The day before #YesAllWomen started trending on Twitter, I stopped at the grocery store after work. It was probably close to nine o’clock at night, and I was feeling good. Great, actually! I’d had a good day at the bookstore and I was about to have my first three day weekend in ages. I was wearing my favorite boots, which I’d gotten myself for a birthday present last fall. I love these boots so much. You know how some articles of clothing just make you feel awesome, for whatever intangible reason? I felt gorgeous, happy, confident, powerful. I was headed home, hips swinging, face smiling for no particular reason. It was a good feeling.
And then I almost made eye contact with an older man who was walking towards me. And I felt myself shutting it down. Shutting off the confident walk, the smile, the power. Making myself smaller so he would take no notice of me. Looking away so he wouldn’t think I was flirting.
I’m not sure if this really makes sense. Nothing happened. He didn’t say anything or make an obscene gesture or try to grab me or do anything as far as I know. He was just there, existing, and I felt myself shut down.
The next day I started reading the #YesAllWomen feed, and this moment from the night before loomed large in my mind. But how can you share something like that in 140 characters? You can’t. Well maybe someone else could, but I can’t. Because nothing happened, except internally, in me. I was feeling good and just existing in my own body in a moment with pleasure, and then in that moment I remembered a dozen other moments where I was told that I couldn’t exist in my own body for myself.
* * * * *
One afternoon when I was eighteen or nineteen, I was walking down the street in the South Park blocks in Portland, Oregon, with a friend of mine whom I’ll call Iris. I had either just moved up there or I was going to be moving up there soon. It was a beautiful warm sunny day and I was giddy with the joy of newfound young adult independence. No parents. It was a precious feeling, to feel happy, since only months earlier I’d been so deep underwater in depression that I couldn’t see sunlight, couldn’t remember what it felt like. Into that precious giddy feeling came a man, probably in his late twenties, maybe thirties, walking in the opposite direction. And as he passed by me, he said “I can see your nipples; you should really wear a bra.”
But just typing it out I can’t tell you the disgust in his voice, how repulsed he was by me, that my nipples dared to exist in the world without his permission. That I dared to exist in the world without his permission. As if his opinion should matter.
Not that it matters, but I was wearing a bra. I always wear a bra. I wish I could walk around with no bra. I’d save a lot of money for one thing (you can’t buy 30G bras for less than $50, and that’s if you get them on sale). But I don’t wear padded bras, and sometimes, yeah, you can probably see that I have nipples. So fucking what? I mean everyone has them, you know.
But that’s not even really the point. The point is that I was feeling happy. Feeling alive and full of optimism, which is rare and beautiful in my life and deserves to be nurtured. And here came Some Guy and he broke all that into pieces. It wrecked my good mood, you guys. It wrecked it so hard that 13 years later, I can still hear his disgust echoing around in my head.
Some months later I was on the MAX train when I happened to make eye contact with a man who was probably in his forties. He did this obscene thing with his mouth at me, sort of oral sex-ish? Because I half smiled when I made accidental eye contact. My bad, I guess.
* * * * *
I have a million of them. We all have a million of them. Things that, taken one by one, don’t really seem like a big deal. Little hiccups in your day, stuff that bums you out or scares you a little but nothing really happens. The drunk guy I had never met before who ran up and slapped me on the ass when his friend and I were flirting pretty aggressively. I guess he assumed my interest in his friend extended to him, too, even though he hadn’t spoken a word to me (I kicked him in the dick, btw, first and only time I’ve done that). “I want to eat your pussy” shouted from a moving car. The truck driver who asked me (age fifteen) for directions and kept telling me to get in his truck so I could show him. That was probably the scariest. Nothing happened there, either. Obviously I didn’t get in, but I was terrified as I walked away that he was going to grab me. Or follow me home.
There was the time I got a text on my phone from a number I didn’t recognize and when I asked who it was, the person said he was trying to text his ex-girlfriend. “Sorry, wrong number dude,” I told him. The next text I got was “Yah right lying cunt.”
I told that story on Twitter, tagged with #YesAllWomen, and it got me my very first troll: “Well that’s what you get for being such a cunt. Cunt.”
I felt like a real internet feminist! Some random guy calling me a cunt just because he can. Just because he assumed it would hurt me and he wanted to hurt me.
* * * * *
In an anthropology course I took my very first quarter at college, back when I was still going to classes in the real world instead of just online, The Worst Teacher I’ve Ever Had told us about how during sexual arousal, the lips flush with blood, becoming plumper and redder, and mentioned that lipstick was designed to simulate this effect. So far this is all fine, but he followed it up with “It sends mixed signals, and then people get prosecuted for rape.”
It sends mixed signals. And then people get prosecuted for rape.
Wear lipstick = get raped. Just a misunderstanding, really. I mean how is he supposed to know you’re not into it with your lips all red?
I think my eyes just about popped right out of my head. If I’d been nineteen, I don’t know what I would have done, besides complain about it on my horrible blog. But I was twenty-eight, and I steeled myself up and waited for class to be over.
I waited around after class, but there were a whole bunch of dudes hanging around to talk to the prof. He was an older dude, in his sixties. White. Spent lots of class time telling us about how the administration of our community college was “intimidated” by his Ph.D., which is why they hadn’t hired him full time (any amount of class time spent on this would have been too much).
He noticed me hanging around. I would have preferred to wait until the rest of the dudes were gone. I was way outnumbered here. Five dudes, one little me. But I was committed. I told him that “the thing you said in class about lipstick leading to rape was way inappropriate.”
He did the whole song and dance, of course. I’d misunderstood him (really how do you misunderstand “It sends mixed signals and then people get prosecuted for rape?” That’s a direct motherfucking quote). He tried to like, debate with me? And something about people in the Middle East who say the same thing about women having their hair uncovered? (somehow this was supposed to back him up, I don’t know how). And he kept taking steps toward me, and I kept backing away.
This is an intimidation tactic, by the way. In anthropology the use of space in communication is known as proxemics. Different cultures have different tolerances for personal space, and when you move too far into someone’s personal space, you make them uncomfortable, get them off kilter. And I know this professor knew that, because he’d taught us about proxemics a week earlier.
After a few minutes of this unproductive discussion (such as it was), I muttered that my dad was waiting for me and left the room, shaking. My dad really was waiting for me, but I wish I hadn’t felt like I had to invoke a male relative. I was shaking, my heart was pounding, and I was way too close to crying not to get out right then and there.
All I was trying to get through to him was: you’re in a room with 30ish people in it. In that room are sitting some people who’ve been raped. In that room are sitting some people who’ve committed rape. Which group do you want to give aid and comfort to?
Anyway, I was scared to go to class the next session, but I did. He gave a vague apology “to anyone who was offended by anything I said.” It was as happy an ending as I was going to get.
Also he was just a bad teacher, like, just terrible.
* * * * *
There was the guy who hung around us in high school. We’ll call him Ralph.
Ralph was not in high school. Ralph was in his thirties.
He was involved in our theater department in some capacity, and he was very vocal about how he didn’t think of us as “kids.” He liked to hang around with us. And he loved to “compliment” the girls. High school girls. Underaged high school girls. Comments on our bodies. On how sexy we were. How we made him wish he were fifteen years younger (we “made” him… it was beyond his control, the thoughts our bodies forced him to express to us).
Oh it’s just innocent, Ralph insisted. There’s nothing inappropriate about it, I just don’t think of you all as kids, I think of you as my peers. None of the girls mind!
But say anything to Ralph and it was allllllll denial. It’s just innocent. Don’t take it so seriously. Learn to take a compliment, don’t be so uptight!
I graduated 13 years ago. Ralph kept hanging around that high school theater department until he was forced to leave (I do not know the circumstances and can only surmise that somebody’s parents finally got sick of this creepy dude hanging around hitting on their daughter. I hope it is not because he escalated to touching).
Years later, I grudgingly accepted Ralph’s friend request on Facebook and proceeded to mostly ignore him for a couple of years.
Then he started the self-pity train because someone had called him out on his inappropriate sexual comments to much younger women. How could someone say that about him, they don’t even know him, and the girls don’t care and so on and so forth. I’d heard it all before, over and over and over again. For a week or so he whined about the great injustice of having been called a creepy weirdo for making sexual comments to much younger women.
And then he posted a meme of a woman in a “sexy Girl Scout” getup with some kind of perverse caption that amounted to: “I would like to eat cookies and also have sex with this woman.”
And that was how I decided I was Officially Done With Ralph forever.
Also did I mention that he has a daughter? And this is how he treats women. Poor girl. I hope she has some other men in her life, men who aren’t like that.
* * * * *
Because, and I know there are some fellas in the audience who are going to bowled over that I know this without their having explained it to me personally, I do in fact realize that Not All Men are like that. Although it’s very kind of you fellas to take time out of your day to explain it to me, it’s not actually necessary. I know. If I may be so bold as to speak for all of womankind, we pretty much all know. Yes there are some radfems out there who would disagree, but in a pure numbers game I think there are probably fewer of them than there are men who are Like That. And as what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for gander, allow me to take a moment to say: Not All Feminists.
That was fun.
* * * * *
But the thing about Not All Men is that it doesn’t matter, because you can’t really tell which ones are Like That until they start acting Like That.
When women talk about being nervous around men, there’s always someone ready to jump in to scold us for being prejudiced against men, I’ve noticed.
But also, how many times have you heard “Well what the hell did she expect would happen when she went back to his apartment?”
So which is it, though? How do you win?
When all I want to do is just walk home from the store.
I know so many of these stories sound like no big deal. But it isn’t any of the individual stories themselves, really. It’s what happens in the aggregate. How these little events form a callus, and how you start changing in response to them. Changing how you dress, how you walk, where you go, what you say, just to avoid the hassle. And because you don’t know which guy will escalate from hassle to something scarier. The hassle is bad enough, but always in the back of your mind, there’s that awareness that this time might be the time it becomes violence.
My #YesAllWomen tweets are embedded below.