A couple of days ago, Cindy Gallop tweeted this: Men: your girlfriends haven’t told you. Your wives haven’t told you. Your daughters haven’t told you. Your female colleagues haven’t told you. Your female bosses haven’t told you. Your women friends haven’t told you. YOU HAVE NO IDEA.
She linked to this piece, in which Jessica Shortall lists all the instances throughout her life that she can remember in which men have shown her what’s expected of her as a woman. It’s not terribly different from my experience, or from that of any other woman I know. The details change, but the messaging is the same. Reading her story, I re-lived much of my own. And so I thought I’d add my voice.
This is only what I remember. Some of it I’d forgotten about before I began writing. There’s so much to sift through. Also, this doesn’t include the lifetime’s worth of public commentary, random groping, and that sort of thing. There’s so much that, frankly, it’s all a blur. “Damn, look at those titties!” “Nice ass!” “Hey girl, let me suck on your titties!” “Ooh, she’s fat but she’s cute.” “I didn’t touch you. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I’ll say, too, that unlike many of my friends and loved ones, I’ve not had to live with the trauma of rape.
So what this is, really, is a snapshot of a best-case scenario.
My parents are on opposite work schedules so that one of them is always home with us. My father has me iron his shirts for work. He also tries to get me to cook meals for him and my younger brother. When I tell him that I don’t know how to cook and that I’m only five, he says, “You’re a woman.” I’ve already failed. I decide I’m never going to learn to cook so that I won’t be anyone’s slave.
We’re in rural Mexico, visiting my grandfather. One afternoon, my father, a male cousin, my younger brother and I go out to a creek. It’s rough terrain, and it’s muddy and wonderful. The man whose land we’re on looks me over from head to foot. “Well. She’s certainly up for doing things like boys, isn’t she?” he remarks to my father. His disapproval is stark. I feel like a circus freak.
My friend across the street has this uncle. Uncle Larry. When he visits, he insists on hugs and kisses from my friend, and then from me. I am deeply uncomfortable but I do it because I don’t want to cause a scene or make him look bad. The worst thing is to make a grown man look bad in front of other adults. You can’t do that, ever.
The tenants in our rental house, two brothers in their late twenties, are angry with my father. So they call our house, and when I answer the phone one of them says, “Hi, sweetheart. Do you have hair on your pussy yet?”
At a carnival, I’m excited to see bumper cars. I’ve always wanted to try them but never have. It’s only as I start bumping other cars in earnest and they all stop to stare at me that I realize I’m the only girl. The boys are laughing, saying, “She’s a man!”
This is the age at which, on our yearly visits to Mexico, men on the street start staring at me and saying obscene things under their breath as I pass by, loud enough for only me to hear. This increases each year, until walking past men becomes nearly unbearable. And when there’s more than one man, they make it a party, one-upping each other. (I still, at age 43, dread walking past a group of men. I still feel like prey, regardless of the setting. Even walking up the steps at church, where the welcome team is often all men.)
This is also the age at which boys at school start snapping my (newly acquired) bra strap.
The boy I like signs my yearbook with, in part, “And even though I make jokes about your weight, I still think you have a great body.”
At a party, a much older cousin and I are talking about music and life and whatnot. He is drunk. He gazes at me across the table where we’re sitting, and says, “You know, if you weren’t my cousin, and if you weren’t only twelve, I could probably fall in love with you.”
A group of boys in my junior high school decide, for reasons unknown to me still, to begin following me down the hall between classes, referring to me as “dirt” like it’s my name. I have no classes with any of them and have had almost no interaction with them. They do this as a group until a) I report one of them to the school for having an Israeli flag in his locker with swastikas drawn on it; and b) my father sees one of them at the bus stop and tells him to back off, “Or I’ll fucking kill you.”
Also that year, we have some work done on the house. A friend and I are hanging out within sight of the two middle-aged men doing the work. One of them says, leering in our direction, “I really like looking at nice things.” The other one answers, “Yeah, and not just looking, either!” They laugh uproariously.
Another cousin, who’s in his late teens and fancies himself quite the ladies’ man, likes to tell me that I’m pretty but I need to lose weight.
My first semester of high school, I start receiving letters delivered through the vents of my locker. Each one describes everything I did during my tennis class that day. Each one talks about how beautiful I am, and how the author wishes he had the courage to talk to me. When he finally builds up the courage, I begin dating him, because he’s paying attention to me and that means he must really care.
Some seriously bad shit has gone down at my house. My mom and I have moved out. I buzz off most of my hair and remove everything even remotely feminine from my room. I feel so vulnerable that most nights, even at the height of summer, I cover my head with my sheets so that, following my fear-logic, if someone breaks in with intentions to harm me, they might think I’m a boy and leave me alone.
A few months later, I’m at a punk show and, as one does in such settings, I decide to go into the pit. It’s a fairly low-key one. I’m there about two minutes when some guy comes by and pokes a finger, hard, into my breast.
Well, there’s this, first and foremost. But in the middle of all that, my English teacher, a bookish, pale, 49-year-old family man, a deacon at his conservative church in Orange County, begins staring at me during tests and wanting to talk to me all the time. I begin talking extensively about the teacher mentioned in the link above. One day the English teacher reads a love poem aloud, making extended eye contact with me during a few specific lines (the only one I still remember is something like, “If I could just achieve your love”). The bell rings just as he finishes reading it. As we exit, he says quietly, “I wrote that.”
The same man, one day when I’ve been working on a photo project late after school, corners me at my locker to ask what I’m doing there so late. I tell him there are “a lot of us” working in the photo lab for our final projects and that I’d better get back (there were two of us, plus a teacher, and no one was expecting me back). He says, pointedly, “Well, I should have known that if you were here late, it was either for Mr [Photo Teacher] or Mr [Teacher in linked article, whose name he turns into an audible sneer], your two faaaaaavorite teachers.” I get out of there as fast as I can.
I go catch a movie with a man who’s very popular in the college-theater crowd I hang out with. He’s been friends with my boyfriend for years. Afterward, we go to his house to get dinner. His mood turns dark as he’s cooking, and he tells story after story about his ex-girlfriend, of whom I remind him, and her prodigious sexual talents. I’m uneasy, but he’s bawdy, fun, intelligent, and we’re all theater people, you know? We’re very frank about things. And I’m 18 and completely starstruck. After an uncomfortable dinner, he lies down on the couch as we keep talking. I start feeling like I should leave. When the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up, I realize I’m not actually being paranoid. I get my keys and very confidently say, “Well, I have to go.” He looks bitter and says good-bye, and after that night he stops showing up to our gatherings. I see him a year later in a bookstore, with his young godson, and he’s eager to get away from me.
I work at a couple of different restaurants. At one, where I’m a waitress, male customers often snap their fingers at me to get my attention, or stare at my chest when they talk to me, or just blatantly look me up and down while ordering. At the other, where I’m a hostess, male customers sometimes lean into me, putting their arms over my shoulders while offering me a twenty to get them seated earlier.
I meet up with a friend from work at a concert. After the show, we determine that she’s parked in the opposite direction from me, so we part ways. I end up walking in front of a group of very drunk frat boys, none of whom is less than six feet tall. They start talking about my outfit and about how I’m alone, and one of them starts stepping on the backs of my shoes. They all find this hilarious. They follow me until I step aside and pretend to look for something in my bag. I’m terrified they’ll wait. They don’t. I’m lucky.
I’m working in a small, close-knit department at a conservative, global automotive corporation. In a staff meeting, I refer to something I did once at a different job. The VP says, “Is that the job where you danced around a pole?”
At the same global automotive corporation, my department is hosting a conference attended by our associates all over the world. When I enter a room to get the attendees’ attention and direct them to where they need to be, one of the men from abroad glances at my chest and, smirking, says, “They ought to give you a little whip.”
My company is running a two-day workshop for a large organization, and we’ve hired an extra consultant in a boots-on-the-ground kind of capacity. The consultant is an older white man. At breakfast the second day, one of the executives asks if he can join us. We say yes; he sits across from us and completely ignores me as he asks our consultant question after question about our business. When I break in to say that I’ve been with the company for years, he seems shocked to realize I’m there. He’s also not interested in my answers to his questions, and switches over to talking about sports and ignoring me.
Shortall’s article closes with the following, and now I’m closing with it because it’s perfectly expressed, and because without her piece I wouldn’t have written about my own experience:
None of this defines me. But if you think it hasn’t shaped me, hasn’t made me make rules for myself my whole life, hasn’t shaped how I view other women, and myself, and men…if you think it hasn’t shaped my ambitions (for good and for bad), or the way I vote, or what I see when I look in the mirror — I’m guessing you’re a man.
My whole life has been peppered with these things, gigantic and small, that have been sending me a very specific set of instructions about my place in the world. I’m exhausted by it. I’m lit up with rage about it. I’m resigned to it. I refuse to be resigned to it. I tell myself “not anymore.” I know this list will grow.
And these are just the ones that I remember.
Thank you, Jessica.