When I was a sophomore in high school, I signed up for my school’s backstage crew as an excuse to fool around with my friends in exchange for a few credits. One night after a play, I was with some crew members behind the theater when my friend Anne* approached, dancing. The strap of her dress held a glow-in-the-dark condom in place. As we spoke, she removed the condom and put it in her mouth.
I was certain Anne was doing her best to get a rise out of me. We’d considered each other best friends the year before. However, earlier in the school year, our friendship had faded. Through the grapevine, I’d heard she’d recently had sex for the first time with the boy I’d liked for years. Her greeting overwhelmed me. Before long, Anne danced away from me and over to another small group. “She’s such a slut,” I burst out to my friends. I was angry, and I clung to the feeling with abandon.
The next week at school, Anne barely looked in my direction. Though we hadn’t been spending much time together anymore anyway, I was confused by her iciness. One morning before school, I asked a mutual friend. “Do you know if Anne’s okay? She’s barely talked to me all week.”
“She seems fine to me,” my friend Giselle* replied, shrugging. “Want me to ask?”
“Could you?” When our next class rolled around, I took my seat behind Giselle. “Hey,” I said. “So?”
Giselle leaned onto my desk. She faced me, but her eyes didn’t meet mine. “So, Anne says she heard you call her a ‘slut’ after the play, and it really hurt her feelings.”
I was instantly ashamed. Though I’d so casually exclaimed the pronouncement about Anne that night outside the theater, I hadn’t considered what my words might sound like to her, or to my other friends. I hadn’t thought about the ramifications of my saying it at all, really. That night, I’d been overcome with a mixture of jealousy and what felt to me like Anne’s betrayal.
Out of anger, I’d retaliated by callously placing a label on my friend to subordinate her. I hadn’t thought it through as the words left my lips, but when Giselle confronted me with Anne’s explanation, I realized that that had been my motive, however reactionary. I felt awful, and I told Giselle so. “Well, I’m sure she’ll understand if you just tell her all that and apologize,” she replied.
“Yeah,” I said leaning back in my seat. “You’re probably right.”
Ultimately, I apologized to Anne, and we were able to smooth things over. Years later, however, I found myself wondering about my rush to proclaim Anne promiscuous to the extent that she was abject. Really, I found myself wondering where the need, generally, to assign blame for a sexual encounter arose from.
Eventually, I learned that situations wherein our cultural taboos about sex are acted upon require a scapegoat; often, this is person who identifies as a woman, is feminine-of-center, or is feminized in a sexual encounter or act of violence. In other words, blame must lay somewhere for the sorts of sexual expression our culture does not welcome.
As Sarah-Jane Stratford wrote for The Guardian in 2013, “Sex was, of course, right up there with forbidden fruit. Perceived as instigated by a woman, it then cast women in later religious thought as particularly carnal, a danger that could invite the devil into society.”
My own ignorance about feminine sexuality and the way — or, more aptly, whether — it’s expressed, then, had been forged through years of exposure to dysfunctional cultural norms and my irresponsible interpretation of them.
As a young adult, my father wouldn’t allow me to have my boyfriends in my bedroom. My brother, on the other hand, brought numerous girls home. Countless nights saw my brother and whichever girl he was hanging out with retreat behind his closed bedroom door. My father, who eventually shamed me for spending the night with my boyfriend of three years in my new apartment, said nothing on such nights.
Eventually, my mother, fed up with parenting my brother and me on her own, would walk down to the living room and tap my selectively oblivious dad’s shoulder as he sat in front of the TV. “Are you gonna do something?” she’d ask. I hated that, by my father’s standards, my brother was allowed to effectively do whatever he wanted in our home. And I was so often angry at my father for it. I knew he was wrong.
But when I went out into the world, I took the lesson my dad taught me about gender and sexuality and used it as ammunition against someone who I felt had hurt me. I knew that by using it, I could hurt her, too.
In 2017 and 2018, it was hard to escape public discussions about the renaissance of Tarana Burke’s ‘me too.’ Many saw it as a galvanizing movement for women around the world.
Others asked questions about who it was meant for; Black women, brown women, trans women, disabled women, working class women, and poor women were not its most prominent faces. Nonetheless, the movement (or its reiteration) roared on, demanding the public accountings of hundreds of prominent men throughout the U.S.
Questions of who the movement was meant for persist. Does the protective cloak of #MeToo extend beyond the woman who embodies all the breathtaking badassery of Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman? Beyond the women in STEM who advocate for parity? At what point is a person courting sexual shame? When she, due to her inability to earn favor within society at large, can’t afford to escape it?
Race, ethnicity, ability, and so on dictate how we assign worthiness — of affection, protection, and respect. So does a person’s “behavior,” which is, of course, colored by such identities. The reality is, a person can be deemed unworthy for any reason and no reason at all.
When my father or my boyfriend or a person on the street called me a name or told me what kind of girl or woman they thought I was, I knew I didn’t deserve their judgment. However, I also believed I didn’t deserve it, in part, because I didn’t believe their judgments about me in particular were true.
Rather than counter their ideas, I tried to argue — to them, to myself — that I wasn’t what they thought I was, that I wasn’t that kind of woman. I knew me, but I felt like they didn’t know me. Now, I bristle against even the slightest implication that a person’s value is based on whether or how they express their sexuality.
I wonder if Anne remembers my words from that night. I’m sure she does. I haven’t forgotten most of judgments of the like that others have placed on me — to my face and not. Eventually, I learned that the attitudes that propelled such utterances had nothing to do with me, just as mine about Anne had nothing to do with her.
I didn’t discount their pervasiveness when I was sexually assaulted by a person who misinterpreted my willingness to hang out in his bedroom as my willingness to have sex — even after I slapped him, like we are so often told we are supposed to as a means to prevent such encounters. I came to understand that the foundation of these attitudes is to prevent people who are not cishetero men of being self-possessed.
It has been over a decade since I made the comment about Anne. Of course, such social stigmatization has persisted, and my awareness of its day-to-day and structural effects has significantly evolved over the years.
When my girlfriend and I go out in public — even if for a walk through our neighborhood — we are hyperaware of the folks who leer at us. My girlfriend is a trans woman, and such attention was not an issue for us before she started transition. While we’d discussed the likelihood that men would stare at or bother us once she came out, our regular objectification — and inherent sexualization — by strangers is menacing and can make an otherwise carefree outing unsettling.
If I considered the U.S. legal system a valid one, such encounters would not be actionable within it. That said, these stares don’t ruin our outings, just like the man who walked up to me and said, “Titties, titties, titties,” didn’t ruin my walk with a friend down Telegraph Avenue when I was twenty.
I struggled for months after the person who sexually assaulted me assumed that I was (or should have been) sexually available — but soon enough, I became okay. I don’t doubt that Anne has moved on from my harmful comment and made a great life for herself. However, I wasn’t the only one to impose that attitude on her when we were young, and so I can never know how my words, in tandem with those of the others who, like me, sought to put her in her place, impacted her long-term.
Sexual microaggressions are not, by a long shot, the greatest danger impacting women, people who are feminine-of-center, or anyone who is disproportionately sexually victimized. But they compound so many of the grave social and systemic ones that do. And it took me nearly a lifetime to comprehend that.
Thank you for reading! If you’d like to see more of my work or learn about me, visit www.christinayoseph.com.
*Names have been changed.