This will likely be long, and somewhat disjointed, and maybe by the time I’m done typing it all out I’ll decide to not even post it. I’ve done that before when I just got tired of reading myself talk. But I hope I don’t, because this is too important to not talk about.
Before I begin, I want to say that I’m a weirdly dichotomous person. I take certain things extremely personally; I get choked up when a friend hands me a candy bar for no reason other than I’d had a bad day. I get teary-eyed when I listen to a group of people singing in perfect harmony. I take off-hand remarks to heart, to the point where it’s made me so self-conscious that I rarely ever put myself out there. And then there’s the part of me that just does not give a fuck. Call me names? I’ll take it as a compliment. Insult me online? I’ll probably find a way to make a joke out of it that I’ll laugh over with my friends for months to come. Bash my books? I’ll take that criticism and do better next time. I am a woman who freezes first, flees second, and fights only as a last resort, which is kind of scary in practice.
I also hate with the passion of a thousand suns being presented with a problem I have no power to fix. Which is why I tend to stay away from politics, political discussions, and any drama swirling about it. Unfortunately, that’s becoming next to impossible this election season, and it’s got me frustrated to no end, because there is no escaping it anywhere, and there are things I am seeing that are actually making me afraid for the future of this country, and for my own personal safety as a woman. So here is me, addressing the big orange elephant in the room. This is where I drop the cliched line every cliched man dreads hearing from a cliched woman: We need to talk.
About BEING A WOMAN
If you think the women in your life have never had to deal with anything offensive or threatening, ask them. You might be surprised. I personally seem to be a magnet for older men who think they’re God’s gift to womankind and I should be honored by their advances. I’ve been made to feel guilty for not shaking hands at work with a repeat guest who wouldn’t leave me to my work. I’ve been vigorously propositioned by a married man old enough to be my grandfather, while my coworker stood by and enjoyed the show as I tried to politely get this guy to leave me alone. I’ve been leered at on the bus and followed to the exit at my stop by a creep who only backed off an stayed on the bus when he realized I wasn’t alone. I’ve had grown men come on to me at age fifteen. At seventeen, I’ve had a friend of my parents play “footsie” with me under the table at a group dinner. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For many reasons, I’m skipping over the more serious offenses.
Saying, “No,” or, “I’m not interested” rarely works anymore. Women have to wear fake wedding rings, or proclaim themselves in a relationship to get a guy to back off. That alone tells you how screwed up this all is, when a woman’s autonomy and ability to make a decision for herself is utterly disregarded in lieu of her being “someone else’s (property).” Because it’s cool to push up on a woman when she’s single, but God forbid a man trespass on another man’s territory. That would be wrong. When a woman has to go up to total strangers and pretend to be friends with them to get a creep off her back, or have to have the bouncer walk her home so the guy who glued himself to her side unasked won’t follow her, it’s a problem. Not just that woman’s problem, but everyone’s problem. When someone needs to invent a special nail polish that changes color when it comes into contact with a date rape drug inside a drink, it’s a problem. When a woman can get charged with assault for defending herself against a rapist, it’s a problem. When a rapist can sue his victim for custody of the child he’d impregnated her with, it’s a problem.
Whenever any of this comes up, the responsibility is always placed on the woman. We’re told not to dress so slutty, not to walk alone after dark, not to go to parties alone, learn to defend ourselves, be more aware of our surroundings. Does anyone honestly believe we aren’t already doing all that and more? We do it, because we’ve been taught from a very young age that “boys will be boys,” and that our safety around them is our own responsibility. As in the olden days, we are still blamed for leading men and boys astray with our sexay selves. Like when a girl is sent home from school to change her outfit because the sight of her legs distracts boys from their studies. Or when a rapist’s defense is that he couldn’t help himself because the woman he assaulted looked too good to resist.
I’m talking about all this, because most of the time, when men do this, they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re doing it because they enjoy the power trip. It excites them to see a woman (or a man) in distress; makes them feel all big and strong when (s)he cowers, or complains, and most of the time they get away with it because they’re able to laugh it off as “locker room talk.” Even when an actual physical assault happens, even when the victim comes forward, the response is often times to blame the victim, cover up the crime, or carry out a sentence that’s a pathetic slap on the wrist that just underscores the victim’s helplessness and society’s utter disregard for their suffering.
But I’m also talking about all this, because sometimes men do this with absolutely no idea how creepy, offensive, threatening, and unwanted their words or actions are. They go through life thinking that’s just how men communicate and show interest, and they are utterly blind to the distress they are causing. To those men, I want to say, Please, listen. Pay attention to the woman you’re interacting with. Does she seem nervous? Is she tense? Keeping a careful distance? Looking around for someone? Are her responses short and curt? Are her arms crossed defensively? Those are all signs that you should back off.
You are not entitled to another person’s body without their express permission. I’ll say that again: YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO ANOTHER PERSON’S BODY WITHOUT THEIR EXPRESS PERMISSION. Do you understand what that means? It means you don’t clutch a woman’s hand when she is pulling away. You don’t hug or kiss someone against their will. You don’t slap their ass, grab their breasts/crotch while they’re standing next to you or walking past you, just because you feel like it. You don’t make demands of them to make a physical change like smile, turn around for you, show off that dress, let their hair down, and you don’t get to get physically or verbally violent when they refuse. No means no. If (s)he can’t speak the words, the answer is no. If (s)he doesn’t understand what you’re saying/doing, the answer is no. If (s)he says, “Stop,” you fucking stop. You don’t take advantage of your power over someone to coerce them into doing something they otherwise wouldn’t do and pretend it’s consent. Because it isn’t.
Also, while we’re on the subject, fantasies don’t translate into fetishes. Just because a woman might like to read about BDSM doesn’t mean it’s okay to slap her around, grope her, or perform sexual acts on her when she didn’t explicitly give you permission. It doesn’t mean she “likes it rough,” or that she is turned on by or condones rape or sexual assault. It’s not a free pass to do whatever you want because “she’s into that sort of thing.” And it sure as hell doesn’t mean she has to automatically approve of someone in power manhandling someone else against their will, just because he’s sure to get away with it. So no. Thousands of women reading and loving Fifty Shades of Grey has absolutely nothing to do with the world’s outrage over Trump’s treatment of women, or his bragging about it, in private or in public. There’s a world of difference between consensual rough sex and assault.
Let’s talk about power. Because that is at the core of this issue. The power imbalance between men and women–physical, political, economic, and in every other way. I mean this in general terms, so before you get offended or start arguing that, “My sister can kick anyone’s ass,” just listen. Please, just listen.
Men are physically stronger than women, which immediately makes them threatening to us. Not up for debate, just a biological fact of nature (in most cases). It’s an evolutionary mechanism meant to protect the females and children from outside threats, in the modern age turned on its head because there is so little outlet for it for men. In societies where women outnumber men, statistics have shown higher rates of assault and rape. So even when we’re in the majority, women are still at risk of attack.
Men have built and manipulated society into a system that devalues, denigrates, controls, and oppresses women all over the world–and we’ve had to fight and die for every single inch we’ve gained to right that particular imbalance. That imbalance is still being fought over. Historically, whenever the scales tried to tip in women’s favor, men have reacted violently to punish and suppress any attempt at becoming equal members of society. We may have come a long way from times when women were considered property, but we’re still mired in the idea that a woman’s body is made for a man’s pleasure–an idea perpetuated by media, fashion, even social conventions and behavior. It’s subversive, because it’s no longer acceptable to say it in so many words, but as a woman, you feel it every time you turn on the TV at home, or walk down the street, or enter a workplace. It’s that slimy feeling of invisible fingers trailing down your ass when a man leers at you on the bus. That spine-chilling moment of indecision when your boss stands way too close and you don’t know what the repercussions will be if you tell him to back off. That hair-raising, heart-pounding alarm you feel when you sense a man following you down the street. That teeth-grinding frustration when someone in your company says or does something offensive, and you can’t call him out on it because he happens to be best friends with the CEO. And the absolute, soul-crushing helplessness you feel when a friend or relative two states over is stuck in an abusive relationship she can’t escape.
So when someone in a position of power, like an older male relative, or a boss, or a CEO, or the candidate for US president says or does something that perpetuates this imbalance by laughing it off, shrugging it off, making excuses, or blaming the woman, it sends a message that this type of behavior is okay. To men who already feel this way, or are unsure, this says, “He’s doing it, he’s getting away with it, so it must be fine, then.” To the women in their lives, it says, “You are here for my enjoyment, and you should be grateful for the privilege of my lewd attentions.”
That powerful man is setting an example for generations to come about how people should treat those weaker or less fortunate. That is the truly sickening thing about this. It’s not just about one man abusing his power and fame to take advantage of any woman he finds attractive, it’s that he brings out that same entitled, predatory, and oftentimes violent behavior in countless others. And it’s not just some fictional character in a book or a movie–those are easily dismissed. This is a real man, with real power, and unlimited resources, saying he can “get away with it” and it’s totally fine that he does, because “every guy does it.” Umm… no. It’s not fine, it’s not acceptable, and “every guy” does not do this, or speak this way.
And just so we’re crystal clear on this, bragging about having made unwanted advances on a woman and gotten away with it because of one’s position is NOT locker room talk. It’s a confession.
About WHAT TO DO
Another thing coming out of all this is men everywhere saying, “What do you want us to do? What should we do? What can we do?” My answer is don’t stick your head in the sand.
First, acknowledge that this is real. It’s happening. Women are not imagining things, or blowing things out of proportion, or misinterpreting a man’s words or actions when they tell you about them. The very fact that a woman felt it necessary to mention them means you should pay attention and take her seriously. Because, without saying it in so many words, she just turned to you for help, and she needs to know that you’re in her corner, whether that means just listening to her, or standing up for her, or helping her confront the person making her feel scared, or holding her hand while she calls the authorities, she needs you there. So be there.
Second, acknowledge the fact that there are men who do these things and talk this way, and it’s not okay. It could be your coworkers, your friends, your family members. The best thing you can do is call them out on it. If you’re not the confrontational type, distancing yourself from these men works just as well. But laughing with them, joking around with them about these things, or standing silently by is an unspoken acceptance and encouragement of that type of behavior. And maybe they’re just assholes and nothing will ever come of it. But maybe one of those men is the type to actually follow word with action, and he might listen to your voice telling him he shouldn’t.
Third teach your children, both boys and girls, about consent. Teach them with words and actions that their bodies are their own, and no one should be allowed to touch them, or make them do things they don’t want to do. Let them know you’re always there for them, no matter what, so that they will trust you and come to you if something does happen, if someone does make them uncomfortable, or actually assaults them. If that happens, stand by your word. Believe them when they say so-and-so did something they shouldn’t have, and do something about it. You’re first and foremost their most important teacher, and their staunchest defender.
Fourth, when you see someone being accosted, don’t just stand by. Do something. I’m not saying start a fight. But there is always something you can do. Alert security. Walk up and speak to the person being accosted; let the offender know their victim is not alone. Offer to call someone, or wait with the person if they’re not comfortable waiting alone.
And before someone comes in with, “Women are all about being independent, so why should I get involved?” don’t. Don’t turn women’s need to be treated as actual human beings deserving of respect and equal treatment into a weapon to stick it to them for that audacious need. Don’t confuse our wanting to stop being mistreated, insulted, and assaulted with some imagined declaration of war against the male sex. It isn’t. Despite what you may think, none of us want to think every guy is out to get us. But we’ve had to learn that “Innocent until proven guilty” only works in the court of law, and sometimes not even then. So we became cautious. To keep ourselves safe. Because we know our safety is our own responsibility.
Why should you get involved? Because it’s the decent thing to do for anyone in trouble, man or woman. Am I saying you have to get involved? No. I’m just asking you not to perpetuate all this crap. Through action or inaction. And I’m asking this of men and women.
There. Now I’m done.