Trigger warning for rape culture and street harassment. Offensiveness warning for liberal use of swear words.
Last week, I walked into a gas station wearing a slinky red dress.
My friends and I were on our way to a dance; we needed gas; I walked into a gas station wearing a slinky red dress.
I knew there would be stares, knew there would be comments. This is what happens, when you are female-bodied and you wear a red dress at night. Men stare, and they comment, because obviously you are wearing that dress so they can look at you! Why would you wear a dress – especially a slinky dress, especially a red dress – if you didn’t want to be stared at?
Head up, eyes forward, absolute refusal to acknowledge the eyes raking me up and down. Don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is an invitation to approach.
Of course, not everyone waits for an invitation.
“Daaaamn girl, you look good in that dress,” says a man as I walk past him to the waiting car. I don’t turn, don’t make eye contact, don’t smile, don’t acknowledge him in anyway. Acknowledgement is an invitation to escalate.
This guy, he’s really not all about the invitations.
“What, you can’t say ‘thank you,’ bitch?”
I keep walking, to my car, to my friends, to safety. If they were not waiting for me, I might not have had the option of being a bitch. If the lot were a little less well-lit, my car a little farther away, I would not have had the luxury of dignity and aloofness. I would have had to smile at this man as he commented on my body, appease him, try to walk that impossible line between not-inviting and not-antagonizing. The line that women walk every time they navigate public spaces, the line that men have never once had to consider, the line that in all reality does not exist because the men who harass us don’t give a flying fuck what signals of interest or non-interest we’re sending out.
I used to walk a lot further on the not-antagonizing side of the Bullshit Line. I had a horror of being rude, of hurting someone’s feelings. I had been trained in a thousand ways to smooth over any situation, at the expense of my own comfort and safety. So I followed the “rules,” illustrated brilliantly by Harriet Jay in her “Another Post About Rape.”
“You could flirt back a little, look meek, not talk, not move away. You might have to put up with a lot more talking, you might have to put up with him trying to ask you out to lunch every day, you might even have to go out to lunch with him. You might have to deal with him copping a feel. But he won’t turn violent on you, and neither will the spectators who have watched him browbeat you into a frightened and flirtatious corner.”
Following the rules is meant to offer us protection. Protection from the unpredictable violence of strange men, as long as we appease them. Protection from the censure and ostracization of those around us, as long as we don’t cause a scene by having emotions or enforcing our boundaries.
Protection – until the man we have let inside our boundaries rapes us, and all of a sudden following the rules is used as proof that we didn’t say “No” loud enough, so it wasn’t really rape.
For every time she lowered her voice, let go of a boundary, didn’t move away, let her needs be conveniently misinterpreted, and was given positive reinforcement and a place in society, she is now being told that all that was wrong, this one time, and she should have known that, duh.
I have given my phone number to a man who creeped me out, only to have him call me incessantly for two weeks until a male friend answered and told him to fuck off. I have smiled and laughed uncomfortably with an old man on the bus as his friendly chat suddenly came to involve references to my “cute little butt” and revelations about how he waited to get on the bus until he saw which one I was getting on. I have moved a man’s hands gently off my body, over and over, laughing to soften the rejection, to not offend, until at the end of the night he tried to forcibly drag me onto a dark beach.
So now I’m a bitch.
I don’t make eye contact. I don’t smile. My body language is guarded, closed off, aloof. When men approach me, I shut the conversation down or move away as quickly and unambiguously as possible.
The bitch approach is not any safer than the appeasement approach. The specter of male violence is a real threat, as the experience of this woman so vividly illustrates. And we can never, ever, count on bystanders to come to our defense.
On a Sunday morning last year, I went into a grocery store wearing yoga pants.
My friends and I were making brunch; we needed bread and eggs; I went into a grocery store wearing yoga pants.
We were standing in the checkout line. A man got in line behind us, and started talking to his friend about my body. How fine my ass was. How much he’d like to see it jiggle in a g-string. How many dollar bills he’d throw at it. How much he wanted to take shots off the freckles on my neck.
I stood with my back to him, hands clenched, stomach knotted, shaking with fury. Acknowledgement is an invitation to escalate. Do not turn around. If you say anything it will only get worse. It will get worse and it will be your fault. What were you thinking, wearing yoga pants to the grocery store?
And then this asshole started on my freckles. My freckles. They’re on my neck, a part of my body that feels so vulnerable, that feels innocent and worthy of protection in a way my other curves never have. When he started talking about my freckles I felt violated in a new and horrible way, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I can hear you,” I snapped, whirling around to face the man I had yet to even see.
As if these things would have been okay to say if I couldn’t hear them? If only I had found the right words. Then, he would have backed down. Then, the crowd around us would have come to my defense.
He laughed in my face. “What? If you thick, you thick. I’m just saying what I see.” His friend – a woman – laughs in my face as well.
The people behind us in checkout line watch, silent. My friends, standing before me in the checkout aisle, watch, silent.
“You need to stop. Right. Now.” I grit through my teeth.
“Don’t need to be stuck-up about it. If you thick, you thick,” he says again. He is grinning. He has won and I have lost and we both know it. He is a man and I am a woman and I have no right to my own body in public spaces. Not if I’m thick.
I turn around because I can feel tears starting and I don’t want him to see them. He is about to start in again when friends of his show up. “Let’s go,” he says. “Some stuck-up bitches here in this aisle.”
I have this to say to the man in the grocery store. To the man outside the gas station. To every man on every bus and every street corner who has stolen my time and violated my space and passed judgment on my body as if it is yours to approve of and consume:
I do not owe you anything. My body is mine, and if claiming it as my own makes me a bitch, then so be it. I will be a bitch until the day I die.