Til it happens to you
Last night, I finally watched Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til it Happens to You,” from the 2016 Academy Awards. Then I picked up the Kleenex I’d soaked with my tears, rotated a load of laundry, and made some soup. My husband came home and we watched some television and then went to bed and then about 4:00 a.m. (4:11, to be exact), I rolled out of the bed I wasn’t sleeping in and came back out to the couch to try to write what was going through my head.
Instead, I read the commentary by Hana Schank in Salon magazine about why Gen Xers don’t like Clinton that will irritate younger voters but which mirrors my experience in moving to a support for Hillary Clinton that is based on a lifetime of being a woman in a society that just doesn’t value women, our experiences, any of it.
I finished reading Schank’s piece and the last few seconds of Lady Gaga’s performance swelled in my mind’s eye: of the group of survivors who took the stage to show the face of sexual assault. But I wasn’t crying, this time. This time, I knew why I hadn’t slept for much of the night and why I couldn’t write about any of it then. This time, I saw those silhouettes, with the words drawn on their arms and their faces resolute and I let my weariness and resignation boil away in my anger.
I could talk about my personal experiences with male sexual aggression or about that of the women I know and love, but the particulars are not what I want to focus on here. And I don’t want to talk about “rape” because that term limits the discussion and makes people say stupid things like “real rape” and gets away from the problems of a society which continues to allow men to be openly hostile, threatening AND violent against women with seemingly few consequences.
I’m not going to pretend this is a new concept, but I am going to attest that it is new-ish to me in the context of realizing, like Schank did about workplace slights, that male sexual aggression is everywhere. It inundates the very heart of being a woman, that I am in no way surprised at the energy of young women who demand that rape culture be eliminated nor in the fire and raw emotion in Lady Gaga’s presentation.
Yes. All. Women. You define rape as you will, but there are no women who escape the sexual aggression of men. We try to live bravely in a world that still wants to tell us that our clothes incite rape. Or to just go ahead and smile at the creep who says “smile little lady,” so he won’t chase you down the road yelling vulgarities at you (if you’re lucky, that’s all he’ll do). Or to not make waves when the guy at work repeatedly makes comments about how you look because, well, it happens to all of us and is a representation of who he is, and not who you are.
Yep. That last one? That was what I was about to say to my 17-year-old daughter last night. Just deal, I wanted to say. We’ve all had to learn to live with it. But I stopped myself. Is the guy dangerous? I doubt it. He’s probably just some jerk who learned all he knows about impressing women from the culture he is steeped in and doesn’t see a thing wrong with it. And when my daughter complained about him for the second time, do I want to tell her not to because you don’t know what kind of aggression this guy will pull out of his dude-culture bag? Will it continue to be verbal only or will it escalate? Is she safe because she won’t take it any more?
It’s a minor thing, I want to say to myself, what she is enduring. In the grand scheme of things, it is minor. And I hear myself say that and realize how I am allowing myself to categorize and minimize the bad behavior of others because I fear what could be an escalation to what is worse.
Because that is what happens in this culture of male sexual aggression, isn’t it? Things escalate and women are assaulted and killed on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. And the shame is worn by the women, warriors all, who don’t see their bravery at just existing in a world that wants to shape their very being and all of those experiences into something reasonable, palatable, understandable.
Lady Gaga sings it. You don’t get to shape our experiences until it happens to you; until it is your experience, you don’t get to dictate how we respond to it.
So it is time to be unreasonable with our demands that women have agency over their own bodies, minds, and feelings. We don’t have to smile to make you feel more comfortable, nor do we have to sit quietly, wondering “if only I’d had one fewer drink.”
How about, if only he wasn’t a rapist?
A friend, younger than me, posted Schank’s essay and highlighted the section I knew younger women would. I am not trying to tell her how to feel about the article when I say I needed to read that take on the Clinton v Bernie situation. But reading that column after spending the night tossing and turning about the many ways I and my cohort of feminists have failed the younger generation with the vision of all those survivors on stage with Lady Gaga, prompted a visceral reaction in me. We should have done better, we mothers of daughters and fathers of sons.
Our generation of feminists should have done better to end sexual aggression as the ugly “norm” it is. And we should have done more to lift up the sexual aggression played out differently against our sisters of color, and our gay, lesbian, and transgender siblings.
I remember when my children were little and one day I was pushing them on the swings in our backyard, teaching them to yell “NOOO,” as loud as they could. “If someone tries to touch you, what do you say?” I’d yell, and they’d yell “NOOOO.”
It was probably silly. And I should have been saying it louder and louder, myself, so that when my daughters tell me what they endure, I don’t say things like I have thus far.
Maybe I didn’t sleep enough, but I’m weeping again. I’m weeping for the hurts my daughters and yours have endured and will, just as we did and even do, even now after decades of resistance.
I’m buoyed by the fact that those young women who yelled “NOOOO” from the swing continue to yell it, for themselves and for others. I’m grateful they have agency to vote for the person they feel is the best fit for them.
But I wish I didn’t have to raise warriors. I wish you didn’t have to, either.