The Pink
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The Pink

Rescue Fantasies

Knowledge may be power, but it can’t always protect your feelings.

Photo by author, taken the week this story takes place.

We were somewhere in Florida, when I had a job on the conference circuit, when a married father of one seated to my left announced that he “would never understand how some women have rape fantasies.”

It was, admittedly, an extraordinarily heavy topic, especially in a conference room with views of palm trees and one of five swimming pools, but this particular member of the production crew was known for being blunt — and drunk — at these events, and he also worked a great deal on true-crime documentaries, which were, admittedly, screwing with his head.

“I don’t understand how any woman could think that’s sexy,” he pressed on. “Now that I have a daughter, hearing about the things women go through seems ten times worse. And I can’t understand how anyone would want that. Really, if someone could explain it to me, that would be great, because it’s sick, is what it is. I don’t know anyone who would ever have them.”

I raised my hand.

“Jesus,” another guy said, and I realized why he was surprised.

“No, I don’t have them!” I snapped. “But you asked if someone could explain. And I read Dorothy Allison in college.”

The magnificent Miss Alison has a short story called “Rape Fantasies,” which reveals a group of girlfriends revealing their secret sexual fantasies. The fact of it all, of course, is that the “rape” isn’t in fact unwanted, and the rapists don’t employ viciousness or violence.

The root of the fantasy involves being overpowered, but willfully so, thus negating the non-consent element. It’s definitely a story built for feminist, sex-positive academia, and it had sparked plenty of discussion, the highlights of which I shared with my co-worker in the hopes of spreading the good feminist word.

“It’s a power fantasy, like the teacher/student or the boss/employee,” I explained. “It’s like BDSM — scary from the outside, but ultimately the ‘weak’ one is in control. If you read Dorothy Alison’s story, the scenarios read much more like a porn scene then a Law and Order one.”

“So it’s not really rape then.”

“Right. It’s play acting.”

He seemed understanding enough of this, to the point I hoped we could move onto something lighter.

But in that pause in the conversation he turned to look at me without saying a word. I could tell he was past tipsy into drunk, and I chuckled and said “what?” to which he responded “what?”

“You’re looking at me funny,” I said, and he snorted.

“I’m looking at you funny. Like I would want to look at you. Yeah, you’re really something in that floral dress.”

I what the helled? at the utter disgust in his voice. I certainly didn’t think I’d implied that “looking at me funny” meant he was attracted to me, or that my long-sleeved, high-buttoned dress was somehow a vehicle of sexual temptation. It was new, a dark navy with small white and orange flowers, selected for me by a far more fashionable friend. It was shorter than I normally wore, but I still felt comfortable. I could relax in it without worrying I was showing too much boob for a work event, and it slimmed in on my waist while allowing plenty of room for my hips.

I’d felt good in it, the way clothes that fit make you feel — not a tempting bombshell by any means, but business-casual for sure. I had been flown in to work a major event for a major company, and I wanted to present as professional.

I also couldn’t wrap my head around how such an in-depth feminist conversation with a perceived “ally” had suddenly turned to another man insulting another woman’s looks without thought. I’d thought I was promoting the cause, engaging with a genuinely curious peer. I was revealing State Secrets and glad to do so, thinking it would further his understanding.

I’d cast myself in the role of strong, empowered, yet approachable female, but the second I was lobbed a softball insult, I clutched my glove and went home.

Back in my room, I cried, partly from hurt, even more from anger and frustration. At this point in my life, armed with endless hours of therapy, bolstered by medication, professional, semi-accomplished, I wanted to believe I’d react with cool, steely confidence, and calmly and methodically put him in his place.

The fact that he’d flustered me enraged me at myself, as did my failure to anticipate the coming insult. It felt like punishment for having a moment of confidence.

This also made me angry, that in the face of someone being rude, my first instinct was to retreat right back into old ruts and say well, it was my fault. I said something. I was being vain. I was engaging a person who was known to be combative and cutting, and only got worse the deeper he got in his cups. I puffed up like a pigeon and a great big pin came along and popped me.

That just wouldn’t do. Still tipsy but edging toward sober, I sat down and started an e-mail that would take him to task. I write a lot of emails I never send, or I only ever wind up sending tiny pieces of, so my drafts folder is unusually full. It’s my own little safe space, where I can wail away all my hotblooded Italian fury, and then, the next day, copy and paste “let’s discuss further in person.”

I didn’t want to senselessy rage — I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, to break down the moment he reached for an insult as the exact problem he’d so eagerly and genuinely wanted to discuss.

I made you uncomfortable, and your first thought was to reach for a hurtful comment on my appearance. You wanted it to be clear that you find me unattractive, because in our society, an ugly woman is a powerless one.

You wanted it to be clear that you find me unattractive, because in our society, an ugly woman is a powerless one.

The greatest gift you could give your daughter is to learn to stay your hand, so she never overhears her father degrading a woman’s looks just because he didn’t like something she said.

All that therapy had done something, as had all that higher education. But as with all emotional upset, having clarity in the mind didn’t necessarily connect to the heart. I cried when I packed the dress away. I cried in the shower. I cried a little in bed, then I watched a few funny Youtube videos before falling asleep.

The note sat in my inbox, where I edited and re-edited, but the moment had passed, and I already knew what the excuse would be — I don’t remember that. I was drinking.

If I pressed the issue, I’d just be the stuck-up feminazi who couldn’t take a joke, or let a bro off the hook. I couldn’t address it in person, knowing for sure I’d cry, then hate myself for crying, which would make me cry farther, the fastest and easiest way to wipe the shit out of your credibility.

Then work happened, hard and fast, and I didn’t have time to look over what was in my inbox. When I saw him across a room I nodded, but made no effort to be friendly other than to smile when gave a casual wave. Work has always been a balm on a bruised ego, and after ten plus hours of it, I didn’t have the energy to reignite the rage.

In truth, I was too scared to send it. I was scared it would lead to a confrontation: or worse, it wouldn’t: that instead, it would be mocked by the mostly male staff behind my back, and scared that he’d corner me drunkenly at the next dinner and berate my over-sensitivity. I was scared that someone who barely knew me had landed such a perfect and direct hit, and I knew I’d need time, and my drafts folder, to craft a worthy response.

When the work week ended and the crew boarded celebration shuttles to an off-site party, I wasn’t on them. I bought a half-bottle of white wine, put on sweats, and watched videos on Youtube while sharing Real Housewives gifs.

At the airport the next morning, I read and re-read my e-mail. With the promise of distance between us, it seemed easier to send my rebuke. I admire those who stand up for what they believe, even when afraid, and if I were to call myself a feminist, and ardently work for the cause, shouldn’t I attempt to state my belief and challenge sexism where I saw it? Isn’t the pushback part of the struggle? Didn’t our foremothers face far worse berating than the inevitable half-assed apologies of a habitual drunkard?

I didn’t care about this man’s opinion, but I was still frightened of him and his emotional bullseye. Even only knowing me casually, he’d known exactly where and how to knock the confidence out of me. If he could do that in a drunken state, what could he do in a sober one? And how did I emotionally guard against it? And why had I assigned myself the role of Feminist Madonna when he had plenty of women in his life to call him to Jesus?

I thought again of his daughter, and Dorothy Allison, and all my male bosses, and then I copied and pasted the latest draft of the email and sent it to my therapist, with a note “remind me to discuss.” Then I stood for boarding, feeling hesitantly confident in my new jeans.

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