On Friday at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, friends, family members, fans, music icons and powerful politicians came together to celebrate the life of Aretha Franklin. But after singer Ariana Grande took the stage to sing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," a funeral fit for a queen also served as a reminder that there isn't a single place in this country where a woman can feel safe from sexual assault and harassment.
Following Grande's performance, Pastor Charles H. Ellis III wrapped his right arm around Grande, pulled her close to him and touched her breast. He did this on stage, in a church, during a funeral -- in front of thousands of attendees. Visibly uncomfortable and tense, Grande forced her way through awkward laughs as to not make a scene at the Queen of Soul's eight-hour funeral.
Ellis later apologized to Grande and her fans, telling the Associated Press, "I don't know; I guess I put my arm around her. Maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar, but again, I apologize."
The majority of us have felt what Grande undoubtedly felt on that stage: the undeniable fear that accompanies a violation; the need to keep everyone around you happy while you're internally screaming; the cultural expectation to keep smiling while your bodily autonomy is wholly dismissed.
To watch it play out at a funeral is not to be shocked by what you've witnessed, but to be reminded that women -- no matter how powerful or famous -- are not granted the same public safety as men.
But Grande is not the first woman to have been sexually assaulted at a funeral. Sophie Saint Thomas, a freelance writer, was groped while attending her grandmother's funeral this year. "My grandmother died of colon cancer earlier this summer." Thomas told me. "Her death was a massive loss for me, and I was very deep in mourning when I traveled to the funeral."
After giving a eulogy at the funeral proceedings, Thomas was approached by a man. "[He] told me how beautiful I looked on stage giving my eulogy, while putting his hand around my waist, only to slide it down and grab my ass. I froze and was bewildered by such behavior."
After Thomas was groped, she sat alone for the rest of the evening trying to regroup and avoiding the man who had fondled her.
"Being faced with confronting groping in a mourning setting, surrounded by people in grief, who should be allowed to have their grief ... is honestly just so astoundingly disgusting I don't know how anyone could come up with the 'ideal' response," Thomas said.
When Thomas watched Franklin's funeral and the groping play out on national television, she was reminded of her grandmother's funeral and the violation she endured at a time of profound loss. "The way [Ellis] touched [Grande] was exactly the same way I was touched, just on her breasts instead of butt," Thomas said.
Grande is not alone. Thomas is not alone. And the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in this country cannot be understated. Yet approximately 70% of victims don't report their assaults for fear they won't be believed.
Of course, the current political climate doesn't help matters. We have a president who has mocked the #MeToo movement, a secretary of education who has proposed new college campus sexual assault misconduct rules that would provide additional protections to those accused of misconduct, and more than $17 million of taxpayer-funded money that has been used to settle complaints of sexual harassment in Congress.
And for the few brave women who come forward with sexual assault or harassment allegations, they face rebuke, criticism and personal attacks -- even though sexual assault has become a fundamental problem in American culture.
"I'm so sick of sexual assault victims and women having to do the emotional labor of trying to teach men that we are people just like them and should be treated as such," Thomas said.
But until we start holding abusers accountable, stop blaming victims for what they wore or how much they had to drink, and start acknowledging systemic abuses of power, we will continue to witness revolting reminders that the entire world is the stage of Franklin's funeral: a place where powerful men feel comfortable violating women regardless of who they are, where they are or who is watching.
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