For Devin T., who inspires me to be my best self
and for all the young women in Sitka
[i wrote this a few weeks ago after running into devin, at the grocery store...and i'm dedicating it to devin not because these are even things we've talked about, but because it's you and the other young women of Sitka who most inspire me to want to change the way we are all doing gender; and am now getting the courage to post it after running into you on the seawalk…]
Okay. This is sort of a coming out tale, and I’m writing it for you women because you make me want to live by my guts, which is to say—to not shrink. To be brave. Mostly because I don’t want you to shrink, and I can see that we’re all looking at each other, taking our cues from the women around us.
Men scare me or make me feel uncomfortable or unsafe more or less every day. That’s my coming out sentence. (I have other coming out sentences that are much more fun! Stay tuned! But those are for other posts.)
Yesterday it was my neighbor, whom I’d never met before, stepping to the property line ten feet away from me, obviously drunk, slurring, “If you ever need an extra twenty bucks, just come over to my house and you can help me slide pipe through holes. I really need someone to stand on the other end while I slide the pipe through.” I was in full raingear, not flirting at all, I feel it necessary to mention, although why should I feel it necessary to mention? “I’m not hitting on you,” he said, which always means a man is hitting on you.
I didn’t feel safe. This guy was creepy. Sure, he’s probably a nice guy. Just like all the other nice guys who, also, it just so happens, are not actually safe. Nice guys do harm every day in every town in the world.
He was the second man of the day to make me feel unsafe. The first one was an acquaintance at the library who, after I’d donned all my raingear and packed my bag and walked towards the door, called out after me: “Hey Tamie!” Yes? I said reluctantly, giving all the body language of not wanting to be invaded, knowing from multiple experiences that this man fucking specializes in various kinds of invasion. “If no one’s told you today that you’re beautiful, let me be the first.”
I recognized the moment for what it is: a very simple and very definite invasion, masked as a compliment. (One of men’s most common kinds of invasion, for which they love to feign innocent intentions.) This man was making sure I know he’s taken my body in with his eyes, and he’d love to take my body in in other ways, but he either knows he doesn’t have a fighting chance, or else he thinks this is the way to get that fighting chance.
But, even though I recognized the moment for what it was, I didn’t know what to do. So I smiled a sort of half-constipation, half-demure smile, said thanks, turned away.
Why did I say thanks? It’s just crazy that I said thanks. This man made me feel nauseated, he made my skin feel icky, and in response I thanked him. That’s socialization, for you. That’s me learning from a very young age that the best chance at surviving men’s cooonnnntttiiiinnnnuuuooouuuussssss invasion/sexualizing/bullshit is to smile and pretend I like it. Or, as a therapist once said to me, “You’ve not only been taught to eat shit sandwiches; you’ve been taught to eat shit sandwiches and smile huge and say, ‘this is delicious!’”
There in the library with the man who told me I was beautiful, I felt, I don’t know….hopeless. Earlier in my life, I would’ve felt disgusted with myself for not saying fuck you in response. Earlier still, I wouldn’t even have recognized his actions as sick. I’d have felt sorry for him, maybe tried to save him. But now—now I just feel hopeless. Because the nonstop engagement required for me to assertively respond to every man who makes me feel unsafe—like, even if I could figure out what to say in moments like that, it would just be exhausting to have to actually say it, over and over, every day, day after day, week after week, year after year, with close friends and random strangers and distant acquaintances and men on planes and trains and boats. I mean.
Boarding a plane one time, standing in one of those lines on the gangplank (is it called a gangplank? you know, that thing that connects the plane to the airport…), this man kept begging to touch my hair. That was one of those times when I was assertive. I looked him in the eye and said, “no.” Did that stop him? Nosireebob! He kept saying, “come on. Let me touch your hair. Com eon.” He was, like, four people behind me in line. So he’d have had to break two social conventions to just come touch me—cutting in line, and then reaching for my hair. Not that touching a woman without her permission is actually breaking any social code! But he didn’t want to cut in line.
After I’d said no a few times, he called out to the man standing directly behind me: touch her hair, man. I dare you. The man behind me, awesome at least in that moment, turned to the first guy was like, I’m not going to touch her hair. This still did not deter the first guy! Amazing! Men are not used to being told no! So I turned around, stared at him with what basically amounted to cold and exhausted hate, and said very loudly, STOP TALKING TO ME.
And then, of course! He was offended. Aw man, you don’t have to be like that. I was just trying to compliment you.
Lest you think this experience was an anomaly! Just if we discuss modes of transportation alone—I have been groped by the vulva on an Italian train; had my entire body felt up on an Egyptian train (when I was 12-years-old, no less); groped by the breasts on boats; full-body pressed-against on boats; been “complimented” in cars….oh my God, cars, I don’t even know where to begin on cars…. And, let’s see, buses! Taxis!
I’m loathe to ever try taking a hot air balloon, because it’s nice to think that at least one mode of transport is still safe.
I’ve had men pressure me to spend the night in their hotel room, beg me to brush my hair. I’ve had a rabbi 40 years older than me tell me he’d love to date me if he wasn’t married. (And did the whole “I was just trying to compliment you” thing when I told him he made me feel uncomfortable….I’ve had a priest 30 years older than me walk me home through dark streets and grab my hand in the darkness. A poet 20 years older than me once came to visit me and texted me ahead of time that if I found myself wanting to fuck him, he was amenable. Another poet, this one more or less my age, couldn’t stop talking about how when I visited we’d definitely make out.
And this is just off the top of my head and just a few of the more aggrevious experiences.
Now let me stop right here and say that I understand that not all women have had these kinds of experiences, or maybe they’ve had one or two but we are not talking every day— for many women these kinds of experiences are the anomaly—and for those women it can feel really weird to hear all this stuff listed out, because part of you wonders if it’s your lack of hotness that’s standing between you and constant harassment. I don’t know what to say about that, other than it’s totally bizarre how we have all been convinced, on some level, to believe that if we are not being made to feel unsafe, then we are not desirable. This is an extremely fucked up state of affairs and it is indeed the status quo.
I’m telling you this, Devin and other beloved women, so that you understand that you are not crazy. All those men—all those men—who make you feel uncomfortable, skeezed out, creeped out, just a little south of totally safe…that’s real. I believe you. Your intuition, your gut, they’re right.
I want to write another post soon delineating how I know whether men are safe or not. Like, I think I have instincts about these things that I’m realizing not everyone has, perhaps because I’ve often been targeted—or I don’t know why, but another female friend asked me recently to try to put it into words. So I’m going to do that, soon. I’d love for any of you to try to put your instincts into words too. How do you know who’s safe and who’s not?
This feels like a not totally concluded post, but it’s what I got. Love and love.