What Every Woman Knows

Written October 8, 2016

Social Media has been buzzing this morning with the reveal of Donald Trump’s misogynistic and vulgar comments about women in 2005. They are appalling, but for most women, negotiating these types of attitudes and behaviors is business as usual.

A few months ago after yet another shooting of an unarmed African American by the police, I was working out a possible blog post in my head. I wanted to try to articulate the analogy between how African American parents are forced to prepare their children for our racist culture with how women must prepare their girl children for American rape culture and had the revelation that I take this culture so much for granted that I rarely bother to have direct conversations about this with the men in my life. I don’t know if they are even aware of what most girls and women experience on a daily basis. It just IS.

I actually cannot remember a time in my life that I was NOT aware that there will always be some boys and some men who would see girls and women, who would see ME, as an object, as less than human, and as a potential source of their gratification regardless of my wishes or consent. Did this awareness start the first time I was told by a teacher that the grade-school boy who pulled my braid so hard that it brought tears to my eyes was just doing that because he “liked” me? Was it the first time spin the bottle was played at a middle school party and the girls were expected to be good sports and kiss boys they didn’t like, who might even repulse them, because they agreed to play in the first place? Was it the first time a friend showed up in high school English class with a black eye from her boyfriend and instead of offering her support, classmates whispered behind her back wondering what she had done to “deserve” it? Was it the first time I saw a fashion magazine ad where a vacant eyed woman in gorgeous clothes passively endured being groped by an equally gorgeous and well-dressed man? Or was kneeling prostrate in front of him, her head level with his crotch? Or maybe it was the first time I saw a Robert Palmer video on MTV.

Maybe it was the first time an adult man paid a little TOO much attention to my twelve- year old, developing body and when I complained to my mother about it, saying it made me feel “gross,” I was basically told this is the way things are, please don’t rock the boat by protesting or causing a scene, and just try to stay out of his way.

Girls and women are taught from an incredibly early age that we are responsible not only for our own sexuality but for the sexuality of boys and men. That birth control is our responsibility. That being a sexual tease (i.e. making out with a boy and then deciding we don’t want to go any further) is the WORST thing that a girl can do. Or maybe being a slut is– that was always a little bit confusing to me. Although the amount of sexism and body shaming that today’s girls are subject to in out-of-control school dress code policies that hold girls to different standards and blame them for distracting their male classmates is getting much-needed press, this is not a new story. We have always been told not to wear our skirts too short, our tops too low, not to be too loud and flashy lest we attract the “wrong” kind of attention while also being told to smile more, not to dress like a sexless librarian or god forbid, do not dress like a boy or you will be mistaken for a lesbian. I am sure my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation were also told to be modest, keep their legs crossed, not wear their skirts too short and to be “good” girls too.

The reality is, no matter what length we wear our skirts, no matter how buttoned up our shirts are, how good we try—how good I try– to be, I simply do not know a woman who has NOT been subject to unwanted, unwelcome sexual attention from boys and men. I actually don’t know how many times I have ridden public transportation and not known if the man standing next to me was jostled into me or deliberately fondled me. Some of this is subtle and I have questioned my own interpretation, calling myself paranoid. Some of this is blatant and unrepentant. I have had to change seats more than once on trains and buses because of this. I have talked politely to men on trains when I would have much rather been reading my book at the end of a long day because I was worried that if I ignored his attention, he could escalate and I could get hurt.

When I was a young social worker, I had male clients flirt with me, ask for my phone number, ask about my boyfriend, my home life, and my sex life during sessions and on one memorable occasion, masturbate during a session (for the record, I told him I would only keep talking to him if both his hands were on the desk.) I was 24 years old. Social work school did NOT prepare me for days like that.

Nor did it prepare me for the new middle-age male outpatient clinic manager who always seemed to have his hand in the small of my back when we walked down the hall. It just felt “wrong,” too “intimate” and when the administrative staff came to me and told me that he was being even more sexually inappropriate with them, I became the whistle blower who reported him to management, who fortunately had our backs and fired him the same day. What sticks with me is that despite me knowing he HAD to go, that there was no place for a person in a position of power to be making female staff feel unsafe in an agency that treated traumatized and abused children, I still felt guilty about getting him fired.

I have personally had to fire a male temp employee who was doing mental health intakes for my unit at a community mental health center who made arrangements to meet one of our fragile new female clients in a bar and then asked her to go out with him. She was brave enough to report him. Both he and his temp agency were puzzled about why he had to go and had to go immediately.

I have lost my shit with a male emergency room doctor and female nurse when I took a teenage client for evaluation after being sexually assaulted by a car full of teenage boys. The hospital staff treated her– and me–  with visible contempt because of the way she was dressed and because she kept laughing nervously during examination, which was simply how she was dealing with the trauma. She was 16 years old. I was 22 and in sweatpants, flip flops and a T-shirt and hope that they remembered for the rest of their careers me yelling at them loudly enough for the whole ER staff to hear that if I was ever unlucky enough to be sexually assaulted, I prayed that I would be taken to a hospital where the staff would treat me with the kindness and compassion I deserved, with the kindness and compassion this young woman, no matter how she was dressed, had deserved.

I have been in a freshman dorm room where a drunk, entitled college football player would not take ‘no’ for an answer when my roommate allowed him to stay in the room as a favor for a floor mate after a party. I made a lot of noise to make it clear that I was awake and he stopped and eventually passed out. Apparently he was not nearly as bothered by my roommates resistance to his advances as he was by an audience. My roommate had a black belt in karate and just froze. He was a friend of friend and we were so socialized to be “nice” that my roommate was almost date raped with me in the room. I can’t even remember if we ever told our floor mate about it or whether we just avoided her boyfriend and his cocky teammate going forward.

I have been catcalled when I dressed nicely– but appropriately- for work by construction workers and cars full of men. I wonder how many women reading this still feel their stomachs clench up EVERY time they have to walk by a construction site in preparation for the catcalling. I can’t believe that I am the only one. I have been angrily called a “fucking dyke” or a “stuck-up bitch” on more than one occasion when I refused to make eye contact, refused to smile, refused to say “thank you” to some random man trying to get my attention and/or making inappropriate comments about my body and what he would like to do to it, when I just wanted to get where I am going.

What almost feels worse about these experiences is not that they happen. but how I have learned to just shrug them off because “that’s the way it is.” It is painful for me to have the kind of conversations mothers feel are their responsibility with my own children, to try to give them a little bit of armor against this type of pervasive and casual sexual harassment, with this rape culture. It starts young with books like “It’s My Body” and progresses to conversations about if they are going to drink or experiment with drugs to please, only do that with people they know well and trust, don’t ever accept an open drink at a party, to always go out in a group when going out at night. To look out for each other. I am angry and sad about these conversations, about the fact that I am now training the next generation of girls and women to feel responsible for someone else’s behavior. For some boy or man’s sexuality.

I realize that the many people, mostly men, who point out that potential harassers and rapists should remember that a girl or woman is someone else’s mother/sister/wife truly mean well but this really pisses me off. It should NOT matter if I am some man’s wife, some man’s daughter, or some boy’s sister. The fact that I AM should be enough. I am a human being, not an object. I am complete and entire on my own, regardless of my relationship to others. I deserve to have my wishes, boundaries and personal integrity respected because I am a thinking, breathing human being in this world.

© 2016 Christine Elizabeth Ray – All rights Reserved

 

38 thoughts on “What Every Woman Knows

  1. I have 4 grandsons & 1 granddaughter. ALL the boys, even the 5 yr old, are encouraged to watch out for their 12 yr old sister. we all know why but never questioned the outrageous necessity of it all. thank you for the article. we will be having conversations with my grandchildren about respect and how boys & girls are to treat each other. sadly, though, until society changes, my granddaughter will continue to be chaperone by her brothers.

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  2. I wish I had this when I was just a little girl. Even for my Mother would have been a great help for her to understand she had a right to be treated as a precious person. Our Granddaughters need to read this and learn they can say no and say respect me for I am a human being and you will treat me as such.

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    1. I think that part of what disturbs me the most is how little we questioned it growing up. It was just the way of the world. I did become a pretty angry 16 year old, but I was very aware that my anger made others acutely uncomfortable.

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  3. Thank you for putting into public words what so many of us feel. I too have had a similar life experience full of incidents that could probably have had criminal consequences for the boys/men, but I was trained to keep my head down and not be a trouble maker. At 17 or 18 or 19 I didn’t have the strength to combat the culture that seemed like a chorus of men and women. A therapist dismissed the pain and said I appeared fine. The peer perpetrator of date rape appeared confused and like a puppy who was misunderstood. How could a girl hold firm to her internal barometer and beliefs when the world seemed to see it differently? It felt like a looking glass. I wish I could innoculate my daughter and empower my son to blaze a trail of different maleness but I fear that my lessons will pale when they are in the big world. It makes my heart cry for my daughter and all girls. Maybe this tape release will help bring into the light a culture that is insidious and perverse.

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  4. ML- it hurts me that you had to question your own perceptions about what occurred but I think that this is all too common. We are taught to not trust or instincts if they question the status quo. I have many good men in my life and do believe that there are many fine teenage boys out there who respect girls and women. Unfortunately, there is still a strong culture that supports those who do not or who do have conviction behind their beliefs.

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      1. I wrote about something similar on facebook not too long ago as well. The part that made me feel the worst about it was that because of my mother and sisters wishes I had to block certain family members from reading it, because it was thought they would find my experiences too upsetting.
        So even though I wanted to let people know how women this day and age were being treated still, to let them know they’re not alone, and to promote awareness of it so men could see the effect and especially the younger women could possibly learn and take preventative measures (which they shouldn’t f***ing have to!!) and wanted to be open about the things I was experiencing even now as I encroach upon my 40s, I was still having to hide it.
        People are more comfortable being kept in the dark about our experiences as women, keeping their heads buried in the sand about it because it’s uncomfortable, not having those conversations, leaving a large segment of the male population to continue to be this way because it’s just more comfortable this way, and it’s considered more of an unforgivable offence to drive a wedge between others and their peers because of something that only ‘might’ have happened. It’s the victim who always suffers the shunning and shaming, not the perpetrators.
        “Apparently he was not nearly as bothered by my roommates resistance to his advances as he was by an audience.” This line in particular really caught my attention. Thank you for such a brave and thoughtful post.

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      2. I have really been very pleasantly surprised by how well received this post was both on Facebook and WordPress. A lot of men in my life simply didn’t understand how constant and insidious it is. More importantly, it motivated a lot of other women I know to tell their own stories. I stayed silent for decades to make other people “comfortable” and in the end, that served no one, especially not me. I would love to read your piece.

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      3. My post started out as just a regular old (lengthy as is my style) facebook post, and I kept it fairly detail free. But when people started to comment and get into discussion on the topic that’s where the substance came in. I was quite shocked by some of the responses – none really negative in nature with the exception of one that upset me a bit… an old (female) school friend who told me “stop being so pretty”. As if I would brag about or ask to be sexually abused and harassed the last 20+ years of my existence. Even if she meant it to be funny, to all others who saw it and also were unaware of what her exact meaning was, it immediately demeaned everything that had previously been said on the topic and made me feel as if I should be the one taking the steps to control men’s inappropriate behaviour. I was only partially surprised that even at the age of 60 my aunt still deals with cyber sexual harassment, learned that many of my friends receive unsolicited inappropriate photos from strange men via their fave messenger apps, that some of my male friends weren’t aware that this was the type of thing women they actually knew experienced. I received apologies from male acquaintances that felt a sense of guilt feeling they had gone too far in previous flirtatious banter. I found that other females in my friends list were having to or have had to also alter their daily routine to avoid the men stalking or harassing them. And that’s from one simple facebook post. I related some of the more extreme (but not the most) circumstances of these issues I had personally faced, and it felt good to finally get it out there. Just think of the stories we aren’t telling and how much healing could be done if we stopped the stigma and got it all out there. I definitely applaud you again for such a brave post and such an honest telling of the things you alone have experienced.

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      4. Similar story here – funny how we let it get to that point. It was the most innocuous of things, once again a friend request from a man who clearly did not read the relationship status I had made public and immediately unfriending me after doing so, followed up by a second one that did the same but sent an apology explaining why he did so – but that had just come on the heels of cleaning out my unread messages from random men and stopping to read a few – one particularly heinous one referencing how my house should burn down and how I should die (all because I hadn’t read or replied to his earlier advances). I finally lost it. And then realizing how important a topic it was only after having written my original post, put a lot more thought and detail into my follow up comments, knowing it could potentially help or affect others and bring a dark topic into the light.

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  5. Beautiful write, Christine. And so necessary in our culture, to be sure. I am guilty of just simply being apathetic and ignorant to rape culture (and to a lesser extent racism) most of my life. My family and relationships have been torn apart by sexual assault and I must raise my daughters to recover, be strong, be smart and breathe fire, just as you do. And boy am I proud of them. They both defend themselves so well in public discussion of LGBTQ, race and gender equality issues. They are constantly checking me on my old fashion ways of thinking as great reminders they can do anything, and I validate that. It is amazing what these types of discussions are doing to change what is accepted as normal anymore. Trump is a huge set back admittedly, but that shit-show, I believe, will help so many be even more resilient and strong in the face of such horrible behavior. I know it has made me staunchly outspoken, when I never was before.

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    1. Thank you so much Mark! This was the post that led to me starting my blog in the first place. Ironically almost no one on WordPress has ever read it because I had no following when it was first posted. I love the image of breathing fire– thank you! Maybe I should reblog. . .

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  6. I think I didn’t realize how ingrained the sexism is in our society until I moved to the Netherlands with my Dutch husband. It’s not perfect here, but those who are sexist are the exception and men will often call other men out over sexist behavior. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  7. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after reading through some of the
    post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m
    definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking
    and checking back often!

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  8. I have just started a series, called Black and Blue. I’m sharing the link, not for shameless self promotion (although that is a happy side effect); but for a happy coincidence between the posts. A link between rape and racial shootings. It’s a quick read if you want to check it out. https://freethetruth.live/2017/05/14/black-and-blue-not-funny/
    I’m so excited to read more of your posts. Time is a commodity not earned, I’m afraid. I just started a weekly post called Time Bandit. It’s a place where bloggers can post their best of the week, of ever, or someone else’s best. This way we could go to one spot and find a bunch of quality pieces that we wouldn’t want to miss out on. I would love it if you stopped by this weekend and dropped a link to one of your favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

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