|The author as a young American girl.|
(Trigger warnings: assault, indecent exposure)
Have you grown up female in the United States*? I did. I think about my experiences and how much they might have informed my current views, my sense of who I am, my wariness about men combined in complex ways with how very much I like men. I think that many men who are perfectly good people who respect women feel targeted, named, included by association when women complain about how men treat them, accost them in elevators or on sidewalks, behave too persistently in bars, and otherwise make nuisances or worse out of themselves. When I complain about these things and heartily agree that yes, all I want to do is take a walk, I don't mean to encompass all men in these condemnations. Yet, I'd imagine that unless you grew up female, you may not have a complete understanding of why women--some women, at any rate--react this way to such behaviors.
The men currently in my life, the ones I include there volitionally and mutually, are all thoughtful people who'd never follow a woman on the street, catcall at her, or otherwise stress her out simply because she exists and is out in public. It's not these men who are the ones of whom I'm wary. It's the men I do not know. And there are reasons for that.
Here's what it was like for me to grow up as a female in the United States. I haven't taken an official poll, but among the women I know, these experiences are not unique. And I think cultural influences, from an emphasis on machismo to the ludicrousness of romantic comedies, has left some men thinking that they've got an upper hand or a way to manipulate women using these tactics that will, presumably, land them some sexy time. Of course, in some of these cases, darker impulses were at work.
In elementary school, in spite of my being generally ostracized by my own sex, I found a few boys professing an interest in me. One of them unceasingly pestered me with notes and calls to my home and weird allusions to breasts while we stood in the lunch line. To this day, I remember him and how frustrating it was that I couldn't get across how much I wanted him to Stop. Doing. That.
When I was about 10, an old man in a swimming pool approached me and offered to "tickle my fancy." He then turned to the other old man with him, and they leered and chuckled to each other. The very recollection of that episode still makes me want to vomit.
When I was 12, a man working around my grandmother's pool exposed himself to me behind my grandmother's back as she watched us (my brother and me) swim. My grandmother, who has multiple sclerosis, was in a wheelchair and essentially paraplegic. He continued this behavior, which included masturbation, and I was flummoxed about what to do, afraid to just leave to find some other adult in the nearby house while my younger brother and grandmother remained vulnerable. But it wasn't until my father arrived to collect us and the man got onto the roof of the poolhouse and continued to expose himself behind my father's head that I became internally frantic, willing my father to just TURN AROUND. He didn't. My first words when I got home were to my mother: "I've been indecently exposed to." The man was arrested, two of his friends came to our home to threaten us, and he was finally sent to prison for a certain number of years. My own feelings about that episode consisted of bewilderment and a certain amount of confusion centered on, "Was it something I did?" Intellectually, I know that the answer is, "No. It's something he did." But it lingers, and reading apologetics like this one doesn't help.
In high school, I went on a first date with a boy I'd known for three years and trusted. He was a very, very nice boy. But he also was, I think, longing longing longing for some kind of intimate interaction with a girl. We were at his house, his parents present in the home, and we went to his room, not for any hanky panky that I knew of, but just so I could see it and then we'd head out for dinner. Instead, I found myself subjected to an assault of persistent busy hands and mouth, one that he did not stop when I told him to. Eventually, I applied actual physical and loud vocal resistance, and that ended the episode. To this day, I'm still surprised that this mild-mannered, very nice boy became so overwhelmed by his urges that he couldn't stop himself when he knew he should have.
In college, I was on a trip to another city with friends when a friend of these friends began to attack me physically and sexually in the front seat of the car we were in; I was the passenger, he was the driver. A "friend" was sitting in the back seat, and as I became increasingly angry, frustrated, and vocal about this man's physical probings all over my person, the "friend" in the back seat, seemingly utterly clueless, just laughed. We arrived at a restaurant where I immediately shook them both off and reported the incident to...my husband at the time, who was traveling with the group but was in another car. He and some other members of the group confronted the attacker, and his excuse was that once I'd put on mascara, the transformation was so complete and inflaming that he just couldn't help himself. I can't say if it's associated, but I rarely wear makeup any more.
Also in college, I was sitting in a bar at our student union talking with a friend when a total stranger rushed up to me, handed me a rose, and started gushing about how strikingly beautiful or lovely or something I was. Just for the record, this behavior is not romantic. It's creepy. Don't do it.
Throughout my time as an American female, I've had my ass and other parts pinched by total strangers in public places, I've been pelvic danced from behind by strange men when I was dancing purposely alone in bars. I've been catcalled, followed for blocks, harassed in bars. One assault in a bar went so far that I lost buttons on my shirt as three men tugged and pulled at me and I clearly resisted--and the people around just...watched. I filed charges in that case. One of my relatives, a feminist, nevertheless accused me of being at fault for being in the bar in the first place. I contended--and still do--that I should be able to be where I want to be without fear of being attacked or accused of asking for it somehow because of my mere presence in public.
These experiences were the physical ones, the ones that I can remember in an episodic sense. They don't include the innumerable instances of overt and subtle sexism, starting with "Hey! You don't throw like a girl!" and running all the way to, "Miss Emily, we feel that you'd bring a needed injection of estrogen to the biology department." There are big events that linger always and smaller ones that just accumulate, like the many many cars that have slowed down to keep pace with my walking down the street, while a strange man croons at me or whistles or calls out. In the aggregate, though, they lead to four-plus decades of experience as an American female.
You may think that after these experiences, I might not like men much. But throughout college, most of my roommates were male. I've always had men as my closest friends. I've married two of them (sequentially) and now parent three future men of our own. But when I find myself alone in close situations with a strange man--elevators, for example--I put on a thousand-yard stare and offer up zero interaction. I apply this method on the street, in restaurants, in hallways, anywhere that might entail an unwanted close encounter. If a man were to go so far as to make physical contact with me uninvited? I've got a bit of a hair trigger about that these days.
Does that mean that I think that all men are horny bastards loaded up on bullshit behaviors from romantic comedies and bent on interfering with my thoughts, personal enjoyment, alone time, or worse? No. In defense of men, whose company I enjoy mightily when it's of mutual choosing, I'll say that the vast majority of men I've encountered in my life have not targeted these behaviors at me. But a sufficient number have done so to leave enough shadow of PTSD to warrant some wariness--and a strong response when I witness personal violations of women, in real life or virtually.
*I'm using American here, as that's my cultural experience.