt surprisingly beautiful.
Five months into my pregnancy, when I was finally beginning to look like I had a baby bump rather than a donut gut, the unimaginable happened. I was in my apartment gym one rainy evening, waddling through my usual twenty-minute workout, when I became aware the man behind me on the stationary bike started to masturbate. I recognized him immediately—he was a constant fixture at the gym, and with his dark hat and quiet demeanor, I usually hardly noticed him.
As I realized we were the only ones there, an all-too familiar leaden weight formed in my gut, my newly expansive sense of self shriveling to almost nothing.
My first instinct was to give into this fear—to pretend like nothing was happening, wait for the guy to finish and then hopefully leave. As one of the estimated 81% of women who have survived #metoo moments, that’s what I had always done in the past. Just make out like everything was status quo. I wasn’t proud of it, but it always felt like the safest and easiest option.
But another part of me wouldn’t have that. It was one thing for this man to violate me, but another thing for him to do that when my unborn baby was on board. A fierce mama bear stirred from a cave so deep within me that I didn’t doubt she had been hibernating there all along.
“Excuse me, please stop that!” I called out, calmly at first. I sounded like I was asking someone to stop talking in the quiet section. Pleasant and polite, just as I had been taught.
He ignored me. Even on the stationary bike, I could tell he was short. His glasses made it hard to see his eyes.
PLEASE STOP THAT!” I called out again, my heart escalating along with my voice.
This fortitude took me by surprise. It’s not that I’m typically a meek person, but confronting a sexual predator in the act is easier said than done.
He looked up, surprised.
“Stop what?” he asked, his words sounding more like a statement than a question.
My face burned with indignance. He wanted me to name what he was doing, to make me feel small and embarrassed. I would not back down. He was the one who should be embarrassed, after all.
“STOP TOUCHING YOURSELF!” I cried, now straight-up shouting.
“Oh sorry,” he mumbled after a pause. But he stopped and within a few minutes quietly left the gym. And I finished my twenty-minute semblance of a workout queasier than ever, but feeling like a warrior, nonetheless.
I then called my husband to come and get me. Upon entering our apartment, I collapsed into a puddle of tears.
“Who would do that to a pregnant woman?” I asked in between sobs, realizing as soon as the words escaped my mouth that I should have been able to ask that question without the word pregnant in there. I was crying not only about what just happened, but for all the past trauma I had never fully processed.
In all those years, I had not asked myself the question of who would do that to any woman. Rather, sexual violence was something I had learned to expect, something that I had been taught to look for around each bend. In the rape narrative Aftermath, Susan Brison describes the collective trauma that all women experience as they learn to anticipate victimhood. She recounts feeling something akin to relief after she survived her rape; the worst had come, and she was there to tell the tale.
I had lived my life learning to normalize #metoo moments. Even in a previous relationship with a man I loved, he would occasionally compliment my appearance by telling me he wanted to “rape” me later. He never asked me if I liked that expression, and I never said otherwise. I tucked it back in the corner of my brain that had minimized more obvious offenses, including actual rape. Now I was wide-eyed, a sleeping princess “woke” and ready to fight back. This time, I turned in the man, and thanks to a surveillance camera, I did not have to worry about the burden of proof that too often gets in the way.
This experience opened the floodgates. I began to reexamine my past, the mama bear within me standing up for the girl who did not know how. My pregnancy gave me a language of power and resistance I had not yet been able to find within myself. I had already come a long way—from stuffing my bra in high school, to having an eating disorder in college, to obsessively exercising in my twenties, to finally being at peace with my body in the years leading up to my pregnancy. I had even thrown away my scale. But self-acceptance, I realized, is not the same as self-advocacy.
It took growing another being inside of me—becoming two—to learn to truly stand up for myself. Do I wish I could have done that on my own? Of course. I also wish that incident in the gym had not happened to me, but I am grateful for what I learned from it. The first being I need to protect with fierce maternal love, it turns out, is myself.
Rebecca Kling is a feminist scholar and writer. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two sons, and very friendly cat. Follow her via Twitter or Instagram (@rivkatheriveter) or at her writer site.