News Local/State

Illinois Issues: Illinois Women Tell Their #Metoo Stories

Molly McLay, a 34-year-old social worker in Champaign, says some effects of her own experiences with assault remain. Being in a place alone at night or walking to her car in the dark can be anxiety-inducing.

Molly McLay, a 34-year-old social worker in Champaign, says some effects of her own experiences with assault remain. Being in a place alone at night or walking to her car in the dark can be anxiety-inducing. Kelsey Greene Photography

He kissed her so hard she had bruises on her neck. Then, when they left the bar, he managed to pull her pants down in an alley. She talked him out of raping her that night in 2008. But Molly McLay was unable to stop a later attack by a different man. She had been so intoxicated that she blacked out and awoke to find the person she had been dating had had sex with her without her consent.

The 34-year-old social worker lives in Champaign, where she now works with others who have been sexually assaulted. But she says some effects of her own experiences remain. Being alone at night or walking to her car in the dark can induce anxiety.

"It should be a norm for us to be able to walk somewhere and not feel afraid. The idea that it's not normal to feel safe is really messed up," she says. "We have become accustomed and just expect this to happen."

McLay is one of the women in Illinois - along with millions nationwide - who have spoken out in the national #metoo movement this fall. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the number of women who've experienced sexual harassment that involved some sort of touching at 1 in 3. Meanwhile, 23 million women in the United States have been the victims of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives.

The #metoo movement makes those estimates seem low, and experts interviewed for this story agree. So expansive is the movement that Time magazine named "the silence breakers" as the 2017 Person of the Year. Powerful men in high-profile positions - congressmen, actors, businessmen and media chiefs, including at NPR - have toppled under the weight of accusations they have harassed and/or assaulted other people.

Illinois' reaction drew national attention after an open letter signed by hundreds described a toxic environment for women in state government. In response, the General Assembly adopted what may have been the first in state-level legislation to come out of the #metoo phenomenon. The new rules prohibited sexual harassment by state officers and employees, mandated training for legislators, staff and lobbyists, and provided a hotline to report inappropriate behavior. Lawmakers also created task forces in the House and Senate.


The movement has also spurred discussion over how male-dominated structures have downplayed the problems of assault and harassment.

"For the individuals perpetrating it, [they] know that historically there have been no consequences," says Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "You know that you will not be harmed by harming somebody else. You probably know that, at a minimum, you won't suffer any negative consequences and, at most, you might just be accepted for doing it.

"Sexual harassment is all about power control and domination."

For some women and men who have lived through harassment and assault, #meetoo has been empowering and comforting in its offering of solidarity. For others, it has been a painful journey, creating reverberations from the initial event - or, for many survivors, events.

"This movement can be triggering," McLay says. "Survivors reading about others' experiences without a way of sort of blocking them from showing up in their newsfeed is really hard. And some people may not be in a place where reading that kind of thing would be healing."

Michael Davison is a psychologist who works with both harassment and assault survivors and perpetrators. While the #metoo movement is "heavy and discouraging," he says it also makes a point that research has proven: sexualized violence happens across industries and contexts.

Women interviewed for this story describe unwanted advances, groping, vulgar comments and assault that happened at home, on public transit or at work in a restaurant, construction company or the state legislature.

Lois Hince of Elgin, now retired from her management job at a communications firm, says one of the worst sexually exploitive experiences she had to endure was when a man reached under her skirt and grabbed her crotch in a crowded Chicago subway station. Another experience that terrified her occurred when she was 15. A drunken man hassled and touched her on a CTA bus. She says she left feeling guilty.

When she was in third grade, Hince survived the Our Lady of Angels fire, in which 92 children died. "I was 8 years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday," she says. "Mentally it had an effect on me." The students who survived the fire were placed at another Catholic school where the nuns used their classmates' deaths as a cruel behavior management tool, telling the children their friends had perished because "God needed some good angels. He took the good children."

"I heard this over and over and over again - that God took the good children, which left me to believe at 8 and 9-years-old that I was a bad kid," Hince says. "So naturally when this happened to me on the bus … I'm traumatized by this. I couldn't tell my mom and dad because I was afraid they would think I was bad or worse."

Catherine Smitko, a Chicago-based actor, was a teen working in a steak place when she felt objectified after the owner of the restaurant made a vulgar comment. She remembers him saying, "If she's a lady, she won't know what that word means. If she knows what it means, she's not a lady. If she's not a lady, I don't have to apologize."

"That was about my place in the world and that double standard… It was layers upon layers of misogyny and fear," says the 56-year-old. "It obviously stuck with me. It felt like an assault [on] my brain not my body."

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson speaks on the Senate floor. The Olympia Fields Democrat is a member of the Senate's task force on sexual harassment and newly formed Women's Caucus.

Photo Credit: Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

Toi Hutchinson, a Democratic state senator from Olympia Fields, spoke on the Senate floor about an incident that occurred when she was a lobbyist. Another lobbyist said that Hutchinson was only present in negotiations to "put [her] beautiful black breasts on sale." The experience, she says, left her feeling humiliated. "I remember being at the table and everyone laughed at the comment, and I remember excusing myself from the table not wanting to go back .... A feeling I had on the inside was like - why would I want to come back to the table after that was just said and largely laughed at?"

Women assaulted or harassed may also experience serious psychological issues, such as clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, Davison says. The prolonged stress can cause headaches, sleep disruption and stomach problems, like Sophia Higginson had.

Higginson had a new job in sales for the Downers Grove-based American Dream Home Improvement Company when she claims she was harassed. In October, she filed a complaint against the company with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. She says she endured her supervisor's repeated unwanted dinner invitations and shoulder massages, which ultimately culminated in a forceful kiss on the lips, according to the complaint. Neither a representative company nor the supervisor, Wayne Spiwak, who is no longer employed at ADHI, could be reached for comment. Higginson is seeking back pay, compensation for pain and suffering, lawyer fees and money for salary she might have earned if she had not felt she had to leave the company.

For Higginson, her experience at ADHI left her anxious and feeling literally sick to stomach. She lost weight.

"I didn't realize how toxic it was until I finally quit and took a deep breath, and I felt better," she says.

Davison, who is head of forensic psychology at Adler University in Chicago, says those who've been physically attacked have higher rates of disability claims, more missed days at work, and other health-related issues.

Michael Davison is a psychologist who works with both harassment and assault survivors and perpetrators at Adler University in Chicago.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Adler University

"Being under that kind of pressure-cooker situation has a toll on one's physical health," he says.

Davison says there's a range of emotions - anxiety, shock, disbelief, confusion - women can feel when assaulted either verbally or physically. The assault or harassing experience can affect women's self-image or self-esteem, making them feel less confident and hopeless.

And there is residual fear. McLay says she didn't recognize the enduring effects of the assault until after she was in the social work field, supporting other survivors.

"Not recognizing some of those experiences and the harm they [did to] me until later has been really strange in some ways, because I look back at times of my life and have seen times when I have been more depressed or been more anxious or have been more hypervigilant, more inclined to use things like alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Molly McLay speaks at an event about a sexual assault program she coordinates.

Photo Credit: Irenka Carney

"There was a period of time where I was not sure I would ever have a healthy, happy sexual experience again, and I was really scared about that. Luckily, I have worked through some of that. But it has been hard."

The dread of what filing a complaint will do to their careers has prevented some women from coming forward. Hutchinson remembers having that concern when a lobbyist made that comment about her body.

"I was young, and I was just starting out, and it was my very first contract … I had to work it. That was the only way I was going to get paid," she says. "I didn't think at the time that there was anybody that I could have said anything to about it, and God forbid bring a charge, or say something like that out loud, because how would I ever get another contract?"

Harassment changed the way she approached her business, Hutchinson says.

"It is that feeling of not wanting to make waves and protecting your livelihood and having to make that choice in moments like that, which again as an African-American woman, happens in a lot of different ways," Hutchinson says. "It can happen racially and because of my gender. I live in that intersection."

The fear of not getting paid often can come about because the person who is harassing is also the one who makes the decisions about who's employed, says Poskin, the sexual assault survivors advocate. "[Power is] exercised by the folks who have and who've historically exercised power: the seniority, the ownership of the company that make the ultimate decisions about who's employed where and how they're treated and how much they're paid."

When women do experience harassment at work, Chicago-based lawyer Betty Tsamis emphasizes that there is legal recourse. Tsamis, who is representing Higginson in her claim with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, says that a lot of good could come out of the #metoo movement.

"I think that the more women that come forward and assert themselves and demand the remedies that they are due under the law, I think that if nothing else, companies will start taking corrective measures - not necessarily because it's the right thing to do, but because it becomes an expensive thing not take those remedial measures."

Women should understand their employers' policies on sexual harassment and know that there are remedies under both state and federal laws, Tsamis says.

Lobbyists and legislators don't have a human resources department. When Hutchinson was being harassed, she says she didn't feel like she had anywhere to take her complaint. "You couldn't have told me in that moment that years later, I would be sitting in a position to actually do something about it, and so I think that is the profound thing about this moment.

"I think we're seeing a sea change right now in the way we handle things, and that means we have to be really thoughtful about how we come up with standards, and so that everybody knows what kind of thing is they're going to be held accountable for. And I think that's evident across the board. Things are happening and across all industries, media, politics, the corporate side. It's everywhere right now. We're thinking about this differently and hopefully that means we'll act about this differently."