I know I linked to some #yesallwomen articles on Friday, but would you mind if we furthered the discussion a bit more? Ben Blair and I talked with the kids about the hashtag over the weekend and it’s been on mind non-stop.
If you had asked me a week ago whether or not I had been sexually harassed in my life, I would have quickly said, “No, not really.” If I’d thought about it a bit more, I would have said, “Um. Yes. There was some molesting when I was a child.” But man oh man, reading the hashtag brought back so many instances. Most are small, some feel bigger. But all are so commonplace that without the #yesallwomen hashtag, I didn’t recognize them as harassment — they are just one of the costs of existing on the earth with a vagina.
There are some memories that I didn’t bring up with the kids. We didn’t discuss the relative that would come into my bedroom when I was almost asleep, turn me onto my stomach, pull down my underwear and rub his penis between my butt cheeks. I was maybe 8 years old, and the molesting went on a couple nights a week over a period of months. When I would tell him to stop, he would tell me not to worry, it was just his thumb. (Which… what??)
As an adult, I’ve come to realize this was actually quite minor compared to what many children deal with. There was no penetration, no pain, no violence, I was super sleepy, and it didn’t seem to do any real damage to my self-image. The main consequence was that the molesting, combined with the fact that I didn’t receive a proper birds-and-bees talk, gave me an odd vision of what the mechanics of sex were. But that got sorted out when I heard more details as a teenager. So all’s well that ends well? Not sure what I’m supposed to say, except that I feel incredibly lucky it wasn’t worse. (And I promise, I am not in need of sympathy about this. Really truly. I came out of it quite unscathed. I’d rather talk about the airplane incident I detail below.)
I also didn’t tell the kids about the commute during my 6 months working in Washington D.C.. I was nineteen years old. The Metro can be insanely crowded on the morning commute, and I eventually realized I had to make a gamble — either get on a packed train car and have a complete stranger press his erection up against me, or be late to work. I still find it so gross — for me it’s equivalent to having an encounter with a flasher. Super strange that there are men that think this is okay.
Instead, I brought up two, shall we say, gentler incidents that happened to me recently, that I still don’t know how I should have handled better or differently. I thought they might be more relatable and less threatening to discuss with the kids.
First was an everyday sort of scenario, I was recently on a plane ride heading home to Oakland. It was a Southwest flight which means there were not assigned seats on the flight. It’s first come, first served, and I was in the last group to be seated. No big deal.
It was a full flight, and the seat I got was a middle seat between two men. Again, not a big deal. I fly a lot and it’s not unusual to sit by men. They were friends, and had sat on either side hoping that no one would take the middle seat so they would have extra space. No big deal. That’s a common practice on Southwest flights. Before I sat down, the man seated on the aisle looked me up and down and commented that he had been worried that whoever sat there might be fat. Men look me up and down sometimes. This was not unusual. And his comment was meant as a compliment. I wasn’t feeling talkative, but also didn’t want to be rude, so I tried to give some cues that I wasn’t feeling social — short answers, reading the inflight magazine, concentrating on my phone, yawning — I thought I was conveying that I was not interested in engaging, but he didn’t seem to see my cues, or he was really in the mood to chat. No big deal. It happens on planes all the time.
So I started talking about my 6 kids and my amazing husband hoping that it would be really clear that I was not available nor interested. Instead of shutting down the conversation, this brought more comments about my body along the lines of: you’re looking good for someone with six kids, most women… blah, blah, blah. No big deal. Men comment on my body frequently. He also seemed to be a touchy kind of person, so while he talked to me and he would put his hand on my leg. Throughout the flight. Over and over again. Whenever he talked to me, and whenever he leaned over me to talk to his friend, he would touch me. No big deal. He wasn’t trying to hurt me.
But why in the world wouldn’t this behavior be a big deal?!! Why did a perfect stranger feel that it was totally fine to touch me as often as he liked? Why is it no big deal that he would assume I welcomed his commentary on my body and on women’s bodies in general? Why it it no big deal that these two friends essentially forced me to sit between them? Why is it no big deal that his desire to talk to me trumped my desire to not talk to him?
I wasn’t sure what to do, or if I should do anything at all. I didn’t feel safe. I wasn’t comfortable with the leg-touching, but I was pretty sure he didn’t mean it to be threatening. I was trapped between the two men, two friends, both were bigger than me. The one on the aisle was turned toward me, so I was truly blocked in. My thoughts went back and forth. Should I ignore the touching? I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but then again, I wasn’t in pain, it wasn’t violent, and it wasn’t an especially long flight. There are much worse experiences that people have every day, so on a spectrum should this even be acknowledged?
And I could say something, but it’s a risk — the reaction could go either way. And what should I say: “Please don’t touch me.”? Maybe he would apologize and behave better, or maybe he would get angry or offended because he was feeling rejected. Either way, it would likely make for an uncomfortable remaining flight for everyone. Or worse: What if I said something and he turned out to be violent and followed me off the plane? Should I call a flight attendant and ask to be reseated? And if I did that, would I also need to be escorted by security once we landed because I was scared this guy was going to bug me as I walked through the airport to curbside pickup because I “turned him in” to the flight attendant? Should I just endure it? Is saying something worth making this guy feel like a jerk? Was he just a touchy feel-y person? Would he have touched a man’s leg just as much?
I didn’t end up doing anything. And I was so mad I didn’t do anything! I know about being assertive, and I felt like I ultimately chickened out. But I still don’t know what would have been the ideal thing. Was it worth taking a risk that I might anger him? I have a really hard time gauging that sort of thing.
Example number two that we discussed as a family is elevators. When I’m staying in a hotel and I’m alone on an elevator, if it stops on any floor that’s not the lobby, I find myself wishing/praying a man I don’t know, or group of men, don’t get on with me. It so often makes me feel unsafe and I start running through self-defense or escape scenarios. There’s simply no way to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Do I make eye contact and act really confident? Do I make no eye contact and try to draw no notice to myself? My instinct is typically confidence, but sometimes it can backfire and men will interpret the eye contact as an invitation to flirt or come on to me. I can’t seem to figure out a no-fail solution.
The discussions around both situations were good, though we focused mostly on the airplane. The kids could immediately see what was happening and could imagine themselves in the same situation. They could see I wasn’t in immediate danger, so they weren’t freaked out. One said her instinct was to react by punching the guy. We discussed what the aftermath of that might be. Someone else said I should say something, but find a way to do it with a joke so he was less likely to get mad. Several came up with good excuses I could give for asking the guy in the window seat to switch with me — making up things like: I get sick when I’m not in a window seat, or I’m pregnant and need to sit by the window so I can lean my head against the wall. All were mostly uncomfortable with the idea of being direct with him or “telling on him” to a flight attendant.
Interestingly, regarding the airplane harassment, the ideas and suggestions we came up with in our family discussions universally required a change of behavior on my part and none on the part of the man who was harassing me. But as I pointed out to the kids, isn’t it strange that I should have to change my behavior when my crime was simply existing? Doesn’t he need to know that his behavior is not okay? That he was treating me like an object that he could handle at will?
I’m also aware, that though I found his manners to be piggish, he very likely wasn’t an overall horrible person. Perhaps he’s kind to animals, and maybe he helps people who have car trouble. I have no idea. I want to assume he was not out to hurt me. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t know how uncomfortable his touching and his words made me. I really like men. I really like people. And I want to assume the best of everybody. I truly wondered, what gets more priority? My ability to feel safe and comfortable? Or him not being made to feel like a jerk?
As I read the hashtag feed over the weekend, I also learned more about how misogyny is systematic toward woman of color — see tweets here and here. I was reading the #yesallwhitewomen hashtag and came across a statistic that said African American women are 8x more likely to be imprisoned — and face assault in prison — than white women. So disturbing. If I was a black woman, and knew those odds, would I ever risk taking any issue to the police, even something a million times more serious than my little airplane incident, knowing how badly things were stacked against me? How would I even begin to seek justice?
As the weekend went on, and I continued to check the hashtag once in awhile, there were many other seemingly small memories that came up while I read the feed — like being asked if it felt strange to be a girl and be student-body president. Or being a teenager and being honored to meet with my state Governor and Lieutenant Governor, and having the Lieutenant Governor be so sexist that my face couldn’t hide the shock, and the Governor telling a self-deprecating, pro-woman joke to clear the air. I remembered the first tour of my college campus, which was really just a way to point out all the emergency phones in case I was assaulted walking home after class (this was pre-cell phone years). And really, misogyny is so pervasive in our culture, I imagine the stories will just keep popping up in my head anytime I check in to the stream.
Like so many others, I find it disturbing that most of the memories are such simple incidents, that I didn’t even acknowledge them as the harassment and sexist behavior that they are. But they happen to women everywhere, everyday. And they add up fast to make the world a really unsafe place for women.
So, if you’d like to dive in to the conversation, I have a million questions for you. Have you read the stream? Do you feel like you understand the thinking behind the #yesallwomen hashtag? Did any memories come up for you? Did you have an emotional reaction? Do you feel it’s an anti-men movement, or maybe it’s too divisive? Do you have older kids who have noticed the hashtag? Does the hashtag bother you? If you were me, what would you have done on the airplane? And lastly, how do you handle elevators?
P.S. — If you’re Mormon, you may also be interested in reading this #yesevenmormonwomen stream. But I warn you, only do it if you have a strong stomach. The church is deeply patriarchal, and many of the experiences combine sexual abuse + distortion of authority, so the damage is intense. No doubt the same experiences would be true for women in any deeply patriarchal church organization.