CW: Sexual Assault. Also, I speak in gender essentialist language in this post; however these types of violences do occur for people who do not identify as women.
Earlier this month, I read Jessica Valenti’s piece in The New York Times, “What Does a Lifetime of Leers Do to Us?” In it, she talks about the every day violence of being identified as a woman in America–ranging from groping, catcalls, leers, and unnecessary attempts to start conversation, to threats of rape, to actual rape–and what this does to the psychology of folks who experience this type of violence.
And it is violence. It’s violence because we live in a world where women are killed for turning away the advances of men or because they break up with men. It is violence because women still aren’t granted autonomy over their bodies and are often blamed for their own harassment and assault. It is violence because women who speak up about these things get doxed and receive rape threats. It is violence because it normalizes these behaviors, and so men think it’s romantic to stalk their potential love interest or okay to wear down a woman’s refusal through insistence or whining (by which I mean coercion). It’s violence because some men will believe it’s romantic to text a woman every day, even when she doesn’t respond. It’s violence because unsolicited dick pics and requests for nudes, even when we say no again and again. It’s violence to teach boys all yeses start as nos or think it’s not rape as long as it isn’t his penis and her vagina. It’s violence because we’re still thinking his and her.
It is violence because we see time, and again, cases of judges and the media being very concerned about how the consequences of raping someone might impact the future of white male rapist while disregarding the very real impact of their actions on the person they raped.
This is the world women grow up in and despite growing up in this world, some people will accuse us of a “cult of victimhood,” when what we are doing is speaking our truths.
Truth can be inconvenient to hear.
Some women can remember the first time they were harassed. I cannot, because that instance was already white noise.
Because here is what it’s like for most women growing up in America:
We learn not to take up space so maybe we won’t get harassed by a man. We learn that boys and men will try to look down our shirts or up our skirts, so we should dress modestly and keep our legs crossed, even on the playground. Even in the sandbox. We are told when boys pull our hair or push us or are blatant bullies to us that it means they like us. We get used to men moving into our physical space as an intimidation tactic. We learn to hedge the way we speak (I feel like…; I’m sorry…; I know you didn’t mean to…) so that we don’t make men angry. We speak softly and we get used to men talking over us, interrupting us, ignoring the things we say, and we let all of these things happen because if not, men might get angry and maybe violent. We learn to take care of the men in our lives by learning to listen to their emotions–and often spare men the emotional labor of working through their own feels, because we want to absolve them, because by absolving them–or if not that, then saving them from themselves–we can avoid a potential escalation to violence. We learn to wear headphones we’re not listening to so we have a reason to ignore street harassers. We learn to pretend to talk on the phone when we’re walking home at night to give the illusion that someone will notice if someone else attacks us. We learn to skirt around groups of men outside the bar, the grocery store, the art gallery on first Friday, the Mexican restaurant, the frat house, the gym. We learn to read body language, to watch for a man’s body language to start changing in a way that means our lives or our autonomy might be in danger. We learn to keep our expressions flat when the occasion calls and to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny when not laughing might make men angry and all we want to do is get out of that situation. We get used to men brushing up against us on the bus, the metro, the grocery store, the street (doesn’t this happen to everyone? It’s crowded, we might think to ourselves, knowing, of course that this isn’t true–and isn’t talked about). We notice when men leer at us as we pass. We learn to know where our keys are before we get to our car/bike/work/house so we aren’t standing there fumbling. We take our drinks with us at parties. We go to public bathrooms in groups–not because we’re afraid of going to the bathroom alone (though we might be, and that’s legitimate) but because it’s an opportunity to assess the danger-level or fuckability of our date or would-be-date with our friends, who are looking out for us. We bend at the knees, not at the waist. We do these things, and so many other small, every day things, because we’ve learned the lesson of leers and catcalls, of assault and rape.
But all of those things are generalizations. Here’s a story:
Years ago, I dated a man who’d apparently never had a good conversation about boundaries and consent. I hadn’t either, at the time. Our high school sex ed classes had been lessons in abstinence–the type that claimed that if you slept with someone, you were also sleeping with everyone they’d ever slept with, and everyone those people had ever slept with, ad infinitum. When we were seeing each other, neither of us had done the work to figure out how to actually be an adult in an adult relationship, by which I mean having the conversations that can sometimes be difficult to have–the ones about what we were into and what we weren’t, our limits, our fantasies, birth control, STIs, and also how to have a conversation with each other about every day things.
He was coercive. Any time I said no, he whined. And whined. And usually I eventually said yes, because I wanted the whining to stop, and because of all the cultural messages about how sex and romance were supposed to work. I thought I was the one being unreasonable. And so when I got tired of saying no, I’d get quiet and try to just get through it.
And because no one had ever had a real conversation with me about consent–or really about sex at all– I thought maybe this was normal too, and even though I didn’t like it, I thought I was (again) just being unreasonable. Prudish even. I denied my feelings. I put up with it when he woke me up doing things to my body.
This man, although we were adults, was the boy next door variety. All-American. The the type my parents didn’t worry about. The type my friends didn’t worry about. He wore one of the uniforms a lot of people respect. He owned his home. He knew his neighbors. He got along with his family. He had a job and a pet.
He was someone I’d known for years.
On some level, I knew the things he was doing were wrong. And on some level, I desperately didn’t want them to be.
There are times I want to ask this man about the rape cases that show up on the news. The ones like Florida State and Stubenville and Stanford and so many others. I want to know if he denies the woman’s experience because admitting that these women were raped would mean that he did things that were rape.
Except my own cognitive dissonance still keeps me from calling the things he did rape, even though someone who is asleep cannot give consent.
I wonder if he would deny the experience of these women, because cognitive dissonance. I wonder how he would react if I told him I’d been raped after we dated–but I don’t wonder it enough to actually tell him, because I’ve heard him say the things rape apologists say, more than once. More than once, I’ve heard him call women liars when they speak up about being raped.
I wonder how to help men like him, men who I’d still like to believe are basically good men, understand that consent isn’t just sexy; it’s mandatory, and that it absolutely must be negotiated each time. I wonder how we start teaching this to boys who are growing up in schools where sex ed still isn’t a thing, who maybe aren’t running into those corners of the internet.
I saw the man again recently, for the first time since we parted ways, and it was clear that he still hasn’t learned to seek consent before touching someone. He hugged me for too long, kept touching my hips and my lower back. That he still hasn’t learned that coercion isn’t the way to get what he wants. He wanted a photo of us, and I said no, and his response was, “Oh come on now.” I repeated my no, and ended it there.
I left the interaction feeling shaken and disgusted with myself for allowing him to touch me in ways I didn’t like even though those touches were moderately innocuous, and at him for doing it in the first place. I was mad at myself for not speaking up, and mad at him for acting as though he thought my body belonged to him.
I was shaken for days, because I worried he’d want to see me again, and I simply didn’t feel safe, for reasons I couldn’t define.
During that time, I was a wreck. I cried easily and slept poorly, and talked through my feelings with a few friends. I went to the gym where I’ve been practicing self defense for years, and broke down the first moment I had to spar with a man. I walked off the mat, and tried to collect myself, and then when I walked back on another man came up to spar with me–a man I usually have no trouble sparring with, and I broke down again. Sparring, even lightly, is another type of violence and I simply couldn’t handle any more than I already had that week.
Afterward, I talked to both men, to assure them that they hadn’t hurt me or gone too hard. They are good training partners, and were concerned. They both asked what had happened. It’s my shit, I said.
And that is true.
But we also live in a society where men need to be speaking up to their fellow men about consent. About not being a creeper, or worse. About the everyday violence of simply leering at a woman, because it happens all the time and our guard is always up and it’s exhausting.
Because most men are good men. Because men can model this for each other.
In the days after I saw the man I once dated, I wanted, and needed, someone else to tell me that my feelings were legitimate. I wanted and needed to simply be able to talk through all of my feelings with someone so I could say my feelings were legitimate.
Because they were, and are.