An RCPV Sexual Harassment Story in America and the Peace Corps (Uzbekistan)

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from  Beatrice Hogan (Uzbekistan 1992-94)

Jessica Shortall is married with two children and is a strategy consultant, social entrepreneur, and the author of Work, Pump, Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work. In October 2015, she delivered a TED talk, “The American Case for Paid Maternity Leave” at TEDxSMU. She was a PCV in (Uzbekistan 2000-02)

Everything I can remember
by Jessica Shortall
published on MEDIUM
Sep 20, 2018

When I was about 8, my mother took my sister and me to a local state park, a place where we would often ramble among the rocks and trees and streams. I waded up a stream on this particular trip, and when I looked back for my mom, I had gone a bit too far. A man was standing there in the stream, blocking my way, looking at me. He held a long, sharpened stick. And he began to chase me, up the stream and away from my mom and my sister. My mom finally realized I was missing, and she ran up the stream, yelling. The man ran away.

I’ve always had a low voice, even when I was a young girl. Starting when I was about ten, when I’d call to order a pizza, or call customer service, if it was a man on the other end, he’d often tell me I sounded “sexy.”

When I was about 11, something happened to me that I’m not going to share with you. So don’t ask, because it’s my story, not yours. And by the way, I didn’t tell anyone, for 27 years.

When I was 13, the boys in my 8th grade class often sang me a song in the cafeteria: Roses are red / Violets are black / Why is your chest / As flat as your back?

When I was 17, my father told me I looked like a “slut” in my dress for my high school homecoming dance.

When I was 18, I started college, and twice a year would do the 8-hour-each-way drive between New Jersey and North Carolina. This was pre-cell-phone, so I had a CB radio. Once, after dark, I got on the radio to ask how the traffic was up ahead. The (male) truck drivers heard my voice and started working together to figure out which car was mine, based on the big antenna that was part of my CB system. Once I could tell they had figured out where I was, and were headed toward me, I realized I had to pull over and reroute to try to get away from them. It added something like two hours to my journey. I got to campus close to midnight.

When I was 19, my African History professor started calling me, repeatedly, in my dorm room. He would tell me he liked how I looked, and ask me what I was doing right then. By the time this started up, it was too late to drop the class without losing credits, so I just kept going. It never occurred to me to tell anyone in the administration.

When I was 20, I spent a summer working in the kitchen of a family restaurant on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. A girlfriend and I rented a room above the restaurant. The chef also lived up there, in his own bedroom; we shared the living space and kitchen. One day, the chef asked me, “So, how come you lock your bedroom door at night?” The lock was silent. There was no way he would know we were doing it unless he had tried the doorknob.

When I was 21, in college, I was asleep in bed in my off-campus house when my locked bedroom door rattled. It was a man, inside my house, trying to get into my room. I called the police and escaped through the window. They never took fingerprints.

My senior year in college, I spent three weeks volunteering in Calcutta, India. We had to take a train somewhere, so the protocol for this annual volunteer trip was followed: each girl on the trip was paired with a boy on the trip. We were told to stand face-to-face, in a tight hug, for the entire train ride, to keep the girls from being groped. (They boys were as uncomfortable as we were, for what it’s worth.)

When I graduated from college, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining the Peace Corps. I moved to Uzbekistan. In the first ten weeks, we volunteers were clustered together for training in a town outside the capital. One night we had pizza together, and a fellow volunteer named Mike offered to walk me home. About halfway to the apartment I was staying in, Mike hit me across the face, with no warning and no precursor. Flight kicked in, and I took off, and ran all the way home. He resigned that week and went back to Kentucky.

In that same apartment in Uzbekistan, I was living with a host family during our training period. One night, my host mom’s boyfriend — a police officer — showed up drunk and started pounding on the door to be let in. When she told him no, he ripped the bank of metal mailboxes out of the wall in the hallway and beat on the door with it — unsuccessfully (thank goodness for Soviet brutalism, I guess). He started screaming my name, telling me, in Russian, that he was going to kill me. It went on for hours. We couldn’t call the police because he was the police.

While in Uzbekistan, sometimes men would shout vulgarities at me on the street — in Russian, Uzbek, or English. Once, when, in English, a man yelled at me that he was going to fuck me, I confronted him (in Uzbek) and learned he didn’t even know what he was saying. He’d just seen in American movies that that’s what you yell at an American woman on the street. He was very sorry.

When I was in my 20s, I reported at work to a man who called all the young women in the organization he headed “wild thing” and “babydoll.”

When I was in my mid-30s, I reported to a man who called me — the most senior person on his team — “young lady,” but only ever when we were in front of the rest of the team, who reported to me.

This week, a man sent me a private message on twitter. I told him I did not want to talk to him. He persisted. I told him to fuck off. He replied that he would “teach” me “what sexual assault means.”

None of this defines me. But if you think it hasn’t shaped me, hasn’t made me make rules for myself my whole life, hasn’t shaped how I view other women, and myself, and men…if you think it hasn’t shaped my ambitions (for good and for bad), or the way I vote, or what I see when I look in the mirror — I’m guessing you’re a man.

My whole life has been peppered with these things, gigantic and small, that have been sending me a very specific set of instructions about my place in the world. I’m exhausted by it. I’m lit up with rage about it. I’m resigned to it. I refuse to be resigned to it. I tell myself “not anymore.” I know this list will grow.

And these are just the ones that I remember.

 

12 Comments

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  • This is a dismal commentary for sure. In the instance, pertinent to the PC, however, I have to wonder about the current procedure for in-country training and selection, allowing somebody like this aggressive, assaulting volunteer trainee to get that far without being spotted as a potential problem. In the event that this weird event hadn’t happened to another volunteer, what might this person have done to a host country woman — creating a horrible embarrassment. Back in the Stone Age, when I was a PC trainee (this at an American university) we were bombarded with attitude inventories, psychological tests and interviews, and all sorts of stuff. John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment.

  • It is just the tip of the ice berg that hopefully will bring down the “new age” Titanic. But this boat carries the weight of male privilege guised as so many excuses for inexcusable behavior.

  • Reading Ms Dino’s comment, along with the essay, and now the 36 year-old complaints against the nominee for the Supreme Court, from 36 years ago, we, here in New Mexico are simply shaking our heads wondering where all this stuff is going on. It doesn’t seem to be around here, as rambuctious as the state is, and where, by contrast, women tend to identify more strongly with their gender, and also are more open in talking to members of the opposite sex.

    As a former executive, I think there are work-place rules coming down, and when they do, nobody, esp women, are going to like them. Rigid dress codes, no short skirts, no unbuttoned blouses, no make-up, no sharing a table with the opposite sex in the lunchroom. No conference with any female employee without a third party present, Anybody going on a date with someone from the office, immediately dismissed. Rigid rules for hiring and promotion, regardless of merit. I can see it coming. And considering that for the vast majority of young people who meet their future spouse in the work setting, it’s going to carry some unanticipated personal consequences. John Turnbull, Lower Canoncito, New Mexico

    • John, Thank you for your comments. But, they are YOUR comments. One of the reasons that women are speaking out and sharing what their life experiences have been is because such experiences have been missing from the public dialogue. There are many reasons why women have been silent up to now. But, the important thing is voices are being heard and women are being supported.

      I lived and worked in New Mexico in the 1960s. I had my first apartment and I loved it. One night, I was awoken by a man trying to rape me. He had hidden in my apartment and had waited for me to go asleep.
      I fought him off and he ran. I was lucky. Not all women are that lucky. I called the police and friends, RPCV friends. Because I had been sleeping, I did not have my glasses on and could not identify my attacker.The police did a cursory investgation and report. They told me they would have policeman come back and check the house and if I heard the door knobs rattling, it would be the police. A friend, who worked in the police department laughed and said they tell all women that. No police was going to be checking the house and I should move. Which I did. The new apartment was more expensive, but I had friends in the same complex. People would come to my house and ask me why I had the ironing board backed up on the back door and why did I have soup cans, on their sides, under all the windows. I explained that these measures would not stop anyone, but I would not be surprised and the noise would alert me.

  • Joanne, yours is a disturbing story, and most certainly happened in the middle of Albuquerque, a very anonymous place. For the rest of New Mexico, and the rural West, where everybody knows everybody, there are safeguards, like family, and no place to hide. And what is tolerable gets really complex across our miriad cultural lines, and, significantly, WHAT IS EXPECTED OF WHO.

    My mind goes back to just such a cross-cultural case many years ago, and it had to do with sex, a young woman, and a much older man in a certain position to grant favours the young woman wished (the man not really familiar with how it all works around here). We had no idea what was going on until one morning the county sheriff called and said the man had been found floating face down in an irrigation ditch, with a bullet in the back of his head. Nobody really wanted to pursue the case further, once it was determined what had happened, and local authorities, and us, let it be. It was a classical case of reversion to the earlier system of vengeance, which ruled before American-introduced criminal law. And cross-cultural moral expectations which foolishly had been violated.

    In your particular experience, this clearly was a serious matter, involving multiple felonies, trespass, assault, battery, &c, and can’t be tolerated. IF in the present national discussion we could stick to serious matters, and avoid things like indignation over somebody remarking about a woman’s attire, or addressing her as “sweetie”, it would be a LOT easier to deal with. John Turnbull Lower Canoncito, New Mexico

    • When I arrived in Ecuador in 1970, it soon became apparent that the job for which I had been recruited was not going to help anyone. I was to be the home economist in a jungle colonization site that the government had authorized to move poor people out of the Andes Mountains to decrease activists’ demands that poor farmers be allowed to use land owned by the wealthy and the church for centuries in Ecuador’s temperate climate regions to enrich the elite.

      My skills met the job description, but the desperate Ecuadorians who had moved from the Andes to try to farm the rain forest had nothing to economize. Furthermore, they needed medical care. A nurse was required, not a home economist.

      Ecuador Peace Corps administrators (all male) directed me to find another job. One of the leads was with CARE. At the capital city CARE office, an American employee told me that he would introduce me to the progressive priest with whom he worked in the remote parts of Cotopaxi Province. Also, he said he needed to visit some of the CARE project sites at the same time and would show them to me to get a better idea of the possibilities.

      As he drove his jeep on a dirt road between remote villages, he stopped and said he needed to stretch his legs. The landscape was stark and we hadn’t seen another vehicle for a long time. Up to this point, he had seemed completely sincere, had talked about his wife and baby, and described work to be done. My stunned expression when he pulled me towards him and kissed me on the mouth seemed to surprise him.

      My mind was racing. My heart was pounding. What was he doing? Why would he think he could do this? Was he going to try to rape me? Kill me? Leave me or my body in this no-man’s land?

      Don’t say I asked for it! Don’t ask me what I was wearing. (FYI: heavy, wool poncho and sweater over multiple layers, slacks over multiple layers, and boots.) What I was smoking or drinking? (Nothing.) Why did I get myself into such a situation? I trusted the men in charge. Did I report it? Are you kidding? He was an administrator ten years older than I. There were no witnesses. Open you eyes and see. I was not the predator. He was.

      This is the true story that we girls and women around the world try our best to avoid.

  • Joanne, reading this, and remembering my own experiences in British Central Africa, with my intrepid African geology field crew, and all the fun encounters with the village toddlers, and the good-natured banter with the eligible young ladies and widows, somehow I feel sad reading some of these female RPCVs experiences.

    If a peck on the cheek by some American NGO employee is a life-changing experience, consider, armed only with a machete, confronting a squad of armed soldiers, and their Portuguese officer, looking for fugitive rebels (and ironically, over the border, and in the wrong country). I can only thank heavens for my New Mexico Spanish, and the look of relief from the officer, when out in the middle of African nowhere, somebody spoke to him in a language he grasped, and assured him, there was nothing to worry about. Then, handing out Rhodesian cigarettes (Rothmans, and State Express), to all the soldiers. This was the PC of the early days.

    Veterans of the African projects, mostly female, have made many suggestions concerning the business of sexual harassment, and whilst very incorrect in terms of American “Political Correctness”, make sense in the reality of the different cultures in which the PC operates, and looks for understanding. John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment.

  • John, I was surprised that you felt somehow “sad” a reading about the experiences of female Peace Corps Volunteers… …..surprised because a more common male response is anger. I will post a link to the video of the hearings which led to the passage of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Act of 2011. The video is two and half hours long and begins with a statement from Kate Puzey’s mother. Kate Puzey was murdered when she was serving in Benin in 2009. RPCV women who were victims of assault spoke, bravely, to the Congressional Committee of their experiences. The legislation was created and promoted by RPCV women of First Response Action. They used their skills to organize RPCVs who had been victims of crime and worked for legislation to make serving Volunteers safer. The champion for Peace Corps women and men is Representative Poe, a Republican from Texas. He listened to the women and his anger motivated him to successfully shepherd this legislation through Congress. He also has been the driving force behind the legislation which was passed yesterday to improve better health care for PCVs and RPCVs. Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers was the advocacy group which fought for this legislation for years. Here is the link to the 2011 Hearings: https://www.c-span.org/video/?299454-1/peace-corps-volunteer-safety-part-1

    You and I served at exactly the same time. You apparently have a very romantic notion of the “PC of the early days”. That
    would have made me sad until I read you closing statement: “Veterans of the African projects, mostly female, have made many suggestions concerning the business of sexual harassment, and whilst very incorrect in terms of American “Political Correctness”, make sense in the reality of the different cultures in which the PC operates, and looks for understanding.” I don’t think you know what you are talking about. Perhaps, you should take a valium before you watch the hearing, you might really become upset.

  • If all of these female volunteers from African projects don’t know what they’re talking about, and I don’t know what I’m talking about, then what do YOU suggest, to prevent tragedies, in the worst case, like Kate Puzey, from happening — short of simply not recruiting female volunteers, except for very safe sorts of assignments. Remaking the cultural values of the entire Developing World, even if it became a PC objective, isn’t very likely. What did the Kate Puzey Act suggest or require, towards making female volunteers safer ? John Turnbull

  • John,

    Here is a link to the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011: https://www.congress.gov/bill/112th-congress/senate-bill/1280/text?overview=closed

    I won’t interpret for you. My personal opinion is that the provision mandating that if a Volunteer requests to moved from his/her site because he or she does not feel safe, then the Coountry Director must honor that request.

    Also there is an excellent book by RPCV Aaron Kase, ” Murder in Benin -Kate Puzey’s Death in the Peace Corps”. Two men were charged with her murder and spent years in jail awaiting trial. They were finally found not guity and the investigation remains open.

    It would be really good to know what the female Volunteers from African projects recommended. Do you have any links to them or could they be persuaded to post those recommendations here?

  • Joanne, it’s been a long time, and the suggestions by former female Africa volunteers very well might have been at the time of the Kate Puzey legislation. I haven’t any record of those comments, nor remember where I read them. Another female volunteer, this time Afghanistan, had similar thoughts, and due to disparaging, insulting attitudes by locals, most probably from misunderstanding, she terminated early. I wish the PC would have simply moved her to a different country.

    For women, I think the venerable PC Second Goal, is inherently problematic in some traditional societies. Expressing interest and conversing, can easily be misunderstood as a personal interest. And then you know the rest. In some societies, there is a male equivalent — noticing or showing any interest at all in the ladies, esp those already married. Rarely a concern in Africa, happily, as there is a lot of dry wit, sarcasm, and sense of irony, esp in West Africa, and joshing with the ladies always was fun for everybody. John Turnbull Lower Canoncito, New Mexico

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