This fall, Fox will be presenting a live television performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring the fabulous Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-n-Furter. I personally have a long history with this cult classic, from reading about Charlie and his friends’ going to the show in every awkward queer teen’s favorite novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower ; to doing the Time Warp with other girls at band camp in middle school; to eventually going to the show myself.
When I was 17 years old, there was a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show every third Saturday of the month at Plaza Cinemas in Akron, Ohio. My friends and I went every month to see the feather boas and little gold Spanx. I would dress up in a little plaid skirt, a cliche ’80s get-up, or an actual gift bag, depending on the month’s theme, to get a discounted ticket.
After the credits rolled and the crew packed up, I hung out with the cast. It was rounding 3 AM, Sunday morning still unrealized, and I was standing outside an Eat’n’Park with two men. I asked to bum a smoke. When one seemed bothered by my follow-up request for a light, I remarked, “A lady never lights her own cigarette.” I learned this quip from a trans woman’s Myspace photo caption.
Inside the restaurant, past the truckers drinking coffee and flirting with uncomfortable waitresses, there were tables full of fishnet-clad legs and black outfits — the company I chose to keep. There was one guy, somewhere in his late 20s or early 30s, who would come up behind me, rub my shoulders and work his way to my breasts, molesting me in front of everyone. I felt uncomfortable, but I didn’t know what to say. I liked being a part of the group, and he was there first, so I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. No one did anything, except one woman on the cast who said, “That’s just how he is.”
That was until my sister came along to a show. Three years my junior, I felt enraged when he touched her in the dark by mistake. He said, “Shit! I thought you were someone else!” and I finally spoke up, saying sternly that he shouldn’t be touching anyone to start with, and he’d better go away. From that time on, he left me alone. Eventually, I stopped going, the theater closed, and now there’s a Dick’s Sporting Goods in its place.
I will never understand why the older women on the cast didn’t stand up for me, especially knowing damn well that I was underage. I can only assume their lack of concern came from a combination of bystander apathy and the normalizing of sexual harassment. I’ll never understand, either, how a man can see a young woman in a school girl costume and view it as an invitation to grope her, except for fetishization and pedophilia.
One thing I do understand: My voice has power, and it needs to be heard.
A few months ago when I got a job as a bar back at a place called The Loft, clearing tables of mugs and peanut shells. I was working full-time at a non-profit, so I only picked up the bar job for tattoo money. I’d go home as the clock rounded 3 AM, smelling of dishwater, peanuts and cigarettes. For a second job once-a-week that made 11 dollars an hour, though, I couldn’t complain. Then a young man watched me clear his table and said, “Yeah, girl, bend over. Back that ass up.” I told this guy, “Hey, you can’t say that to me.” He said, “Doubt it.” When I told the man working the door, he didn’t kick him out, so I tried to myself. I said, “You have to leave.” He stared at me, refusing, obviously because he didn’t respect me enough to speak to me like a human being, so he would not see me as a voice of authority.
Just as the women at Rocky Horror wouldn’t step in for me, the door guy wouldn’t either. I needed to stand up for myself. So I stood up, I walked out, and I quit.
As I left, I pulled my pack out of my purse and lit a cigarette for myself. I called the owner to explain why I did it the next day and he never called me back.
I am so fortunate to have the financial and emotional support to walk out on a job for not defending me against sexual harassment. I wish all women had the security, as well as forethought, to walk out on bad situations, be they at work or home. Unfortunately, as I learned from posting about my experience on Facebook, many young women have internalized the common catcalls and lewd comments they receive from men, some of them arguing that I was being childish by quitting my job and others voicing concerns that it would hurt business too much if bars kicked guys out for every inappropriate comment.
The truth is, the bystander effect normalizes sexual harassment and, in turn, leads to victim blaming. If we witness sexual harassment, racism, or other inappropriate behavior, we can’t just watch the scene unfold and complain about it later on Twitter. We need to stand up for ourselves and others whenever we can do so safely. As more people get shut down for their abusive words or actions, we can set a precedent for others and break the cycle of bystander apathy.
This post originally appeared on The Fem and has been reprinted with permission.
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Angel Cezanne is a queer poet and essayist, and the editor of an intersectional feminist zine called Eleanor. She tweets a lot at @angelmannequin and @EleanorAZine.