Dealing With It

[Note: This essay speaks largely to my personal experience as a white cisgender woman. I don't wish to speak for the experiences of others here; I invite your experiences in comments.]

[Trigger warning for quotations encouraging sexual assault and racist quotations.]


I’m in ninth grade. I’m new to my school. I’m nervous about where to sit in the cafeteria, about what I’m wearing; my new school is bigger than my old one by some multiplier I’m not even sure of. Numbers transpose in my head something awful. I’m maybe most nervous about math class.

I’m assigned a seat next to the wall in a row of three, with a boy on the outside aisle and an empty seat in between us.

By now, I’ve already gotten enough shit from boys and men to suspect why the empty seat is there.

I’m right.

Starts with spitballs. (“Cut that shit out.”) Then slurs. (I ‘ve just turned fourteen; I have no ready response to the things he outlines should happen to my c***. I manage, “Drop dead.”) Then reaching over to grab things off my desk, dropping them at his feet, hurling them across the classroom. (Our desks are wide. He has to nearly stand to get enough bend to reach mine. When I’m not worrying about him getting it in his head to follow me home from school, I marvel that he’s making such an effort to be such a shit.)

The escalation is rapid. Three weeks into the school year, after watching the teacher repeatedly take note and do nothing, I wait after class and ask for seat reassignment.

“Why?” she says.

She’s picked up my pencils and erasers from the other side of the room. One of them hit another student a few days back; that student’s seat has been moved. Boggled but determined, I list the offenses.

She says, “Well, maybe he just likes you.”

Horror fills me. I have the presence of mind to say, “I don’t care. I would like a seat reassignment.”

She purses her mouth a moment, looks at me. Her face is transparent – she’s had a long day, and I’m being unbearably silly.

“That seems unnecessary,” she says. “You’re going to need to deal with it.”

*

A few days ago, I took the subway.

I got lavaballed. For those unaware of this amazing term, it’s when someone sits on public transit and, presumably for reasons resulting from an unbearable, scorching heat in their groin, must spread their legs wide. The vast majority of the time, this is a man. The vast majority of the time, they encroach on the personal space of a woman.

When this happens to you, you are dealing with it. The encroachment has already happened; you must respond. You can cross your legs, give way, open the space he’s insisting on. Or you can plant your legs and refuse. This requires physical contact for the duration of your intent, or the duration of his intent to claim what he thinks is his. You run the risk of him taking this as a challenge, as a flirtation, as an offense.

There are other public-transit offenses – in a city of nearly nine million, the subway is sometimes nothing but offenses. You move your bag so it doesn’t poke someone; you step aside to make room for a stroller. You squeeze closer to a stranger, exchange that apologetic no-eye-contact smile that acknowledges, It’s not us, it’s the 6 train.

When lavaballs happens, it is deliberate, and it must be answered; there is no option to ignore a thing that has been actively done to you by someone. It’s happened. You have to deal with it.

*

Background noise:

An offensive joke told by two men in front of you in line at the post office. “Bitch,” said about someone else. Loud phone calls on the street, as he hopes his fucking ex died or got fat. Women’s representation in any given movie. Hearing a woman’s spent too much money on her appearance. Reading that women who ask for raises are perceived as impossibly pushy, greedy. The man who asks why women wear makeup; he likes women to look natural. A guy saying something cutting to his date. Steubenville. Rihanna jokes. Reports about Charles Saatchi publicly strangling Nigella Lawson, calling it an argument. No one is looking at you, just now. You don’t have to say anything. You can give yourself the luxury of not responding. You can pretend.

Things you deal with:

A man touching your shoulder when you’re ahead of him in line, to nudge you forward. A man moving to stand in your spot in an otherwise-empty elevator. (The man who uses this opportunity to ask you a question he wouldn’t ask in public.) A man seeing you kneel to pick up a paperclip and saying, “A woman on her knees gives a man ideas.” A man shouting at his girlfriend as she looks around for help. A group of teenage boys catcalling on the street. “Bitch,” said about you. The offensive joke a male co-worker tells you. The male co-worker who repeats you and gets the credit. The man who won’t stop asking you if you want a drink. The man who ducks around the line to cut in front of you. “Smile, sweetheart.” The man at the rush-hour bus stop who asks every woman to look at a picture of his perineum. The man who says you’re too angry for him to take seriously; if you want him to listen, be calmer.

These are not the assaults, the beatings, the rapes. These are not the traumas. These are small things, mostly; they happen a hundred times a day, you have to deal with them all. To ignore these is to know they’re collecting little victories of privilege, and to wait for “baby” to turn to “bitch” when you don’t answer. To respond almost always risks escalation, telescoping the amount of time you’ll have to deal with it. Either can be dangerous, if the man has a mind.

(You’ll have to assume you’re operating alone; a dozen men at that bus stop will stand and watch the man with his iPhone out; when he threatens at length to rape and murder you for telling him to fuck off, they will stand and watch as you try to dial the cops with one eye on his fists. They’ll tell the bus driver you were making a scene. Sometimes that’s how you deal with it.)

Either way, when you tell the story, someone will suggest you should have taken the opposite tack. (This is an equal-opportunity moment; the whole world is invited to question women, and this is an easy win for anyone – to keep quiet is wrong, to engage is wrong.) If you don’t tell the stories, they stack up in silence, and they weigh. You have to deal with that, too.

All of these moments are claims on you. This process is always running; it takes up a variable but dedicated percentage of your active memory. This process is mandatory; your operating parameters haven’t been designed otherwise.

*

May 29, 2013.

Ken Hoinsky begins a Kickstarter for ABOVE THE GAME: A Guide to Getting Awesome with Women, based partially on posts he has made to Reddit . It funds, at eight times the amount he was asking for.

From Chapter 7, “Physical Escalation and Sex”:

The concept of “waiting for signs” or “Indicators of Interest” was commonplace in older pickup theory. It is 100% garbage and needs to be erased from the face of the planet.
Never, ever, ever, wait for a SIGN before you escalate! You will miss out on the vast majority of chances if you sit around waiting for SIGNS. Men are notoriously bad at reading women’s minds and body language. Don’t think that you’re any different. From now on you must ASSUME that she is attracted to you and wants to be ravished. It’s a difference in mindset that makes champs champs and chumps chumps..It is YOUR JOB, as the man, to lead the interaction. Be playful. Spin her around. Pick her up. Push her away as a tease and then pull her back in.
Decide that you’re going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg and back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.

*

I’m in ninth grade, in the same seat, shoulder against the wall, trying to take notes. He reaches over and takes a paper off my desk. He’s watching me.

I snap.

I stand up so fast I knock my chair backwards; I’m stepping forward, against the chair between us. He’s using it as leverage for his reach – I unbalance it. It crashes into him. It pinches his hand, it bangs his shoulder. He yelps.

My hands are fists. I say, “Touch anything of mine again and you’ll pull back a stump.”

The class has gone silent. The teacher has turned around.

She says, “What’s going on here?”

I say, “I’m dealing with it.”

I spend two hours in the principal’s office. The reason on my slip: “Violent outburst against another student.”

*

July 2012.

I attend Readercon. I’m sexually harassed by someone. After two days of dealing with it, I report it to the con; the Board investigates, and confirms by his own admission that he has done everything listed. The Board says they’re sure he’s sorry; they waive their zero-tolerance policy and give him a two-year time out. I, the community at large, and the Readercon concom find this unacceptable. Other reports of harassment by this person become public. Changes are made. Under the new Readercon Board, the offender is banned for life per the existing policy; the concom forms a committee to determine a new policy and train in how to deal with harassment in future.

Time passes. It is suggested by many – in person, on people’s blogs, on the SMOF mailing list – that I invited this. It’s suggested that I was out to ruin Readercon. Some suggest with a new harassment policy in place, they would feel unsafe, because their flirting might be misconstrued. Someone suggests I was walking around with my breasts out, and should have known what would happen. I get to screencap my first death threats. (These are my first; I’ve been lucky.)

It’s almost a year later. People still mention to me how they’ve heard he’s doing. It’s been rough, they say, on him. How am I?

I’m dealing with it.

*

June 2013

N.K. Jemisin gives a Guest of Honor speech at Continuum calling for a Reconciliation in SF. Theodore Beale is mentioned in passing as a “misogynist, racist…asshole” who still received 10% of the vote on his SFWA presidential candidacy. He responds in an essay (screencapped here) where he calls her an “educated, but ignorant savage” and says that Stand Your Ground laws were enacted to “let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages engaged in attacking white people.”

He uses an official SFWA platform to announce the post. When this is pointed out by others, the tweet is removed. People call for his expulsion for violation of SFWA bylaws. (Others call for his expulsion on the grounds of hate speech; the idea meets resistance. Differences of opinion, they say, should be respected.)

There’s debate going on in SFWA, a week later, as to whether he should be cast out. No one wants to set a bad example.

*

I’ve lived in this city for almost a decade. I chose my lavaball strategy early. I have big legs; thick, muscular. When I sit, I sit with legs straight and feet on the floor, using no more space than necessary. When I am lavaballed, I dig them in and hold firm.

If you want a five-second social experiment, this is it. Some men get angry. Some men hit on you. Some men – the honest men, maybe – without ever acknowledging your presence, will push harder and harder against your leg; if they can’t will you to do it, they will force you. All of them, every single one, is surprised to encounter resistance.

Once, a guy pushed as hard as he could for twenty minutes. He gained no ground. He then moved to the opposite bench – that had been empty the entire time – sat down, and spread his legs as wide as he could. He never looked at me.

I never moved. (Sometimes that’s how you deal with it: you do nothing, as hard as you can.)

*

When I sit down now – when I sit anywhere – I take the aisle seat. I’m dealing with it.

I have no choice.

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  • Liz

    Just adding one more voice of support and gratitude. Reading things like this always give me this odd mixed reaction: half happy that so many people relate (acknowledgement! I’m not crazy!) and half miserable that this is so common. When I started telling my friends and family I was a rape survivor, it was similar: so many people I knew thanked me for giving them a space to talk about their experiences. I was awed by the sense of community and love, but so completely horrified by just how many people it was. Almost every woman I know (and two of the men) has been sexually assaulted. This post really helped link the “big” assaults with the little, daily ones we all deal with in a way that I sensed, but could never quite put into words. So thanks for that and for your strength.

  • Andrew Purcell

    Well, you do have a choice. You choose to live where people behave poorly. Both men and women. I’m not here to apologize for men — I could write a whole essay agreeing with you at points and disagreeing at others, but, regardless, I’m sorry you’ve had to endure these things. It seems, though, to be either the company you keep or the city in which you keep your company, because this is not in any way representative of normal, healthy male behavior. It’s actually kind of offensive (ha, look, you turned the tables on me!) that you would imply that this is what it is to be around men in general. I literally don’t know anyone who treats women like this, and I don’t hang out with saints. But hey, let the firestorm descend…

    • Andrew Purcell

      Er, to backpedal only slightly, I remember now that my girlfriend once told me about the concrete, awful, truly vitriolic misogyny that can be found in “geek culture” — I may just not understand the situation fully, though your post does seem to deal with the general culture in addition to the more specific geek niche. Anyway, I’m sorry people are shits to you but I also hope you understand that real men (can I say that without irony quotes?) would never tolerate behavior like that in their presence.

      • glvalentine

        Oddly enough, your first reaction – to blame men’s behavior on me, first for Living In A Place, with a side reaction of assuming that the people who do this to women all day long are those I have somehow invited into the “company I keep”, making it my responsibility – is in fact a perfect example of the misogyny found everywhere, not just in geek culture: blaming the targets for the aggressor’s behavior. The number of women who have responded to this post by saying it is reflective of the behavior they also experience regularly mean that it is not, in fact, isolated to any one type of person, or place, or experience, or subculture. It is everywhere.

        Thank you for questioning your own behavior and amending your initial judgement; when every man does so, and uses that as a guide to modify their behavior, we might even have change.

    • Crysania

      As a man you really have NO idea what women see and deal with on an everyday basis from men. I have lived in large cities, rural towns, and the suburbs of two different states that are worlds apart (one a very red state, the other blue) and while I haven’t experienced everything this author has, I have experienced a good amount of it. I have had men catcall me when I was walking home from school. I have had men try to pick me up (once when told I was in a relationship said man refused to back down and asked “Are you happy with him?”). I have had men insult me, get in my personal space, grab the book I’m reading to see what it is and then ridicule me for my choice (really, a book on dog behavior or an analysis of Beethoven symphonies is clearly too intellectual for a woman!). The list could go on and on from minor offenses to more major. It has nothing to do with where you live (which sometimes is not something you CAN choose because not everyone has the means to just up and move). It has nothing to do with the company you keep (I keep very good company, thank you very much). It simply is a fact of life. And until people realize it and acknowledge it and stop blaming women (or black people or Asian folks or gay people or whatever) for what others say and do to them, nothing is ever going to change.

  • Greg Reelitz

    This was a powerful read.

    My experiences on the social fringe (I was labelled a nerd, among other things) as a child led to many similar experiences. And the memories of that misery and constantly being on-guard were stirred by what you’ve shared here.

    I have been fortunate that the vast majority of that is now only in my past. It saddens me that others, such as yourself, must continue to experience it.

    Over the last few years, I have been trying to be a better ally. I still have difficulty changing the (sometimes subtle) patterns of thinking that became ingrained in me over the years. And I have found that most men (and many women) fail to understand how their actions contribute to the everyday oppression of women (and other groups)–even when confronted.

    What you have written here, Genevieve, spells out what is so difficult to recognize and understand. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Michelle

    This is the best and most accurate thing I’ve ever read. That shit about guys spreading their legs next to your seat? Happened to me more times than I could remember ever since I was a little 9 year old taking the public bus all by myself. And now I am so angry. I can’t believe some had the nerve to do this and then look at me suggestively. Me! A 9 year old! How disgusting and angering and I just want to punch someone now.

Genevieve on Tumblr

  • photo from Tumblr

    I loved the Met’s Death Becomes Her exhibition of mourning clothes. The rules of mourning are fascinating and infuriating in equal measure, and the exhibit does a great job of presenting the benefits of mourning (publicly noting grief explains much to others that one then doesn’t have to explain oneself), the business of mourning (fashion crept into mourning left right and center), and the politics of mourning (sexually-experienced ladies who might have money and be in the market for a new husband? Lock up your sons). 

    [Top photo: Metropolitan Museum. Other photos mine.]

    "The Scots shut themselves up in total darkness,wear veils, i know not how many folds, but so black that sitting beside them you could not tell whether it is a broomstick dressed up or what it is." - Elizabeth Emma Stuart, 1856

    "Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing." - Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book, 1855

    "I remember a remark a very superficial minded young lady made to me the other day: ‘I think a long black dress and a long black veil look so nice.’ Poor creature let her think on. She was in mourning once for her father." Nannie Haskins Williams, 1863

    "Have been all this week in a sad task making up my mourning for my dear Papa & today for the first time put it on. The sight of this black dress brings the cause why I wear it more fully to my mind, if possible brings him more vividly before me." Catherine Anne Edmonston, 1861

    "Black is more than ever the favorite color of fashion. there was a time—our mothers will remember it—when the sole fact of wearing a black dress when one was not in mourning was sufficient to call forth a kind of reprobation, and to cause the wearer to be classed among the dangerously eccentric women."  Harper’s Bazaar, 1879

    10/30/14

  • photo from Tumblr

    britticisms:

    (via nearlya)

    Mihoko Ogaki

    LED sculpturess

    10/28/14