I’m slogging through assignment after assignment this week as the end of the quarter creeps (RACES) closer and the news and its subsequent commentary causes some blood-boiling. Some people are surprised by the slew of allegations going public around sexual harassment and assault committed by men in power. And some people will continue to defend these men, even when multiple women come forward and have been coming forward for decades.
I have been noticing some argument around backing some of these men because they apologized, or because they stand for good values, despite their actions. Louis CK wrote a whole apology, so he is redeemed, right? No *expletive* way. I’ll continue to be enraged. And I’m struggling with two things. The first is, the men on the news are men already in the public eye. They’re scum, but there’s plenty of scum to go around in any old circle. I’m not trying to say I think all men are scum. I am saying that the way our society treats women teaches men that harassment and assault are ok, and worse, it doesn’t teach them what is terribly wrong. My mom was shaking her head the other day while we were walking because she felt confused as to why men would reveal their privates to young women in their offices- “didn’t they think eventually this would get out?” Here’s the horror- I would guess that most of these men had no conscious thoughts that what they were doing was wrong. Thus, they wouldn’t worry about their behavior “getting out.”
The second thing I have been questioning is forgiveness. Now, it is not my place to forgive the men who committed harassment and assault to other women. I can only choose to forgive those who hurt me. I will say that the “apology” letter is meaningless to me, because it doesn’t change what happened and demonstrates no attempt to change in the future. But what does it mean that the majority of men in our culture have committed some form of harassment or assault? Does this mean we feel disgusted by everyone? I’m not going to lie, I feel very privileged when I get to be in women-only spaces, and much less exhausted than during a typical day. I live with the incredible privilege to actually be able to call men out when they contribute to rape culture (commenting on my body is never ok. Don’t do it.), and to have resources to help me do this. So I believe I should ask where we go from here.
It is not the responsibility of women and non-male folx to educate men on any of this. If they choose to, it is their gift. I think we should forget the apologies for now. You’re not sorry unless you do something to change not only your behavior, but the behavior of the men around you. And you keep at it. Talk to other men. Tell them when they’re contributing to rape culture. Ask others to do that to you. Non-men cannot change this no matter how much outrage we preach.
I am in awe of the women who have come forward, and in further awe of the millions of women who can’t. As the allegations continue to come out (they should), I firmly hope we believe them.
The patriarchy runs deep. So deep. How many of us hesitated to post the hashtag because a) we felt ashamed, b) we felt triggered, c) we felt invalidated (I “only”…”just”…”not a big deal”…) or d) all of the above? No victim or survivor owes social media any indication that they, too, have suffered. But the problem is a tangled web, not a straight line of perpetrator- victim.
Who is “us”? We can’t just include women, here. Not only does that invalidate the experience of queer, non-binary, non-conforming, and others who have born witness via their own bodies to sexual harassment and/or assault, but by ignoring anyone except women, we take away agency from everyone. Survivors live every single day, and that takes agency. As little as it might feel we have.
Something else that bothers me about the past two days’ worth of posts on this hashtag: it is so easy to sympathize without owning one’s role in the abuse. This doesn’t just go for men. The first time I grappled with the truth that I experienced assault, I was not much younger than I am now. Not only did I have to relearn that what I experienced wasn’t “meant to be flattering” or “because of what I was wearing,” I began to realize that I had said those things about other people. I questioned women who wore short dresses and high heels and layers of makeup. What did they think would happen? By thinking these things, I participated in the patriarchy. Even as a survivor, I can still uphold misogyny.
Dismantling is not a one-and-done experience, either. Even now, I catch myself feeling irritated by a student who speaks too much in class- but would I feel as annoyed if the student were a man? Subconsciously, I felt more comfortable calling a female professor by her first name than a male professor with the same qualifications. Why? I’m disgusted with my subconscious. This is the problem with categorizing “assault” and “harassment” as different from “microaggressions” or “casual sexism.” While one may involve physical violence, and each experience brings a different kind of trauma and need for subsequent processing, the idea that one can’t participate in the hashtag campaign because the only real experience they have was “just” when their boss interrupted them constantly, or they’ve “only” been catcalled by strangers, not raped after drinking at a party, so blatantly hides the existence of misogyny everywhere, among all people. These “small, meaningless” gestures are the most dangerous because they are so hard to call out, and further, to explain to the perpetrator- the burden of course falls on the oppressed. Yet these acts uphold rape culture. As harmful as this has been to me, I cannot help to dismantle unless I examine my own interactions with it.
I am in awe of the friends who have shared their voices and stories these past few days. I couldn’t do it. It is so common to internalize our shame. Me too: I am a survivor. Me too: I am complicit. Me too: I pledge to bring my subconscious participation into the conscious, stomp on it, and work to liberate my fellow survivors.
Most of us have heard and or read Trump’s sexual harassment comments and if you’re like me, have subsequently read plenty of articles floating around Facebook and Twitter that explain why these comments, this “locker room banter”, is so harmful. Many of these articles I can’t even read all the way through because they feel so invasive. I find myself sobbing uncontrollably, reliving, remembering, and trying to reimagine. I am so in awe of any woman, regardless of who they are voting for, that shares her story of sexual assault with me- especially if I’ve never met her.
I’ve been struggling with this blog being “not political”, especially in the last year. Realistically, not a few hours pass without hearing a reference to the election in some way. It has not been my intention to ignore the pain and polarization I blatantly see, but I recognize that I have. My default mode of expression on this forum has been stories of my own experience and how they give me hope even among the atrocities in the world. People working together, talking together, laughing and crying together, despite their differences. I am sorry for not speaking more bluntly about the horrifying abuse that black, latinx, undocumented and documented immigrant, Muslim, Sikh, and other people have endured from a single man and his words. So, I will not speak for anyone but myself, and I will tell you my truth. This week I need to tell you why this “locker room banter” matters to me- as a survivor of sexual assault, yes, and more directly, as someone who lives in a woman’s body every day.
When I wake up in the morning, I put on the outfit I picked out the night before, turn the coffee pot on, and shower/brush teeth/pack my lunch. Sometimes I forget to scoop the coffee into the pot and that adds a few minutes to my routine. I check the T schedule so that when I arrive, I won’t have to wait too long to get on. When I’ve got everything all together, I grab my backpack and head out the door. It’s scowl-face time. There’s a building across the street from my apartment that is under construction. Often, men are working when I walk to the T. I’ve seen them staring, at me and other women. Sometimes, they yell things like “hey, smile!” And “why so serious!?” I practice my therapist’s method of escaping the catcall trigger: name the discomfort (“a stranger yelling at me”), name what’s happening (“I’m shivering, my face is red, I’m walking faster”) and say your calming mantra (“I own my body, I own my mind, I am an agent”). Ignore the comments. It works better some days than others.
When I make it to the T station, sometimes men will follow me closely so they can enter the platform without a ticket. For whatever reason, this makes me upset and I want to say “if you ask me, I would buy you a ticket” but I don’t because it’s safer to just ignore them. On the T, I try to stand where other women are standing because a few weeks ago the train was very crowded and a man held on to one of the handles with his elbow out and he touched my chest. I tried to move, but there was no space. We passed two stations with his elbow wedged into my chest.
When I arrive at work, I try to make eye contact with everyone I pass on the way to the office. Self-defense classes taught me this in order to show that you’re aware of another’s presence. Sometimes I make eye contact with someone, usually a man, for a little too long and I feel my face turn bright red. Quickly, my eyes avert and I walk faster. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Once at work, I usually start my day answering emails or checking in with my coworker. Often we share experiences of micro aggressions that occurred on the train or walking to work. This is 9 am. Our bodies stay on alert for at least 8 more hours before we go home.
Almost every day, I see women students whom I love that have experienced some kind of gendered micro aggression. Much of the time they don’t even call it that: they’ll say, “I wish I wasn’t scared to speak in class. I guess I just need to stop caring about what people think and speak up.” They’ll say, “I couldn’t tell him I was on my period, that would have freaked him out.” To my heartbreak, they’ll tell me that they should have called a guy to walk them home, their bad for getting followed or catcalled at night. They’ll admit that their male professor makes them uncomfortable and they feel bad about that, they’re just being “overly sensitive.” And I see them interact with classmates, staff, and faculty, and I watch them get interrupted, body shamed, and sometimes even harassed without even recognizing what is happening. This is magnified enormously by their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their ability to speak English, their religion. And I want so many times to draw these women close to me, cradle them near my heart and in my arms and say, “let’s stay like this forever.”
I am outraged by Trump’s comments, and even more by his lack of remorse. I can’t say I’m all that surprised, given the systemic non-apologetic oppression women experience every day for the bodies they live in. What scares me the most is the “normalizing.” The fact that people, not just men, live thinking that this kind of behavior is “how it is,” and that this dictates how we live our lives in almost every moment. It terrifies me that people live without the agency to name when someone treats them poorly because of who they are. And I absolutely cannot claim to fully understand this experience, even in my own body and mind.
I write this because it is my truth, and believe that telling stories helps us make sense of experiences that are painful and traumatic. I also hope we will name our pains and our harms more. My hesitancy is always “people don’t want to listen” or “they’ll feel uncomfortable.” That is not my experience. More often than I have realized, the most intimate and open conversations start with one person’s honesty that they’re living in pain or anger or sadness. Even if we don’t relate, we can build trust this way. I commit to speaking up more, because silence can only hold me where I am.