Tag Archives: empowerment

Women Are Not The Problem

30 Jan

Hysterical. Emotional. Hormonal. Unreasonable. These are some of the words that are used to disempower women. These are the words that are used to cast doubt on women’s own experiences, make us think that we are the problem rather than those around us who are causing us pain, unease or discomfort.

___

I have watched a lot of Larry Nassar’s victims give impact statements recently. My entire YouTube feed is links to videos of woman after woman, talking about their experiences at the hands of this monster, about the organizations that created an environment that allowed for him to thrive, unhindered, for over 30 years, and about the way that made them feel. I listened as woman after woman testified to her experience of knowing something was off but doubting it, because she was taught to trust doctors, because the adults in the room assured her everything was okay. Everything was not okay and many of the women knew. Take Rachael Denhollander, the one whose outcry and dogged work finally brought this atrocity to the surface. Take the words that she spoke in her almost 40-minute long statement:

One of the worst parts of this entire process was knowing as I began to realize what had happened to me how many other little girls had been left destroyed, too. I was barely 15 when Larry began to abuse me and as I lay on the table each time and try to reconcile what was happening with the man Larry was held out to be, there were three things I was very sure of. First, it was clear to me this was something Larry did regularly. Second, because this was something Larry did regularly, it was impossible that at least some women and girls had not described what was going on to officials at MSU and USAG. I was confident of this. And third, I was confident that because people at MSU and USAG had to be aware of what Larry was doing and had not stopped him, there could surely be no question about the legitimacy of his treatment. This must be medical treatment. The problem must be me.

The problem must be me.

This is a woman who was violated brazenly by a man who was supposed to help her. This is a woman who knew something was wrong. This is a woman who then waited 18 long years for a sign that when she came forward she would actually be heard, be believed. She sat with what she had gone through — what she knew other people had gone through, were going through, would go through — because she knew that no one would believe her, that her story would be cast aside and doubted along with so many others who were silenced. She waited until people would see that the problem wasn’t her. That the problem was him, was USAG, was MSU, was the USOC, was this society that we live in that constantly discredits and undermines women. And yet even as she and over 160 other survivors stood in front of their abuser and explained their experiences and tried, through tears and anger, to take their power back, the Internet went after another woman who was the problem. As Judge Aquilina sat from her bench letting each and every “sister-survivor” know that their voice mattered, that they were not the problem, she was criticized. God forbid these women are finally able to start to free themselves of the burden they carried for so long. God forbid their words are heard and believed without question. How dare she.

___

The silencing of women is not always that sinister, does not always lead to the sort of event that we saw unfold in that courtroom in Michigan 30 years too late. But the consistent silencing of women is part of what allowed Nassar to carry on the way he did for so long. The consistent silencing of women is part of what allowed Nassar to remain one of the most respected sports medicine doctors in the world while he was penetrating I would posit thousands of young women and girls with his ungloved fingers. Every day we doubt our experiences, apologize for our existence, replay events time and again trying to figure out where we went wrong because it’s always us. We are always the problem. At least that’s what we are taught.

Let me tell you a story.

I was out the other night with a friend of mine having a conversation. We were drinking, probably a little too much for a few too many hours, but we were having fun, completely engulfed in our own night. We had our seats angled towards one another making it clear that we were there for each other, for this conversation, and for nothing else. A man behind me, hearing me recount a story to my friend about a shitty falafel, interrupted, telling us the best falafel place in the city according to all the experience his 3 months in New York had to offer him. I told him I didn’t need to venture all the way to the Jefferson Avenue stop when there are plenty of excellent places just down on Atlantic Avenue. I told him about one. I was curt but polite, and ignored his continued musings. My friend and I went back to our conversation which meandered from shitty falafel to being robbed while traveling and finally landed on dating. At this point, he interrupted again, asking us questions about the guy we were discussing. I felt my face fill with rage. I turned around and said, less politely and more curtly this time,

“I am having drinks with my friend. Our conversation does not concern you. Please stop interrupting us.”

At this point it became my fault. Our fault. We were crazy. The bar is a public space and he has the right to interject in any conversation he sees fit. As I tried to explain to him why he was incorrect, why what he did was rude, he kept talking over me, discrediting my experience, saying I was over reacting, he kept trying to use his voice to silence me. My friend would not have it and stopped him, telling him that he was the one being rude, that he does not get to enter into a conversation to which he was not invited and then make the rules, that he does not get to silence us. He paid his bill (barely) and then said to the bartender

Well, they scared me out. These women chased me out.

And he left it to us to explain. The problem, clearly, was us. I felt in the moment that we were in the right, that this man was unapologetically rude, that if he had just paid attention to the body language – back turned – and listened to the curt response – please don’t interject here this conversation does not include you – this all could have been avoided. If he had just listened to us, respected us, acknowledged us rather than continuing to force his way in where he was not invited, was not welcome, and then blaming us for our reaction. This morning I woke up angry. I was angry at him and I was angry at myself as I replayed the interaction again and again and again and again trying to ascertain the truth: was I the problem? was I crazy? was I unreasonable? I must have been.

I know intellectually that the answer to those questions is no, no and no but somewhere inside me I fall back on what I have always been taught: men’s voices, men’s experiences, are the real ones while women’s are not to be trusted. Women are not to be trusted to understand and engage with our own feelings and reactions. Men are correct. Women are the problem. So I woke up this morning feeling like I do a lot of mornings. I woke up this morning feeling like the problem.

___

Hysterical. Emotional. Hormonal. Unreasonable. These are the weapons lobbed at us to make us feel like the problem, to silence us, to force us to silence ourselves. These words, and the feelings of self doubt and disempowerment that accompany them, are my enemies. And it isn’t just men who do it, women do it to each other. That’s the thing about the patriarchy – we were all raised in it and it is incredibly effective and efficient. We do it’s bidding and advance its cause without even realizing it. And in return it diminishes us.

You know what I have to say to that? Fuck the patriarchy. I am not the problem. We are not the problem. Not this time.

The Complexities of Shame

28 Apr

I learned something about myself this week: I am ashamed of my body. Now this isn’t a fishing expedition. This isn’t to get people to come out of the woodwork with all kinds of positive reinforcements. That isn’t what this is about. And, honestly, it has nothing to do with how I look in a lot of ways. It is, I think, largely about the fact that in my never-ending intellectual quest to understand my role in this world as a female, I have neglected to take care of myself…or, I guess more specifically, to engage in self-care…by which I mean to place importance on my own sense of empowerment, my own autonomy over my sexuality, and, perhaps most importantly, my own definition of it. Let me explain.

Earlier this week I was at a store buying a bra. As you ladies know, buying a bra is no easy task  – especially when it involves procuring support for a pair of boobs that have not been sized in years in advance of wearing a backless dress. Wearing a bra in the right size for you is a life-changer. Believe me. I feel like a brand new woman today. That’s not the point. So there I was at this fancy lingerie store with my good friend. I have never been to a fancy lingerie store as the main event; I’ve always been the sidekick. I have never thought that fancy lingerie was really “my thing,” whatever that means. We were in the changing room and the lovely woman who was helping me kept bringing me in all these different bras to try on. I kept putting on bra after bra and while my friend kept looking and telling me how good this one looked, or how pretty that one was, or how sexy I looked I just stood there, staring, feeling like I was wearing a costume. I felt like a little kid dressing up in her mom’s high heels and lipstick, prancing around the house like an absolute diva. (I never actually did this but I feel like it’s a thing that happens?) I just kept standing, staring at myself in these beautiful things, understanding that if I saw someone else in them I would think how incredibly beautiful and sexy she looked. How in control of her sexuality. But when I looked at myself I just felt…silly. I felt like I was trying to be someone who I am not. It was like, if there was a touch of cleavage showing then I had undone all the hard work I had put in over the years. All the effort of getting people to see me as a human and not a sex object. But part of being human, I think, is sometimes feeling sexy. And understanding that it doesn’t always have a negative connotation.

So obviously I got to thinking about it.

And thinking.

And thinking.

And it dawned on me. All of the years of the wrong people calling me sexy for all the wrong reasons, in all the wrong places, with all the wrong intentions had eroded my ability to understand that being sexy can, in theory, be empowering. I see that other women can do it, and I don’t look at them and think that somehow they are doing something wrong, that they are abandoning the cause, or whatever. I just don’t get how they do it. But this isn’t about women at large. This is about me. This is about me and the ways that I have internalized all the years of being a woman, or, I suppose more accurately, all of the years I’ve spent feeling like a sex object. And this is not to say that I feel like that all the time. That is by no means the case. A lot of times I just feel like a person. But often, not always but often, when my being female is made apparent to me, it is made apparent in a disempowering and hyper-sexualized manner. To the point that sometimes I just want to throw down everything I have, grab a bullhorn, and scream, for everyone to hear,

I AM NOT HERE FOR YOU! I DID NOT WAKE UP FOR YOU! I DID NOT GET DRESSED FOR YOU! AND I AM CERTAINLY NOT WALKING DOWN THIS STREET FOR YOU!

I would love it if my experience, and I can only speak for myself although I imagine there are plenty of other women out there who feel similarly if not the same way, was less like this. I wish I could brush off some of the bullshit and find my sexuality empowering. But I think the thing is that my sexuality has for so long been used as a weapon against me, been used as a way to make me feel small and less whole, that I don’t even know how to trust it. It’s like a separate part of me, almost. Like a lot of times when my sexuality is pointed out, I become less Rebekah the  Woman and more Rebekah the Object. And surprise surprise, I don’t like to be Rebekah the Object.

I mean, okay, so get this. Just now, I decided to look up the word “sexuality” on the Internet to make sure that I was using exactly the word I wanted and this is the definition I was given:

a capacity for sexual feelings

And its use in a sentence:

she began to understand the power of her sexuality

The power of it.

That is what I am talking about. Sexuality as a weapon. Or as something that is not easy to control by its posessor. Something that can, if not properly tended to, control her. Either use it to your advantage or it gets used against you but there is no opting out of the game. You can’t just say

Nah, I’m cool with just being in the world, going through my day and then unleashing my sexuality for the person, or people, I wish to share it with.

And, as I am sure you have all guessed, the significance of the “she” in that sentence was not lost on me. Of course she began to understand. And you know how she figured it out? Probably because someone showed her by using her sexuality to disempower her in some way. She realized the usefulness of it. What she could do with it. And that’s where I get a little bit lost. Somewhere in here, in all of this, to me, reads something of a manipulation. I try to go through life as something of a straight-shooter. People more or less know where they stand with me. I don’t keep my feelings quiet, and when I do manage to keep my mouth shut my facial expressions and body language always out me. So my issue is that there is something slick, something calculating, something unsavory about the way we talk about sexuality.  I know it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t always have to be a con. But sometimes it feels like that’s the way we talk about it to such a degree that it just becomes what it is in practice. And it’s like, sexuality is its own separate being as opposed to a part, with so many other parts, of a complex human.

But back to the dressing room. There I was, in that dressing room, trying to find a bra that wouldn’t draw more attention to my chest. A bra that wouldn’t give me more cleavage. A bra that wouldn’t undo all the hard work I’ve done to prove that I am well rounded. Hard work that has made me everything but. And, it’s like, I know that now we say that

strong is sexy

and

smart is sexy

and somehow sexy is supposed to be empowering, and meanwhile everything about high school dress codes and cat callers on the street and rape victim blaming and sexist comments and rape as a fucking war crime tells us that our sexuality, our sexiness, is something to be hidden and contained and something we should be shamed for, or hurt because of. Except for sometimes. Mostly in private. And how do we balance that? How is it our best friend and our mortal enemy all at the same time and how do we, on so many occasions, not have ownership of it? It’s like this weird, fucked up commodity that we can trade in, but only on occasion and with permission, and people may or may not try to make us feel badly about it. And sometimes that just seeps in. And some of us feel like maybe it’s best to try not to trade in it at all. But we’re not allowed to do that, either. It’s almost like we can’t do anything right.

So I don’t know. Maybe shame is the wrong word. Maybe feeling shame just plays into the whole damn thing. I guess what it is more than anything is that I just want to feel whole and autonomous and in a world where we have control over very little, I would like to be the only one – barring tragedy – with control over my body. And of course, it isn’t that I don’t want people to find me sexy. It’s just that I want the idea of being sexy to feel less unbalanced, less like something I use to get something, I want it to be more holistic. I want the idea of sexy, from the jump, to extend beyond just the physical rather than that having to be an add-on. And I know some of you are saying that it can be, and maybe you have found a way, but I don’t know. I just think it is too complicated, and so many of those complications  don’t stem from us. Rather they are learned behaviors given to us by society at large.

Clearly I’m still working this out.

I remember someone, after watching me do something kind, told me how sexy he thought that was. And for the first time in a while, since my ex was around probably, I felt good about being sexy. I felt like it was because of who I am rather than what I look like. And that’s something I can get behind. It’s about sexiness as a whole being, rather than sexiness as an entity apart. And I guess I wish it was always like that. Because I think my friends are sexy and, while they are all beautiful and handsome in their own ways, it is more because they are caring and smart and giving and funny and complicated and team players and all those other things that make them incredible humans.

I guess, in short, I like it when it feels well-rounded, all-inclusive. Because what I find sexy is someone who is smart, with a big laugh and a bigger heart, who is engaged in the world around them and also in a constant state of self-improvement. Because the physical stuff fades, eventually. Gravity does its work. But the rest of it, that takes longer to erode if you put the work in.

But for me, and as it concerns me, when it is just the physicality of it – that just doesn’t feel like mine anymore. I don’t feel like I own that. It’s been taken from me too many times. And maybe that’s why the shame sneaks in.

(And please, don’t anyone send me text messages saying you think I’m sexy. That’s not the point. And then I’ll feel like a shitty writer and that would ruin my day. Don’t ruin my day. It’s nice out.)

I Thought We Were Friends

2 Feb

Sometime in the late spring, early summer of 2010 I rode the B63 bus down Atlantic Avenue from my bartending job towards home. I was drunk. I was drunk a lot that summer. I was heartbroken and in complete free fall. I sat staring out the window, tears silently streaming down my cheeks as they often did, wondering what I had done wrong, how I could fix it and when the pain – so emotionally present that it turned into physical hurt – would stop. I was pretty sure it never would, that the pain was my new normal. The bus stopped and a man, probably around my age, appeared in front of me. He smiled and gave me a hand-written note before he walked off the bus and into the night.

You’re beautiful when you cry. Call me.

The tears stopped. I held the note in my right hand between by thumb and fore finger and stared blankly out the window. I took it with me as I exited the bus and looked at it as I made my way home. At the first trashcan I found I spit violently on the small slip of paper – imagining it was the man’s face – crumpled it up and threw it into the garbage. Being mad at him and all the other strangers who seemed to smell my vulnerability that summer was so easy. It felt as though men – anonymous men, not the men I knew – were all dogs.

The pain eventually dulled. I fell in love again.

***

Going on two years ago my most recent relationship ended. We were together for almost four years. What do they say in all those articles about break-ups, that it takes half the length of the relationship to get over it? Maybe there is something to that because I am just now about back to normal and by normal I mean that the idea of being involved in the dating scene makes me want to scream. This guy at work last night asked me how I meet people to date and my honest response was that I don’t. I just don’t.

I could chalk it up to my work schedule. That being almost entirely unavailable on weekends makes it near impossible to meet someone. I could blame modern dating and the rise of internet dating sites. As someone who works in a social setting with already precarious power dynamics, the idea of some guy seeing me on the Internet and then walking into my bar and thinking he has some kind of leverage terrifies me. I could blame my most recent dating experiences and the assumption men seem to have that if a date is going halfway decently it’s their cue to try and come home with me. Good fucking luck. But the reality is that I blame my friends. Or, more accurately, people I thought were my friends. I blame the people that made me feel like my only value is in my body and what it can offer them.

Let me quote an article from Salon that finally gave me the strength to write this post, this post that I have been writing over and over again in my head but never wanted to actually put to paper, so to speak, for fear of hurting the feelings of people who never had any consideration for mine.

When the bad things that happen are normal, you become tough. It’s devastating how tough I am.

So, as a 30-year-old woman who has been through a range of horribly exploitative sexual and emotional experiences—you know, just like pretty much every woman you know—I really don’t want to know anymore if a stranger finds me attractive. Not right out of the gate. Hell no. There are so many more interesting things about me than my body… This is why I cherish my friendships with straight dudes who would never try to fuck me even if we are trashed, and is probably part of why I hang out with a lot of queer people. 

This is why I’ve gone home in tears after someone I respect says they think I’m smart and funny and interesting and they’d like to have a drink and rap about the world, and then just tries to fuck me after I patiently dodge their advances all night. Were they not even paying attention? … I am still, as a grown woman, trying not to mentally respond to that situation by thinking: “Well, that person just wanted to fuck you. Maybe you are not really that smart or interesting.” That precise feeling is one that I don’t really think straight dudes can fully relate to: You are invisible, but they still want to fuck you. They do not see you or hear you. They still might rape you. This is why somebody putting their eyes all over me or immediately telling me they like the way I look is no longer flattering. Because it makes me feel fucking invisible.

The woman who wrote this article is a bartender in her 30s, like me. And she, too, is fucking exhausted by how much she is sexualized at work. This past week, I have been given 2 phone numbers, been told by a customer that he has wet dreams about me, had a coworker hit on me by alluding to the version of 50 Shades of Grey that we could make together, and had to tell someone that my tits could not pour him his beer so if he would please look at my face when requesting service it would be appreciated. Sometimes I leave work feeling like a pair of boobs and a hole to fuck, with arms conveniently attached to provide liquid courage. The thing I make my money off of is the same one that empowers men to disempower me and managing that disempowerment, that power dynamic, is tricky. It is intertwined with my ability to earn a living. And it is exhausting.

When I leave work at 4am, I try to leave all of that behind me. I try to reenter a world where I am valued for more than my body and my ability to pour liquid into a cup. Of course, I want people to find me attractive but I want that to be attached to the fact that I am smart and funny and interesting. Those are the things I value about myself. So when I read this line — This is why I have gone home in tears after someone I respect says they think I’m smart and funny and interesting and they’d like to have a drink and rap about the world, and then just tries to fuck me after I patiently dodge their advances all night. Were they not even paying attention? — I was like, finally, someone else said it. Because I, too, have gone home in tears. I have spent the better part of the last two years thinking my taste in (male) friends sucks because one after another after another after another of my straight male friends have tried to fuck me. I barely have any left. To those who have been my friend all this time I value you more than I can really say.

Somewhat recently I met up with an old friend for a drink. We hadn’t hung out in awhile because life took us in different directions but I was happy to catch up. It took him about 2 hours to try and fuck me. I told him about my life, what I’ve been up to, what I’ve been thinking about. He told me how he always thought I was so hot. He thought he was flattering me. I have never felt so cheap, so misled, so socially inept. How did I not know? How did I ever think this drink was about us catching up as friends? How did I not see this coming? How stupid can a person be?

I, like the well-trained woman that I am, blamed myself. Over and over again.

My ex-boyfriends all knew that the best way into my pants was through loving my brain, not lusting after my body. But of course, they were listening. There was more in it for them. I was visible. Me. I was more than just  a conquest, or the fulfillment of a long curiosity. I was a human being with unique value. And I am done feeling as though I did something wrong to mislead people about what I was looking for. I have always been clear. So be my friend or don’t be. But if you’re just looking to fuck, move along. I’m not interested. Stop wasting my time. Stop making me feel like garbage. Because after all these years it takes me more and more time to rebuild myself after work. If you’re really my friend, you should be supporting me. So stop tearing me down.

Timothy Egan: Do Not Silence the Students

16 May

Oh, Timothy Egan, what were you thinking?  Were you thinking?

Today in The New York Times, the regular columnist Timothy Egan wrote an op/ed called “The Commencement Bigots.”  He starts the piece out with this:

“It’s commencement season, cell-phones off please, no texts or tweets.  Even with a hangover from debt, alcohol or regret, grads across the land may be lucky enough to hear something on the Big Day that actually stays with them.”

I wish I had been so lucky.  The class who graduated before me got a rather amusing speech by Dr. Ruth (you remember her, right?) and we got stuck with quite possibly the most boring graduation speech in the history of graduation speeches.  It was Henry Kaufman who basically gave an economics lecture.  It lasted for the better part of an hour and I am pretty sure came straight out of a book. No preparations necessary, just grab a volume from your library and read about balance of trade, fiscal policy or some shit in the most monotone voice you can muster.  It was terrible.  I just asked my dad what he thought about it and he said,

“Oh, that guy?  That guy was an idiot.  I did not like that guy.  Not only was he boring and an idiot, but he was a has been!  He was big in the 80s!”

I don’t know about all that but I do know that I was bored to tears.  Egan documents a similar experience of the graduates of Stanford in 2009 who had to listen to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy give “an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”  Much better, Egen thinks, were the addresses by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in  2005 (“If you can’t learn to ‘construct meaning from experience, you will be totally hosed'”), Steve Jobs, also in 2005, at Stanford (“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life”) and Stephen Colbert at Knox College in 2006 (“The best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show.  It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous.  And eventually, some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat”).  As much as I would have loved to have had Stephen Colbert speak at my graduation in place of Mr. Gloom and Doom, I wouldn’t exactly call his advice sage.  But I guess that’s not Egan’s point.  What is his point?  Well, basically that college students should shut the fuck up and appreciate who they get because the person could be, gasp!, boring.

Okay, that’s not exactly what he said.  What he said was that protesting college students are akin to censors who do not want anyone to come speak to them and “spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.”  He cites a few examples.  First up was Condoleezza Rice who was slated to speak at Rutgers University but canceled “after a small knot of protestors pressured the university.”  Next up were the bigots (his word, not mine) of Smith College whose concerns about the International Monetary Fund’s part in “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems” caused Christine Lagarde, chief of the IMF, to cancel her prepared speech.  Egen opines about the loss these students will suffer by not hearing one of the “world’s most powerful women” share her insights over (and this he seems to spit) “concerns about the patriarchy.”  This was followed by my absolute favorite line in the entire piece:

“Evil men — we’ll show ’em.”

Here is the thing about it.  It certainly is a shame that students won’t get the opportunity to hear Rice and Lagarde speak.  I agree wholeheartedly with Egen when he says,

“Give me a brisk, strong, witty defense of something I disagree with over a tired replay of platitudes.”

But is the appropriate way to back up that highly logical statement to call those who disagree with it bigots?  I am sure that the people who heard Colbert and Jobs and Wallace speak, especially given that the latter two men are no longer with us, will remember those commencement speeches for a long time to come.  I am sure those graduates, and the attending staff members, friends and families consider themselves incredibly lucky.  But I also think that a person who holds the privilege of writing for a paper as respected as The New York Times should take a little more care before calling college students opposed to the legacies or the mechanisms through which university-chosen speakers make their mark a word as loaded as bigot.  That’s quite a punch to throw.  I also think that, perhaps, a privileged white man should think twice before he belittles a group of women’s concerns about the patriarchy – it is very real and is something they will have to contend with every single day of their lives.  This rings especially true for Smith students who are of color or are members of the LGBT community.

Egen urges these horrible censors to consult Rutger’s student mission statement which reads,

“We embrace difference by cultivating inclusiveness and respect of both people and points of view.”

Egen, perhaps, should have taken his own advice before writing this ill-conceived column.  It is true, that we should embrace inclusiveness and respect different points of view, but doesn’t that include respect for those who disagree with the appointment of certain speakers?  Doesn’t that include those who feel that by sitting quietly in an audience while someone who represents institutions or policies they find incredibly damaging and problematic acts as the exclamation point on their college experience makes them somehow complicit?  Shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that students in our universities are able to question these institutions and speakers and see results?  It is a shame that these women, and Attorney General Eric J. Holder who was also mentioned in Egen’s piece, did not get the chance to speak because of protests, but I do not think that means that we should shame and silence students.  Instead, we should encourage them to continue to protest because it is an active civilian population that is the best way to keep the government in check, to question policies, to support minorities and underrepresented groups, to fight voter fraud, to stop rape culture, to tell the IMF that we do not approve of the way they operate, to let Condoleezza Rice know that she will be held accountable by the population for her roll in the Bush administration, and so many other things.  We need this and by calling active student bodies bigots, we are telling them that their dissent is unwarranted, unnecessary and unacceptable and that is a real shame.  Isn’t it also possible that encouraging a more active population would result not only in better leadership, but also in better preparing our leaders for dissent and criticism?  The thin-skinned should not be in positions of power and, honestly, I am sure they have experienced far worse than some protests by a small group of soon-to-be college graduates.  Their ability to cancel in the face of such limited disagreement is a luxury that is silly.

So, let the students speak.  No, actually, don’t just let them, encourage them.  The best educations, I think, give us the ability to think critically and express our opinions and where is that more acceptable than on college campuses?  I think this country would be a lot better off if we all felt that our voices were heard and that our dissent did not make us bigots.  It’s just too bad that Egen felt the need to use his soapbox to shame a bunch of 21-year-olds.  But, that is his right and I support it, just as I support the university’s right to have Christine Lagarde speak at commencement and the right of the student body at Smith to protest the patriarchy.

Street Harassment: The Close Proximity Whisper

13 May

Okay, ladies, I’m sure you’ve all experienced this:

You’re walking down the street doing what you always do which is minding your own goddamn business and going about your day when you see a man walking towards you.  You notice him looking but he says nothing, doesn’t exactly ogle but his eyes linger on you a little too long for optimal comfort.  As he gets closer you brace yourself for the upcoming comment, the kissy noises, that terrible clicking sound.  Nothing.  You think you’re home free but then, just as he passes you he leans in and whispers ever so quietly,

“God bless.”

You can feel his breath on your face and the hair stands up on the back of your neck.  You turn around, angry, but he is already halfway down the block making his way to where ever he is headed.  No one around noticed a thing.  He’s in the clear.

If I had to rate types of non-physical assault style street harassment from one to ten, ten being my least favorite, I think that approach would get the crown.  It is worse than the passing car, the obvious stare, the invitations to go out, the whistles from rooftops.  For me, the close proximity whisper is one of the most invasive forms of harassment.  In the United States, we have such an engrained idea of personal space that when someone invades it there is no ignoring it.  That person made the choice to enter into my space, he knew it would make me uncomfortable and he didn’t care.  The feeling of his breath on my skin only adds insult to injury.  It is one step away from him putting a hand on me.  It is infuriating, disempowering, and disgusting.

The close proximity whisper is something that has been driving me crazy for a long time.  I almost forget that it even happens until one day some dude whispers “smile baby” in my ear and I go through the fucking roof.  But he didn’t touch me and there is no opportunity for a strong worded retort, really. It always takes too long for me to register what has happened and by the time I do my only option is to scream like a banshee at some asshole’s receding back.  The reason I thought of this now is that the other night this happened to me only it was on a crowded train and it was terrible.

So I was with a friend of mine and we were heading to Crown Heights to visit his friend at the bar she works in.  When we got onto the train it was relatively empty but we opted to stand.  I have been standing a lot lately.  It’s a thing.  Anyway, we were standing in the little door alcove on the wrong side of the train (AKA the side the doors open on) so every time we stopped somewhere we would split up; he would stand to one side of the doors and me to the other.  We’d reconvene in the middle once everyone got aboard.  When we stopped at Atlantic Avenue the train got swamped.  We couldn’t meet in the middle again so he stayed to his side and I stayed to mine. Right next to me was a really tall (this is all relative considering I am pushing 5’4″) man somewhere in his late forties if I had to guess.  The second the doors closed he leaned over and, right in my ear whispered,

“Are you a mommy?”

It took me a second to understand what he had said.  It was Mother’s Day after all.  I gave him a small smile and said no and then resumed staring blankly in front of me, my left arm grasping the subway poll, my right hand resting on my left shoulder, as much of a protective stance as I could muster considering I had no room to move.  He leaned forward again,

“You look too young to be a mommy.”

I glanced over at him, raised my eyebrows and did a very slight head nod in an attempt to acknowledge he had said something to me without inviting him to say anything else.  A moment later his hand “slipped” off whatever he was holding and hit me in the chest, landing hard on my breastbone.  I instinctively checked to make sure my necklace didn’t vanish — it hadn’t but it wouldn’t be surprising to me if it had because people just love to steal shit from me — and felt thankful I had the foresight to cover my boobs with my arm.  I glanced over at my friend who had been looking at me protectively, not sure exactly what to do and, I imagined, taking cues from my behavior.  The man apologized.  I shot my eyes up to him without turning my body in his direction.  Then, seconds later, as we approached a stop he put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in much to close and whispered,

“Have a wonderful day.”

He was all up in my space.  He was touching my arm.  I thought maybe he was getting off at that stop and felt a momentary rush of relief but the train doors opened and he made no move to exit.  At that moment my friend called over the heads of the half dozen people in between us and asked if I wanted to get off and walk.

Fuck yes.

We got off the train.  I didn’t look back to see the man’s reaction when he realized that I was traveling with someone and that someone happened to be years younger and much more solid than him.  My friend and I talked about it for a minute, him not knowing the man had touched me because he was unable to see through all the people.  From his vantage point all he could see was some guy whispering in my ear and to him, that was enough to want to get me out of the situation. I put it out of my head for the remainder of the night but now I am thinking about it.  And here is what I am thinking.

It is bad enough to have someone whisper in your ear and keep moving but to have that person violate your personal space and continue to stand there is totally fucked.  It put me in an incredibly uncomfortable situation, one that I could not extricate myself from.  It’s like, there I was, stuck with all these people around me and then this guy who was just toeing the line, seeing how far he could push it.  I was bound, in a way, by the manners we as women have been taught.  I didn’t want to sharply tell him to stop, as I normally would if I could walk away, and then be stuck standing next to him, with the eyes of all the other passengers on me.  I didn’t know what their reactions would be, whether they would support me or think I was a loon.  I mean, all he was doing, really, was talking.  And the first touch could easily have been excused as an accident.  I started feeling like the best course of action was to keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, to not draw attention and maybe it would just stop on its own.  (In my personal experience, this reaction never really has the desired effect.)    I didn’t want to have to defend my reaction to a bunch of people who might not support me and then remain there, shamed.  I thought if I just stood there, more or less unmoving, as nonreactive as possible, he would back off but he didn’t.  He just kept toeing the line, kept inviting me into this seemingly innocent, but incredibly invasive, private conversation that I had absolutely no interest in participating in.

It’s a weird thing, to step out of your own tendencies.  I am pretty outspoken about this sort of thing, normally.  Especially when I am in New York.  That might sound like a weird thing but this is my home, I have lived here for a long time and I know when I should say something and when I shouldn’t.  Before I react strongly to a comment, I note the time of day, where I am, whether or not there are people around. At 4am I keep my mouth shut, but in the afternoon, in a parking lot stuffed with cars, I will say my piece.  I take the shock and awe approach.  I am especially good with words when I am angry and I think that the mouth I have takes casual harassers by surprise.  It gives me the chance to tell them about themselves and march off before they regroup and think long enough to come up with something better than “bitch!” But being stuck in a subway car, pinned in place by the sheer quantity of people, can really make you revert back to socialized habits.

Anyway, a lot of times I think back on things and figure out how I could have handled it differently, better.  There’s always something.  But in this particular case, even with the luxury of space and a few days time, I cannot for the life of me figure out how I could have behaved differently.  I didn’t feel unsafe, really.  What I did feel was the society in which I was raised, one that teaches girls to keep quiet.  I thought about all the times people have told me that it is unsafe for me to speak my mind, that it isn’t worth it.  But I can’t stop thinking about how this guy won. How by not telling him what he was doing, I was complicit in it, I was saying it was okay.  Sure, I got off early, sure, it was clear that I didn’t want to be near him, but I don’t know.  It is very possible that me telling him to back the fuck off, as much as he could considering the circumstances, would have set him off, or would have fallen on deaf ears, but I also could have been the first person to say it and maybe, hopefully, the last person he did it to.

Being a woman is hard.