Now, I could have managed these things just fine had there not been an explosion of defensive rhetoric for one of the vilest assertions ever recorded of a man in power. I am, of course, referring to the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tapes. To have actually heard and read these words put a boulder in my stomach. The casual exchange that confirmed the discomfort I’ve had in so many interactions with strange men squeezed my throat shut. And then to have people actually defend it? After the election itself, I gained 15 pounds, eschewed personal responsibilities, cried multiple times about many things and am just now starting to feel like I’m picking up the pieces. I consider myself lucky in that I have the strange humor to eventually embrace overwhelming nihilism. Nonetheless, I feel like a different person after the last six months.
Showering the morning after the tapes were released, I noticed something odd when I washed my legs and torso. My body, my skin, did not feel like my own. I could acknowledge the tactile sensations, but my skin felt more like soft clay than it did like “me.” The only other feeling I could really associate with this one is a detached adrenaline that comes with fighting for survival; doing whatever you have to do to move forward and overcome. It was as if my mind was protecting itself from my body’s trauma.
Allow me to step back for a moment.
Mary-Magdalene, The Strong Wife
In college, my senior capstone project was a research paper on feminist reconstruction of early Christian history. At the time, it was perhaps helpful that The Da Vinci Code was still wildly popular. As I read more about Mary-Magdalene, however, I felt that the portrayal of her role in Jesus’s life had been underwhelming even with the gains she made in popular culture. A few passages in one particular Gnostic Gospel really buzzed in my mind. The Apostle Thomas seemed to explicitly take issue with what he perceived as Peter’s jealousy of Mary-Magdalene. It is important to note that most Biblical scholars agree that the primary source of the canonical New Testament’s account of Jesus’s life was told from Peter’s perspective (or at least favored Peter).
In the revelation that Jesus may have had a wife, we ignore that this woman and the women priests that followed her may have had a more significant role in Jesus’s ministry. So it seems, as the prototypical strong woman for whom her influential husband respected, Western culture has spent millennia not only vilifying her, but using her body as the chosen weapon. This has been an effective strategy for controlling our women for thousands of years. So effective, that we are only now starting to see what liberation can afford us and our society.
The Everyday Labyrinth of Fear
I remember the exact moment I realized how drastically different I lived my life based on my experiences as a woman. I remember how it meant that airing my frustrations would require an explicit attention to detail in communicating with even my closest male friends.
I was out to breakfast with my father.
And let it be known, my dad is a man who not only fulfilled most of the homemaking duties when I was growing up, but explicitly encouraged me to not let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I was always encouraged to explore my curiosity and my father was at the center of much of that encouragement while I was growing up.
I don’t remember the specifics or context of the conversation now, but I do remember hearing from this critically important man in my life that the male gaze worked to my advantage. In that moment, I had an epiphany that this, my relationship as a woman with the “male gaze,” was precisely my grievance. I did not want my physical appearance to have the significant impact on how I was perceived as a person that it did. I wanted to be known as the woman who could do things rather than simply the one with blue eyes and curly, auburn hair. I wanted to be held in high esteem and to be wanted by others for my personality and competence above all other qualities. If I was only a pretty face and a female body who happened to have all these qualities, than this body which threatened the kind of life that I wanted was all that I was. My body would be the only part of me that really mattered to anyone else. Rather than be archetype “smart person,” I would be archetype “female” and all the baggage that comes with it.
In the wake of the discussion about what exactly constitutes sexual harassment and assault, what words are a step too far, and why victims may not come forward until years later, I came across an article titled, “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.” While I encourage you to read it yourself, that “thing” the title refers to is fear. Our fear manifests in the persistent calculations we take to navigate our own lives.These calculations decide how we handle unwanted attention, what routes we take getting from one place to another, whether or not we confront a coworker or ask for something from our boss; even the words we choose when asserting ourselves. We learn to make these calculations from the time our bodies begin to morph from children to women; sooner in some cases. We learn them instinctually from fear.
Professionally, calibrations we make come in response to relatively mild, but insidious and pervasive biases we face in the workforce. We have been told in recent years to “lean in” and “sit at the table,” and what that really translates to is that the burden of being heard is directly on us. Demonstrating our competence and “fit” while negotiating with the men at home to take a larger share of what they had been taught to be “women’s work” is a torch only we can carry. It is a standard of equality that is often and stubbornly dismissed. There is a fine line between asking for the attention you deserve and portraying an unlikeable harpy. That delicate dance is an onus men with “charisma” and “vision” are not concerned with, even if they are measurably less competent. And while this can be both frustrating and demoralizing, the emotional weight pales in comparison to what we may face in public or even our homes.
In a particularly toxic relationship in my past, one common argument we would have was how I was polite to those who flirted with me. While it could have perceivably been easier if I rejected those men more forcefully, there was a good chance he would have found something else that was wrong with me anyway.
And what if the other man found me alone and was angry?
What if he had followed me to my car?
What if he hurt me?
Many women will reject a guy by saying they already have a boyfriend. What does that say about who we are as a society? Does the threat or implied ownership of another male have more weight than a woman’s own interests? From my experience, most men who cross the line into making me uncomfortable will continue their pursuit, boyfriend or not. This is behavior I suspect many men inherently know, and why even the most confident and understanding male partner may find themselves attempting to control or isolate a woman they view as tenuously their own.
Light at the End
My standard in thinking, and possibly one of my more endearing coping mechanisms, is to find that “silver lining” in almost any situation. The positive outcome I see here is that men are being exposed to the degree in which women are assaulted. More importantly, women continue to come forward and validate each other’s experiences. Within hours of Kelly Oxford calling on the women of Twitter to recount their first sexual assault, over one million women responded. The fact that Kelly Oxford didn’t even have that many followers speaks to how desperately we need to have these stories heard; to know how common assault is; to hear why women have internalized our complicated coping mechanisms. We are confronting the shame of being demeaned, abused and distrusted for our female bodies. We are demonstrating to both men and each other how painful and ordinary these experiences are.
Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first:
Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 7, 2016
The circumstance that a woman can bear children or enjoy sex does not change that she is a person. On days that I feel defeated, overlooked or underappreciated all I want is to be acknowledged as a person deserving of respect and dignity. When I begin to feel better, I envision a world that is easier for all of us to walk on.
Michelle Obama just took us to group therapy and she gave us homework.
Michelle Obama is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in Chief.
— Sara Benincasa (@SaraJBenincasa) October 13, 2016
If you had not seen this speech, I fully encourage you to watch it as soon as you are able. It is not only iconic of the enduring hope of our times, as the first African-American first lady calls on us to vote for who could have been our first female president, it is also emotionally and rhetorically beautiful. In it, she only calls the abuser “the opponent,” obscuring who he is as an individual and emphasizing the ideas and behaviors he represents. And now that all of the pervasive ugliness of the truly regressive country we live in continues to be exposed, we can work towards healing from it. We can call it by its name and challenge it.
And so here was, and continues to be, my call to action:
Men, do not just protect women, but allow them full faculty over their bodies and offer them their dignity that is long overdue.
Women, let us take care of each other and empower each other.
Parents, teach your children about empathy, respect, and enthusiastic consent. With your help, we can empower our children to create a better world by holding their peers accountable.