Tag Archives: sexual harassment

I can’t even — ok, well maybe I can

Picture of little white girl sitting crosslegged, looking at a bluebird, beneath the words, "If you get tired learn to rest, not to quit! -Banksy"Good morning, good morning.

Deep breath. Ready? Ok.

One more time. I’m going to try one more time to write this post. Hang on — this is a long one.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend, who is in a tough work situation. He is well-spoken, articulate, smart, and has decades of experience in his work, yet whenever he speaks with his boss (someone who consistently undermines and then gaslights him), he gets tongue-tined, feels silenced, mute. There’s nothing I can say, he tells me. I feel stupid, practically like a child.

I nodded as he spoke, then said to my friend, this sounds so much like the relationship I was in seven years ago — by the end, I told him. I was convinced that I was actually a terrible communicator, that I literally did not have the ability to communicate with other people, that there was not just something wrong with my ability to connect, to convey my thoughts and to interact with another person through words, but that I had deluded myself into thinking  that I could communicate well.

My friend looked wide-eyed at me, so surprised, given that I center my life and work around deep and open communication. I laughed at myself and the situation, maybe a little more gently than I’ve done in the past — maybe I’m beginning to forgive myself.

I tried to explain to my friend what I’d learned from the analyst I was seeing back just before I left that relationship — that my ex had created a closed system around us, and I had to agree to the terms he set for this system, or I was violating the system and harming him. Either I agreed with his worldview and outlook or I was against him. Layer on top of that insinuations of (my) racism and classism, as well as my history, and you can see why I was in knots and, like my friend, tongue-tied for the better part of eight years.

Unfortunately, this mirrored another relationship I’d been in, the one with my mother’s second husband. Closed system, setting the terms of the conversation, the debate, setting the very terms for reality — and you either agreed, or took your life and the lives of those closest to you in hand.

I have been experiencing a similar tongue-tied-ness, muteness, around our entire public “conversation” about sexual violence in the last couple of months.

Yesterday I went back through a big handful of blog posts I’d started and abandoned, twenty pages of stops and starts, of trying to get in, of trying to figure out what I wanted to say about each new major issue that bubbled to the top of our media frenzy about rape culture: the hierarchy of violence (is it really that bad if he’s not Harvey Weinstein?); the idea of a witch hunt; the fear of a sex panic; women suddenly having all the power and wielding it indiscriminately (unlike men, of course), bringing down any guy who just happened to look at them wrong or who, you know, shamed or cajoled or pressured or guilted or threatened them into sex; female sexual agency (what’s that?); enthusiastic consent — so many important issues about which I have a great deal to say, and yet each post would trail off after some thousand words or more, and I’d be unable to bring it to a close, unable to find a particular point I wanted to make.

I often look back on a particular phone call I had with my stepfather, late in his abuse of me


and my sister. I was in college, a junior at that point; it would be almost a year before I was able to get away from him. I was at a payphone on the first floor of my dorm, a newer, non-descript building that felt like a cavern every time I walked in the doors. In my memory, I am clinging to the black receiver like I’m holding onto a life raft. My stepfather has said the word incest, he has used the word: Sure, it’s incest (technically, he probably clarified), but it’s only a problem because of this repressive, sex-negative culture we live in.

I didn’t hear much else during that call.  He used the word, the one he’d denied and avoided for all the years he’d been assaulting me. He claimed it, took it away from me — he would not allow that word to have any power. And I understood several things: He knew exactly what he was doing, and what he’d been doing for years; I was not crazy to think he knew he was harming us; and he wasn’t going to allow me to talk my way out of this, though he’d pretended to offer me that possibility for years. He would always reshape the terms of the debate to serve him, to favor his interpretation, to keep himself in the right and in power and in our beds, There was nothing I could say to make him acknowledge my experience or admit his wrongdoing.

Photo of a poster that reads Mister, Mister Get your laws off my sister, above an image of the woman's symbol with a fist at the center

So we come back around to why it’s been so difficult to talk or engage in writing in this larger public conversation — do I have to use the hashtag? — about rape and sexual violence and male power and privilege and entitlement. The trouble is that this is another closed system: if you want to enter the conversation, you have to agree to the rules of the game — and the rules are, you have to let them frame the conversation, and you have to talk about what they want to talk about, the way they want to talk about it, if you want to be heard (or delude yourself that you will be heard).

This is where I got stuck. I don’t agree to the terms.

I said to a friend, it’s like a theoretical mathematician having to talk about something they know intimately and in profound depth, but they are only allowed to use the terminology of second-grade arithmetic. We are still only able, or allowed, to talk about violence against women (and children, and others) in incredulous, lurid, simplistic terms.

I saw a quote recently on the facebooks —  it said something about it being ok not to engage in arguments with people who are determined to misunderstand you. We who are insisting that rape culture harms absolutely everyone are being asked to define our terms and defend our positions over and over, endlessly, made to prove our points, to offer evidence in the form of our experiences and our bodies, repeatedly, to those who will, every time, find ways to deliberately misunderstand or misconstrue or misdirect or straight up deny what we’re saying, simply because they don’t want to have to be accountable for their behavior or make any changes in their lives or thinking. The hope is that, if we have to explain ourselves over and over (and over and over and over and over) and over again, eventually we will get tired (as I have gotten tired) and just go away and let things stay the way they’ve been for, oh, I don’t know, millennia.

It’s not that hard. Folks who have power don’t want to let go of it — any of it. Neither the rapist nor the rape apologist, neither Trump nor Sarah Sanders, wants to give up the power they’ve got in this culture. There’s power in being able to shape the conversation, the narrative, to demand that your accusers, those insisting on cultural change, prove their very right to speak endlessly, until they are exhausted.

So, in order to enter the conversation, I have to accede, accept, the terms that, for instance, it makes sense that a radio announcer in 2018 will state, breathlessly, that we’re seeing sexual harassment in all sorts of workplace environments (what, really?) — or accept the idea that a hashtag constitutes a movement (thereby agreeing to ahistoricize it, pretend like we just got started, decontextualize it from, let’s say, feminism and the generations of women (and others) who have named sexual violence and its harmful effects, demanding something better.  I have to agree that there’s a hierarchy of sexual violence and then weigh in on whether someone who isn’t systematically torturing victims over decades is really doing something all that bad; I have to agree that rich, white women started this “movement”; I have to hop up and down, the little kid in the back of the classroom, saying Ooh ooh ooh, me too! Me too! Hey, me too!

Even if I don’t agree on the terms, I have to agree to debate them — to discuss them, if I want my contribution to be even remotely relevant.

But these conversations are so ludicrous to me that I can’t even engage them seriously. A sex panic? Honestly? A witch hunt? Weighing the relative violence of acts that don’t violate criminal law (but are obviously deeply problematic/ impactful/harmful and create lasting impact, and undergird a system of violence that supports more violent acts)? Are you kidding me with this?

How to enter the conversation if you don’t agree to the terms of the debate? Maybe you don’t.

I’ve had this trouble for years. There are simply debates I can’t enter. I won’t talk with you about the relative merits of Lolita. I won’t discuss how great William Burroughs’ Queer was (because I haven’t read it, and frankly, I’d rather not have him in my queer lineage at all, thank you very much), you know, in spite of the fact that he shot his wife in the head (as though that were a side note in his life, a quirk, a small biographical detail). Is it even sort of of ok for a guy to have sex with a girl who’s drunk and not actively shoving him off her because she’s too out of it? Nope. Is it ok that David bowie had sex with children? Nope.

I am not your girl for those discussions. (But no worries — there are many thousands of folks who will talk about these things, so no one’s missing out on anything.)

It’s not just that I don’t agree on the terms of the debate — I don’t even agree that any of this is debatable.

I can’t engage seriously in any conversation that begins with, “Why is it difficult for women to come forward about experiences of sexual harassment at work?”

I can’t take seriously a “movement” to end sexual violence globally when it’s centered around rich (mostly) white women with access and power and is supposed to, what, trickle down to the rest of us?

I can’t take seriously any panic about witch hunts and male fear when children are still being raped in their beds across the planet, and the pope still protects the rapists in his ostensibly-Christian ranks.

I just can’t even.

You understand this feeling, the I can’t even feeling. I think anyone who has experienced or is experiencing oppression, and seeks to create change or simply have the reality of their situation recognized, acknowledged, for what it is, can understand this feeling.

I can’t even lives on the other side of the tongue-tiedness, but is mostly spoken to those who stand with us, who can hear is, who understand all that we are not saying, who read us without our even having to speak. Because having to speak the same fucking things over and over, having to reaffirm our humanity and the violence done to us, having to articulate, again, the harm that violence did and does, is exhausting. It takes work not to fall into the crazy-making mire of gaslighting and but-what-abouts and reverse oppression and backlash … I can’t even comes before the deep breath, the closed eyes, the sigh, the restating what we have been saying for decades, generations:

Yes, this entire system was set up to serve and protect those in power, by those in power. It’s just that simple.

I’m sorry, William Macy and Frank Bruni, if it’s hard to be a white man in this moment (well, at least in these conversations — are you having a lot of trouble, as powerful white men, outside of discussions involving racism or sexual violence? I didn’t think so). That’s not quite true, of course. I’m not sorry. Because I don’t believe it’s hard. I believe you’re experiencing some discomfort, sometimes, in some conversations. And that’s discomfort you can choose to feel or not; you can step out of the conversation. You can turn to another part of your life and never have to think about these things. The people who are inviting you to feel this discomfort? They — we — can’t step away.

I have been feeling “I can’t even” several times a day, most days, if I choose to engage in any media consumption whatsoever, for months now. And then I take that deep breath and close my eyes and sigh and pick up my hands and drop them on the keyboard and try to engage and find myself frozen. It’s not fear that freezes me, I suppose, but rage. The NYT magazine this weekend has a piece about female rage, about how and when (and which) women “get” to be angry, and how readily angry women are dismissed from any conversation.

Folks who’ve been oppressed for generations aren’t supposed to be angry about it — we are supposed to forgive and move forward with our oppressors. Women of all races; folks of color; queer folks — forgive and move on! Things are better now! Don’t be so angry. Why are you so angry? Don’t you know if you bring anger into the room, no one will take you seriously? You’ll just make people uncomfortable.

And anyway, what do you have to be angry about, women? Some men who abused women have been fired! You got what you wanted! Some men are — well — thinking about their language sometimes, in mixed company. Isn’t that the revolution you were looking for?

What I noticed was that a lot of those blog posts I started and then abandoned were really fucking angry. I am so tired of having to DEBATE the relative harm of different forms of sexual violence in a culture that is built on and shaped to protect male sexual entitlement, hello. Every piece of it, that is, every instance of sexual violence feeds the system, and tangles with every other instance. Every Aziz Ansari who we dismiss as not that bad and just needs to learn and didn’t know he was doing the wrong thing is laying the groundwork for a Harvey W., and is communicating to every woman everywhere what she can expect, or what she has to defend or armor up against, if she wants to have sex with men or masculine people.

If we repeat it enough, will you hear us? It doesn’t seem likely, but we keep saying it, just not for you — but for us. For those among us who need to know that we are not crazy for being outraged or triggered every time we turn on the news; that there’s nothing wrong with us for expecting our sexual partners to treat us like human beings who deserve respect and even adoration; that there’s nothing wrong with us for having expected those who were tasked with the job of raising and protecting us to do just that and only that; and that there’s nothing wrong with us for wanting a break from the litany of abuse stories sometimes — it doesn’t make us bad survivors, or unsupportive.

Sometimes you have to leave the room, quit trying to talk to people who will insist on misunderstanding you so that they can exhaust you into submission and silence. Sometimes you have to shift into another part of the house, with people who are interested in a different kind of conversation.

Be easy with yourselves out there, ok? Write hard, write whatever the fuck you want to, as angry as you want to write it, and then take yourself out for some ice cream or popcorn or even a non-food-related treat (which I just can’t seem to be able to imagine at the moment). I am grateful for each of you out there, and stand with you in the moments when you can’t speak, when you choose not to,  and in the moments when you do. Thank you for your words today.

How do we teach her about the Gauntlet?

Good Monday to you out there. Where I am just now, the sun is beginning to shift the shapes outside from silhouette to surety. The walnut tree has lost most of its leaves, and the ones left are yellow and readying to fall. No frost out there when I let the puppy out, but the quality of light makes me imagine late-fall mornings back East, where every roof was painted white and sparkling each morning.

What’s this morning look like where you are?

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This morning  I am thinking about the way we mark our children’s growth — how we celebrate them and mark their passages through the different stages of growing up (or don’t), how we honor and arm them for this world they are entering into (or don’t).

Last week I had dinner with my sweetheart and a couple of friends. Our friends have daughters, while my sweetheart has a son.

We were talking about the daughter of another friend, a young girl (9 years old), who, when she dressed up for Halloween, wore some of her mother’s clothes and makeup. All dressed up, she looked much older than her nine years. We said, She looked so much older. We said, she looked beautiful. And none of us spoke celebratorily or admiringly. We spoke with worry. We spoke with fear on this young girl’s behalf.

We four women told the stories about young girls looking and getting older with apprehension and sorrow. There was nothing celebratory or jubilant in our tone — look at this strong and beautiful little girl growing up! Instead, we shook our heads knowingly. None of us were excited for her. None of us reflected back with joy to the moments in our own lives when we were no longer seen as a little girl, but were instead met in the world as women — that is, the moment that we entered the Gauntlet.

Around that table, talking about that young girl, we turned our eyes down and away from one another. We were thinking, Pretty soon she’s going to be entering the Gauntlet.

You know about the Gauntlet, because either you’ve been through it or you’ve heard about it. It’s the point when girls begin to get attention from older men, when they begin to get catcalls, whistles, shouts, whispered come ons. When passing cars honk and then men inside leave their hissing and pleading tones lingering around the girls walking home from school or to the mall with their friends. When she can’t do her homework on the bus anymore because someone always has something to say about her chest, and so she hold her books in front of her instead. When she begins to be faced with the fact that her worth is supposed to be determined by how many men want her. If she doesn’t appear to appreciate those shouts, if she walks by with her head up, neck unbent and proud, the men have other things to shout and catcall after her — or worse.

This is a time when girls will often dress specifically to hide their blossoming curves, or to highlight them. It’s a rare girl in America, I think, who, after she enters the Gauntlet, doesn’t think about how her clothes reveal or convey some message about her body — and, by extension, herself.

Some of us learn early that men’s attention is valuable and desired. I can remember walking the long blocks from the bus stop back home when I was in junior hight, and being excited every time a man whistled at me from a passing car — that whistle meant I was worthy. The whistle meant I was worthy. The fact that I loved to read and write, or had done well on a test that day, or had come up with interesting questions to discuss in my history class meant nothing against the attentions of a male stranger. That whistle — I believed — meant I had some power. He noticed me, which meant I must be one of the pretty ones.

I didn’t feel this excitement, though, a few years earlier, when I was sexually harassed by a boy in my class all through sixth grade (and continued even after my mom came to the school many times to meet with the principal, teacher, and this boy — male entitlement and tacit community approval are powerful things). I wanted to hide my body, wanted to be invisible, at exactly the moment that my body was making itself more visible.

Jill Scott has a remarkable piece about the Gauntlet, entitled The Thickness — and before you listen, know that this piece contains clear and direct language around sex and sexual assault/rape culture.

Do boys have their version of the Gauntlet? It seems to me that there must be a masculinity Gauntlet through which boys have to run, in which they are expected to conform to a maleness and manhood that devalues girls and femininity, that values violence and action over questions and empathy, that is interested in conquest over compromise — in this Gauntlet, you’re either a man or a faggot, and faggots are fair game.

(Never having had to run that Gauntlet, I wonder if what I imagine rings true with the masculine readers here.)

It is true that every child has to run these Gauntlets alone — as grown ups who love them, we can’t hold their hands all the time. And yet I wonder how we prepare our children for these trials. How do we teach our feminine children to hold themselves up in the face of this test? Surely it’s a rite of passage for all girls: come through the Gauntlet with your dignity, with your love for your body intact, and a clear and vivid surety in your own human worth. Whew.

Did you come through the Gauntlet that way? I didn’t. What if we could set girls up for that *before* we sent them into the Gauntlet alone? What if we stood by the sidelines, witnessing their achievements, honoring their successes, tending to them when they were bruised and sore and scared? What if we made this particular rite of passage more visible?

(Even better, of course, would be if men and boys treated women and girls with respect all the time, if parents taught their children to respect themselves and one another, if kids rewarded one another’s generosity and kindness rather than hostility and revenge porn. Let’s keep working on that, too. )

Not being a parent myself, I wonder how parents of daughters/feminine children deal with this. Do you arm your daughters with knowledge? Or do you say nothing, wanting to preserve their “innocence” for as long as possible?  Do you tell them what to do when they are harassed at school, on the bus, on the street — or do you leave them to figure it out for themselves? How do they know they can come to you if they have questions or are afraid or are curious or excited?

We like to watch movies about kids who have to safely navigate life-threatening challenges — the Harry Potter movies, the Hunger Games, and so many more attest to this. But how do we prepare our real, live children for the life-altering challenges that comprise their tween and teen years? If we ourselves are afraid or ashamed to talk about sex and sexuality, if we are still marked by and ashamed of our own experiences in the Gauntlet, how will that impact the way we communicate with the children that we love?

I don’t want my first response to a girl’s looking older than she is to be helpless lamentation. How can we celebrate a girl growing older while also being straightforward with her about the Gauntlet and the rest of the world she is growing up into?

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Did you have to go through the Gauntlet as a kid? I’m thinking about that as a prompt for today. Can you imagine how the experience might have been different if you’d had an adult to talk to about what you were dealing with, someone who could tell you how to deal with the bullies and shadiness?

What would you want to say to young ones about to enter the Gauntlet?

Thank you for the wisdom are able to offer to others, both younger and older. Thank you for the witness you are willing to bear. And thank you today for your words.