Like any rational, humane person, I was horrified not only by Elliot Rodgers’ murderous rampage in Isla Vista, but also by what followed: the flood of stories at #YesAllWomen about the constant, unrelenting degradation, abuse, harassment, and violence that women have encountered throughout their lives. And in response to the horror, I was also heartened, that so many women and men were finally naming and condemning this behavior for what it is: misogyny, hatred of women.
I wanted to take part, to show solidarity for the movement and add to the force of the thousands and thousands of examples of women being hurt professionally, emotionally, and physically in every facet of their lives. And yet, looking at my own life, I couldn’t easily find an example of my own. I thought about it: when have I faced discrimination or threats because of my sex? And couldn’t think of anything.
So I said to myself—that’s nonsense. You’ve been a feminist for a long time now, you write about sex and gender all the time, and you’re a woman in what you’ve known, your whole adult life, to be a culture that is uncomfortable-to-hostile with half of itself. And you can’t think of a single instance when you’ve suffered even slightly as a result? Impossible.
I started to think this through—and realized that, in general, I’ve led a very privileged life. As a daughter, a girlfriend, a wife, a friend, I’ve been surrounded by loving people who have always wanted to protect me from harm.
And I thought—ah—that’s it, that’s where it happens: I’ve been lucky to have been kept safe from the harm that so many other women have suffered. Like I said, I’ve been privileged, and I’m grateful to all the kindness that’s protected me. But here’s the problem: why did I need to be protected? from what exactly? and what happens to the person who grows up sheltered from harm, never having to confront it head on…?
I think the menace was there all along, but I only caught glimpses of it, over the shoulders of those keeping it at bay. When I was a child, I had a protective, close-knit family. I’ve always had a knack for being friends with boys; at the same time, I was never considered one of the pretty, popular girls—in spite of which (or because of it?) I was never preyed upon by boys in high school the way some girls were. And once I got to college, I ended up in a long-term relationship in short order—I had the protection of living a quiet, domestic life, far from the fray of dating, never having to fend for myself as a single woman in her 20s. My partner at the time was a tall, athletic Canadian; if we went anywhere, he drove, he read the maps, he rode in front—and I was content to ride pillion, literally and figuratively; if we went camping, I’d wake him up and make him walk me to the bathrooms in the middle of the night; I was always quite obviously with him, and counted on him as a buffer, support, and protector. If I was on my own, I had my magic ring to let other men know that I was claimed, that I had a man somewhere looking out for me. It was really nice, which is why women have continued to choose such arrangements long after law and custom stopped forcing us into them. (And importantly, we never really felt like we were living according to any traditionally-defined arrangement: while both my partner and I settled easily into fairly gendered roles, it never occurred to him to exploit the situation—we always felt we had a very egalitarian relationship.) Even when my partner of the time lived in another city for grad school, his friends kept an eye on me: in my partner’s absence, I’d be taken out, flanked by two huge blond Canadians—safe as houses at any bar we’d step into.*
I’d hear of other girls getting hit on, pressured, never left alone, stalked, assaulted. But I’d never really been aware of this violence as a societal problem until—like the Isla Vista incident now—some exceptional incidents forced everyone’s attention onto the issue. Long before I considered it to be something that might apply to me, my commitment to feminism emerged out of outrage on behalf of other women who had been shockingly victimized, discounted, hated: the Ecole Polytechnique massacre, where Marc Lepine shot 24 women in 1989, the William Kennedy Smith rape case in 1991, where a privileged white guy walked out of a courtroom because no-one believed his victim; the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in spite of Anita Hill’s damning testimony of harassment. Such incidents left me enraged, sickened. Sure, #NotAllMen do that stuff (harassment, assault, murder) to the women in their lives—but as innumerable testimonials forcefully prove over and over again (while changing little), #YesAllWomen have been surrounded by, harmed by, all manner of discrimination-fueled abuse.
If I hadn’t had so many of the good guys around me for most of my life, I would be bearing witness with my own accounts as well. Because I remember—
—there was the time when I was 8, and the babysitter left her brother with us, and he exposed himself, once…was it in the bathroom? was there another time when he sat on the edge of my friend’s bed? I think that’s all that I saw—but what happened to my friend, the man’s niece…?
—there was the time when I was 13 or 14, hanging out at the beach, and those guys in the truck—much older, in their 20s at least—kept trying to get us to come party with them, and we were flattered by their attention, and tempted by their invitation—but something seemed a little off about them, so we said no. And as we walked away, they cruised alongside, trying to get us to come along, until we got to my friend’s house…
—and there was the time, when I was 19, before I met my partner, when the guy I’d been dating tried to force something on me that I didn’t really want, but he was much stronger than me, and after all, we’d been going out for a while, so it’s not like you can say anything when it’s your boyfriend, right…?
So I guess #YesAllWomen includes me too, in a small way. But again—I was safe, I was protected—I got off easy.
I was able get well into my 30s without ever really having to deal with being a single woman in our culture. Now that I’m on my own, I can see how sheltered I was (and often wish I still were). I had to start from scratch, learn all my lessons the hard way; without being tempered by experience when I was younger, I’m naive and overly trusting. I find it hard to imagine that the people I meet don’t think the same way I do, or like my protectors used to do; I can’t get used to assuming that there are some men who think of me as a diversion, an indulgence, a game, an object—as prey.
And still, I’m lucky. I’ve been used a bit and taken advantage of, but I haven’t been really hurt. (Or maybe that’s how we learn to live with all the accumulated hurts, from petty to significant—we try to walk it off, tough it out, make excuses for our behavior or theirs, nurse our emotional or physical bruises in private, and put on a brave face in public).
I find that, as one perverse function of a sexist culture, I have a certain amount of safety because of my age—at a certain point, men stop telling you to “have a nice day!” and “smile beautiful!”; they stop telling you that you’re looking good, stop yelling at you out of car windows. This makes you feel both more secure when you walk around, and also, annoyingly invisible (annoying because when you want attention, you can’t command it; annoying because you’re irritated with yourself for being so brainwashed to put attention ahead of respect).
And yet, a woman on her own can’t ever let down her guard. As a few male commentators have pointed out recently, it’s possible for them to go through their day without ever thinking for a second about whether they’re safe or not. Every time I decide to leave window open on a warm day, every time I decide how I’m getting home from anything, every time I get in my car, every time someone offers to help me when I’m traveling—I have to make an assessment about the likelihood of being assaulted or raped. It doesn’t happen in a particularly conscious, specific way: we don’t think about rape (we don’t want to), just formless risk. Thanks to a life-time of practice, it’s just instinctive reflex.
I think we tend to think of that risk as being more random than it really it is. For example, we think that, somehow, adult dating should be far safer than walking home from the T at night—and that’s probably not true. But we allow ourselves to minimize the risks of dating—we have to, otherwise, how could we even attempt it? As Margaret Atwood and Louis CK have variously observed, when you’re getting to know a man, you can’t spend any time alone with him without weighing, for a few seconds maybe, just in passing, how “nice” he seems against how likely he is to rape and kill you. Of course, #NotAllMen are like that—luckily, few of the men I’ve gone out with have tried anything, and I haven’t felt physically threatened, most of the time. But it’s not easy to trust even the ones who seem the most “nice.” The weight of historical precedent isn’t on their side—since about 85% of the “nice” guys routinely lie or prevaricate about everything from their weight and age to their work to their addresses to their motives for dating (“I totally agree—I’m totally over the hookups and ready to look for something more serious…”)—they’re not helping to build a climate of trust for themselves. I’ve gone out with only one person who was relentlessly honest from the get-go—the keyword being relentless, as he used his honesty as a justification to quiz me ceaselessly about every man I’ve ever known and every other man I might talk to in the course of the day. He saw some guys ogling me on the T one day, and didn’t like it—he kept talking about how he wanted to call them out; he also advised me to be careful about what I wore, so as not to provoke unwanted attention.
When we meet a man, the threat assessment will just be a flicker at the back of our mind—again, it’s that trained reflex. We evaluate everything we know about him (“He has a job and a house—he must be all right, right…? The fact that he’s paying $20 a month for this dating website, which makes each of us present him- or herself as just another item to be added to the shopping basket, must mean that he’s incapable of objectifying me, right…?”). We make some skewed calculation, and either get in the car or not. We text our girlfriends with the guy’s name and number, and let them know where we are, and that we’re all right. If we go to a date’s house, we arrange to have friends text, for some fabricated, innocuous reason, so we can ping them back quickly with the all-clear. We don’t, generally, go out without our girlfriends—they might seem as though they’re only there as wing-women, but they’re also our security. We can’t stand alone at a salsa club, for example—you need to have a friend with you not only to make yourself look more charming, but also so that if some weird guy starts to give you more attention than you want, you have your girlfriend to pull you to the bar, to the bathroom, or right out of the club if necessary to get away. And then we make sure we see one another onto the train, or into the taxi. We put our keys in our fists as a weapon, and prime 911 on our phones as we walk home, and we text again when we get in the door.
Guys, do you think that’s paranoid, that it’s too much? Maybe it is, but maybe it has to be. Pay attention—really watch, and pay attention—to every story on every crime drama on tv ever: the narrative of the woman who makes a judgment call, gets in the car, and is found in a dumpster—is everywhere. Pay attention to the news, and the stories of women getting assaulted on their way home from work; of the men who pull women off the street into their trucks in Brookline, for heaven’s sake; of girls who think they’re having fun, and being pretty and popular, by going to parties at college, only to wake up the next morning to find that that really cute guy they’d hoped would ask them out had actually had sex with her while she’d been semi-conscious—and then, after reporting it to the college, seeing that guy sitting in class like nothing had ever happened. Pay attention to the women who blog or tweet about sexism in the workplace, only to get anonymous posts back suggesting that someone needs to track them down, and do them the favor of raping them. Pay attention to the women who try to live like they’re unencumbered by judgement about their sexuality, and threats of violence, and have a date here, or a hook-up there—and they make the wrong call, and pick the wrong guy, who takes pictures of them without their consent and then posts the images all over the internet.
At any given moment in the day, any given woman might be perfectly safe. But any given woman is living in a culture where all these threats are in her head, sometimes more or less prominently than others, all the time—by training, by experience, she can neither afford, nor choose to ignore them. As I said, we’ve also learned how to compartmentalize and minimize, so that we can go about our lives as though the threat isn’t there (but it is). What a drain on women’s mental and emotional energy. Sometimes it’s terrifying; but mostly it’s tedious, wearing, something to be endured.
So—it’s a very good thing that the #YesAllWomen discussion has started to happen, that women and men are trying to think through how misogyny works in our culture, with the goal of dismantling it—not an easy task, nor a new one. Let’s hope this current push makes a difference.
*as I was writing that, I smiled, thinking of myself as a sort of Canadian Khaleesi…and then thought about how any woman in the Game of Thrones world unable to command the loyalty and devotion of men would last about 5 minutes on her own, before being gang-raped and either sold into prostitution, or left in pieces in a gutter. The only women who come close to being able to protect themselves without the help of a man are represented as unfeminine, and not even quite human: too mannish (Brienne), pretending to be a boy while developing into a sociopath (Arya), allied with barbarians and giant cannibals (Ygritte). The women who do have the most power have acquired it by exploiting men’s gullibility for sexuality, magic, theater—not a very flattering representation of either sex, there.