I want you to go and read this post. Go on. I’ll still be here when you come back.
I’m sitting on my couch, repeatedly taking deep breaths in, and then exhaling through an open mouth. I’ve got tears pricking at my eyes, and my heart is pounding. I’m sure there are many others who just read that post who are having similar responses. And, of course, there are others who are saying “well, sure, what happened to that woman was terrible. That’s just fucked up. That poor girl. I understand feeling bad for her… But why are YOU having such an intense response? I mean, this isn’t YOUR problem, right?”…right?
Here are a few memories…things that still make me nauseous when I think about them. Things that I haven’t told many people, but are important enough that I’m willing to share publicly now in the interest of illustrating just how common these occurrences are:
I’m in kindergarten. Five years old. We’re in gym class. I’m wearing black leggings with a reinforced crotch. I remember this, because while we’re doing pushups, my gym teacher (a man) walks over, pats me on my butt and says “got a little extra padding there, eh?”.
Being five years old, I immediately thought he was referring to my leggings…I thought he somehow knew about the little white panel stitched to the inside, and I became embarrassed. I never mentioned it to anyone, and it was years later that I realized what was actually implied.
Its my first semester in college. I ride the bus with a few friends of mine…kids I’ve known off and on since elementary school. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I end up going to the one guy’s house after class to hang out. He lived on a sidestreet downtown, and when we got there, no one else was home. I thought we were just going to hang out, maybe watch tv or something. He apparently expected more. All I can remember is him pulling on me, and me squirming away. He grabbed my arm or something…tried to pin me. I got angry and scared at the same time, and I complained that it hurt. He was mad at me for being a “tease” or something, despite the fact that he knew I was interested in someone else, despite the fact that I was wearing baggy jeans and a hoodie, despite the fact that I’d done nothing but agree to hang out after school. I somehow managed to get out of there relatively unscathed. I don’t know if I fully realized what had happened, but I was shaking as I half-walked, half-ran home.
I’m in my early twenties, staying at my ex boyfriend’s house because I have nowhere else to go. I’m upstairs, folding laundry and putting my books away when my ex’s older brother walks in the room. He pulls on the top of my tanktop, making some remark about “showing some skin”, and then tries to tug on my skirt. I pull quickly away from him, and he says that I “owe” it to him for staying in “his” house. I shut myself in the bathroom until I hear his mother come in downstairs. Later on, I tell my ex about what his brother did. His response? A nonchalant “that’s probably not the first time”.
I’m 26, and I’m at the bar with my boyfriend. It’s a place we go fairly frequently…we know the owner and the bartenders. I’m pretty comfortable there. He’s off talking to some friends outside, and I sit at the bar to relax and enjoy my drink. An older man is sitting a couple of barstools down from me. He mentions that he teaches English at the Culinary Institute. He also works for a local publication. I’m substituting at the time, hoping to get a more permanent teaching position. I sip my drink and we talk about literature and standardized testing, and various teaching techniques. I’m pretty thrilled to have met an experienced colleague. After maybe half an hour of conversation, though, things start to get weird. My boyfriend comes in and stops by to “check in” before he walks back to the bathrooms. The guy I’ve been talking to looks irritated, and tells me my boyfriend is “too young” for me. I laugh, and explain that he’s actually four years older than I am. “He’s too young.”, he repeats.
I go outside to retrieve my phone from the car. As I’m walking back toward the bar, the “professor” walks up to me and offers me a cigarette. I decline. He motions for me to walk with him toward the corner to talk, which I do, against my better judgement. He starts telling me how I’m very smart, and pretty, and how I deserve someone who understands me, and who truly appreciates me. I try to interject, to explain that I think I have that, but he’s not listening. He says “I’m going to tell you what I tell my daughters. They’re 12 and 15. I think you’d like them.”, and then continues on about all of the things he thinks I need. He told me I was obviously confused.
A friend of mine walked by as he was leaving the bar, and I called out to him, desperate for the excuse to get away. The “professor” showed obvious disappointment, and told me that I should know that “an older man has really liked” me.
The circumstances may be different, but the general themes are always the same. I’m alone, and some guy starts talking to me. Sometimes I’m ok with having a general conversation. Sometimes I really just want to be left alone, but I’m trying to be polite. Always, some line is crossed. Whenever I try to turn down the guy’s advances, I’m told I’m “confused”, or I don’t know what I want, or I don’ t know what’s “good” for me.
If I get angry, or if I assert myself, I’m a “bitch”, a “cunt”, or a “tease”.
Maybe my life isn’t overtly threatened…but how do I ever know for sure whether I’m really safe?
This is why I don’t go out alone. This is why if I do end up alone, even for just a minute, I’ll wear a ring on my left hand, and try to cover up my cleavage. It’s why, whenever asked, I always say I have a boyfriend, and I spend a lot of time “checking” my phone. It’s why I always turn down the offers of others to buy me drinks. It’s why I sit on the bus and stare intently out the window until my stop. It’s why I’ve perfected the routine of pretending to be deaf, ignoring the hollers and come-ons as I walk down the street, and ignoring the insults that are slung my way when I don’t act grateful for the unsolicited “compliments”.
As much as I hate having to deal with guys who somehow feel entitled to something from me, I think what I hate even more is my own response. I want to lash out…I want to tell these guys to fuck off. I want to punch them in the nuts when they breathe down my neck or tug on my clothes. But I never do any of that. Instead, I shut down. I become paralyzed. I smile, and I get quiet, because it seems like a really bad idea to piss these guys off. So I end up feeling weak, and small, and my politeness is used as justification for further advances. I’m left with the choice of either inadvertently encouraging these guys, or further risking my well-being. I’m weak, or I’m a manipulative bitch. Regardless, I lose.
So many people I know think this is the exception to the norm. The countless women who have come forward on the original Tumblr post, on my Facebook page, and in countless other forums telling similar tales would lead me to believe otherwise.
I know that there are some very good, honorable men out there. Men with integrity, and respect for women. But there are still plenty of men who think they’re somehow “owed” something. Men who think that avoiding the humiliation of being turned down is somehow worth violating the comfort and/or rights or another human being.
So what do we do?
Well, acknowledging that this is a problem is a start.
Making it clear that this sort of thing is prevalent, AND is unacceptable…
Raising our young men to respect women, and other people in general…(and themselves)
Changing the BS system that puts full responsibility on women…
Stopping the victim-blaming that is so prevalent in our culture…
I don’t know that these things will completely stop the problem, but they’d go a long way.