[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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.