It’s taken me three days to write this.
Last week, I posted Dealing With It.
There’s been a lot of response, both public and private. I don’t usually write personal essays; I was staggered.
I’ve seen people express curiosity about its reception. With good reason; historically, women who speak up are in line for varying levels of vitriol, and this one achieved enough visibility outside my usual readership that people who know how the internet works were probably bracing a little for impact. I was.
So far, the response has been largely positive. There’s backlash, but nothing of grave concern has landed on my doorstep. This makes me an anomaly. I’m grateful.
Partly, though, that’s because it’s easy for people who dismiss this kind of commentary to ignore it. A post about issues that don’t affect them from someone a rung down the ladder, is not something they have to deal with. It’s not even background noise to take seriously. For a man, a list of grievances from a woman makes him a passerby. He doesn’t have to think about it if he doesn’t want to; that’s what privilege is.
(While I was writing this, I got a comment on one of my Readercon posts. Abovethread was an unpublished one from November, anonymous: “How much do you weigh?”)
“That having been said, speaking as a dude: many of us have sensitive balls. If we sit with our legs closed together – and as a frequent transit user, I can say that sitting with your legs closed together is often required – frequently this means that our balls end up squeezed between our legs and that can be unpleasant, to say the least – to say nothing of the looks you get if you try to adjust them – and even if you can get them resting on top it’s often still not comfortable at all. So it’s not that there’s something wrong with our testicles. It’s that balls are just sort of naturally inconvenient in this sense.” (x)
This is the beginning of a comment on Metafilter (thanks to H. for pointing it out).
It’s not a death threat, or a rape threat. I’m not even a bitch. I get off light. It is, if we’re being honest, hilarious. Sensitive ball-itis: the silent spreader.
But it’s one of a particular strain of comment in response to this – a man agreed with me, and then he mentioned a time he’d felt uncomfortable on public transit; a man asked what exactly I meant by “touching,” because sometimes he tapped women on the shoulder and wanted to be clear; a man felt his balls shouldn’t be equated with men who are actually rude.
They seem, more or less, kindly meant. Their authors, much of the time, seem genuinely willing to learn, which is a damn sight better than it could be. But here’s what these comments do, in an essay about the hardships of being a woman: They make sure we never forget that we’re expected to accommodate men.
They might not be intended that way. Many people are just now waking up to privilege, trying to be allies, worried about doing the wrong thing, trying to learn. (I’m new to awareness of a lot of my privileges. I’m working on it all. I fuck up often.)
But what we’re left with are men who are, however obliquely, equating a system of oppression to their brief inconvenience; who are questioning if the tapping was actually bad, or if women overreact; who are questioning if women really need that much room, if a man prefers to spread ’em.
It makes the men who are asking another thing we have to deal with.
Here’s how men who want to help can start: Listen. Be willing to inconvenience yourself in order to get it right. Re-evaluate how you are around women; do it all the time.
If you worry a behavior might be misconstrued, don’t do it. If you think tapping a woman on the shoulder might be one of the hundred things from men she has to deal with today, and you don’t want to be that guy, don’t tap her on the shoulder.
The language of the oppressed is often subsumed, sidelong; it’s had to be. It takes a lot of reading, listening; it takes, finally, the willingness to give way.
That’s the deal.
Here, maybe, is where shit will rain down from men who ignored it before. When I was just a list, things were different. Now I’m encroaching. What do I know about men? That’s not me, they’ll say, she shouldn’t treat all men as dangerous, as if that’s a risk any woman can take. What right do I have, they’ll say, to dictate someone’s behavior? Fascism, they’ll say, as if I’ve passed a law. Unacceptable, they’ll say. Their anger is bizarre. It’s disproportionate to what’s being asked. (“I’ll tap her on the shoulder if I goddamn want to!” is such a funny thing to get angry about, when you think about it; it would be funny, except where it’s not.)
This is important for you; as an ally, these are the men you’ll be up against. You’ll be surprised who they are. You probably know one, even if you don’t know that now. It will be awful for you, when you find out.
Women sympathize; our lives have been a guessing game in a world riddled with his kind, trying to discover him before it’s too late. We get punished pretty badly if we don’t.
The men who carry that anger about small things carry it about big ones; they’re the ones who sit down and push when a woman resists; they’re the ones who, maybe when they’re very drunk or very angry, call women “that.” Their hate is bone-deep in ways they’ll never think about; their hate is a thing they act on, and it hurts women in ways you don’t think about right away, ways that are hard to see unless you’ve been standing where we are for a long time, dealing with it.
(While I was writing this, the Texas Legislature passed a bill placing restrictions on abortion providers; if passed, by 2014 it will “shut down 37 out of 42 abortion clinics in the state.”)
“These things I understand. I never really ‘got’ the day-to-day of it, though. It’s not part of my world. I don’t experience that. I probably don’t get it fully now but I at least understand it a little better for what you’ve written here. So yeah, add me to the chorus of “thanks” and hopefully at least there won’t be quite a dozen men standing around doing nothing at the bus stop.” (x)
It’s not always easy; when you step in. If you’ve done this, you know. If you haven’t, prepare. Harassers and instigators and aggravators will be surprised – they’re not used to interference, maybe. Then maybe they’ll be ashamed, and stop (the word of a man means more, to those men; it’s the same principle that spawned the Imaginary Boyfriend excuse for women who are trying to get a man to back off). But maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be furious. You have, after all, encroached on a private matter.
The good news is, sometimes it’s easy; sometimes – most of the time – you don’t have to come in swinging. You just have to be a witness. Witnesses mean consequences; witnesses scuttle he-said she-said. Witnesses ask if everything’s all right.
It’s a rough gig, if you take it. Once you see the patterns, it can be kind of awful. It’s everywhere. It’s all the time. It’s exhausting. We know.
(While I was writing this, a 17-year-old girl, who started a feminist society at her school amid backlash, wrote an editorial for the Guardian. In reply, the school announced they would “take steps to recommend students remove words or images that they place online that could compromise their safety or that of other students at the school.”
They meant the feminists.)
“…I’ve been in this fight for far too long. In 1973, we never thought 2013 would look like this. We hoped and dreamed of so much better for our daughters and granddaughters.” (x)
By far, the comment I got most on my article was from a woman who had recognized her own experience. A lot of them started with similar phrases. “Mine was,” I got a lot. “My first was,” “It started when,” “Ever since…”
This is what we’re dealing with, every day. A cumulative history of dealing with it.
There’s a network among women. It’s far from perfect (the world rewards divide-and-conquer here; feminism as exclusionary tactic for those without privileges of race or class or cis; feminism as a slur – you’re not like those other girls, you’re cool). But it’s there, and we need it. There’s the whispers never to be alone in an elevator with that district manager, or that editor; there’s the warnings about that guy in your psych class or the guy down the street. There’s the “he’s handsy” heads-up in a nightclub or a high-school hallway. There’s the old “There you are!” routine when you’re trying to get someone away from unwanted attention. There’s the eye contact in tense situations – the ones that say, I don’t know if I can help you, but you’re not alone.
We fight back as best we can. We deal with it. When it’s safe, we try to fight back in the open; we try to write about the threats and the dread and the thousand paper cuts. It seems an extraordinary thing, this gauntlet twenty-four seven, when you’re experiencing it, or trying to express it, or when a friend gives you a list of what’s happened to her today.
It’s so endless and prevalent it seems impossible. It’s not. It’s ordinary. What’s happening happens a hundred times a day, to someone. That’s sort of the awful thing, isn’t it, that something that goes on so constantly can make you feel so alone? What a thing to deal with, all day long.
If this is you, reading, you’re not alone. My first was. Mine was. It started when. Ever since.
I wish I had a neat conclusion here; I wish there was a neat conclusion. (There isn’t. We’re in the middle of a war. There’s just reports of volleys fired, that’s all.)
I am glad, and I’m sorry, that so many people identified with my post. I hope for a day that this experience is the exception, rather than the rule.
Thank you for reading.