I drafted most of this last year and am finally getting around to publishing it. The #yesallwomen conversation isn’t getting as much attention right now, but it is sadly just as relevant as ever.
Women have been tweeting about the first time they were assaulted, and at the same time this HuffPo article popped up on my feed again. It’s about all the ways women minimize and de-escalate everyday sexism, and how men aren’t aware of that.
I’m one of the “lucky” ones who has “only” had to deal with cat calling and friends who don’t know the difference between a joke and sexism, or who sometimes push my boundaries. Well, that’s if you don’t count the process of being taught how unsafe the world is for women. I was 12 and had no social life yet when my dad started telling me and my younger sisters to never put down our drinks at college parties because someone might want to drug and rape us.
In thinking about this tweet storm and the article simultaneously, I realized that my closest male friends are the main source of the assaults, misogyny, objectification, and sexism that I deal with on a daily basis. Not strangers, not coworkers or casual acquaintances, but my friends. This is an open letter to my friends and to every man out there who is or wants to be friends and lovers with women.
First of all, I love you guys. We’ve had some good times together. You’re all fun, interesting, caring, intelligent, and creative people. You’ve supported me and cheered me on. You’ve been there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on. You’ve challenged me to become more mature and thoughtful and to take more responsibility for myself. You are the people I’d call to come get me if someone assaulted me. I trust you with my life and with my son. I’m thankful every day to have you in my life. I want to keep hanging out and having fun with you, being there for you, and being able to count on you.
I know that you care about me, about the other women and girls in your lives, and about being mature and moral people. We’ve talked about this; I’m not just giving you the benefit of the doubt here. Which is why I have to say that the ongoing misogyny and sexism that you perpetrate is bullshit.
Before you get all outraged, listen up. I know that you would never in a million years abuse or rape me or anyone else. Most of you were raised by kick-ass women and you respect them. Some of you have daughters and you’re raising them to be strong, smart, and independent… but you’re also terrified of what might happen to them as young women in this world. Well, that stuff you’re terrified of for your daughters still happens to us as adults, and you guys do it to me.
You take sexual banter as an invitation to touch or grab me without warning, usually startling me and always making me feel violated. Why don’t I flip out on your ass more often? Read the article. If I want you to touch me, I’ll say so. If you want to touch me, ask (and respect my answer).
You make comments that reduce me to an object you want to possess, that make me feel in that moment like the only thing you value about me is my sex appeal. I get comments on my ass, my breasts, my weight loss, my thigh gap. It’s the exact same way you talk about luxury cars or your latest gadget. Yes, you also value me as a person, but that doesn’t make objectifying me OK. My body isn’t here for your enjoyment unless I choose to share it with you, and when I do that you’re getting a lot more than just my body; I’m sharing my heart and mind with you too. When is the last time you complimented me on my confidence, optimism, compassion, common sense, intelligence, or courage? Which do you talk about most, my body or my character?
You objectify other women in front of me, then try to justify yourself by pointing out that I like women too. Dude, being queer doesn’t mean that I’m into objectifying people. When I see an attractive person of any gender I will have a small private smile of appreciation and maybe I’ll think some non-verbal comment like “Mmm” or “Ooh”. I am NOT thinking, “Oh, she has a great ass, I’d tap that.” Other people’s bodies are not an invitation to have sex with them. They just are. Yes, you can appreciate an attractive person, but don’t talk about other people’s body parts and what you want to do to them. The same goes for people you find unattractive. Their bodies aren’t an open invitation for comment, derision, or ridicule. Keep your unkind thoughts to yourself and practice letting go of the judgment.
You interrupt, talk over me, and shout me down. You’re more likely to have a “Yes, but…” response than to acknowledge what I’m saying. Basically, your listening skills are terrible. My strategy for dealing with this is usually to ask you to speak first, hoping that if you feel heard, you’ll be able to listen to me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
You take advantage of my respect and self-control by counting on me to maintain appropriate boundaries between us, especially when it comes to sex. Sometimes we’re in agreement about the boundaries, but you still push them. Sometimes you want more than I do and you claim to understand and respect that, but you still come on to me. Sometimes I want more than you do, and when you make that clear I back off and don’t make any more moves because I respect your boundaries. I am so sick of lame excuses like, “I just get carried away sometimes” and “I have a big appetite”. Guess who else gets carried away and has strong desires? Me! But I’ve spent years practicing self-control, respect for myself and others, and delayed gratification. This is where all that societal crap like “boys will be boys” comes in. You guys have been taught that you can’t control your desires, so you’ve never learned how. Instead, you rely on me to do it for you, no matter which one of us set up the boundary in the first place. At least one of you would be no better than your cheating father if I hadn’t said “no” when I really wanted to say “yes”, and could have said “yes” if I was being as selfish as you were.
These things (and more) happen over and over again. You all (usually) get it in the moment when I call you on your latest transgression. You clearly feel remorse and apologize for your behavior, and then we’re good… until the next time. Each of the examples I listed above has happened more than once with different people. If you recognize yourself in any of them (and I’d be happy to enlighten you if you don’t), realize that I can give multiple other examples of the same issue happening with other friends. Maybe you think you only “slip up” once in a while, but multiply that by the number of male friends in my life and you’ll see that I have to put up with this regularly. Now think about the other women and girls in your lives and do the same multiplication. Guys: this is bullshit and needs to stop. Now.
One of the quotes that stood out to me from Gretchen Kelly’s article was this: “We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.”
Here’s something I haven’t told you: Laughter does not always mean that I think what you just said or did is funny or that I’m having a good time. Sometimes it does mean that, but other times, laughter is a tool to de-escalate when something awkward or violating has just happened. Many people in our culture have deeply ingrained ideas about how it’s not ok to “make a scene” or “be rude” in the face of rudeness and worse. When you violate my boundaries, the truth is that is the rude action; me standing up for myself is not. I’ve been giving my “make a scene” muscles a workout, but old habits die hard. As Gretchen Kelly says, “It [de-escalation and minimizing] doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.” Sometimes it seems easier to pretend I didn’t notice or I’m not bothered. It sucks to be told I’m overreacting and that you didn’t mean anything by it and to just “calm your tits”. I don’t want to fight with you, listen to your excuses, put up with your mansplaining what my reaction should be, and educate you on the regular; that gets exhausting. So… sometimes I laugh and joke when it’s not funny at all.
For anyone (I hope that includes you) wondering what you’re supposed to do now, here are some suggestions:
1. Don’t take laughter and joking at face value. Learn how to tell when I’m treating something as a joke even though it isn’t. Am I blushing? Squirming? Avoiding eye contact? Am I saying things like, “Stop that!”, even if it sounds like a half-hearted protest that doesn’t mean anything? Am I suddenly quiet, or did my tone of voice change? Have I increased the distance between us? Does my laughter sound a little forced or a little too manic? If it really is a joke and I’m really comfortable, there is better proof than laughter. My whole posture will be relaxed and comfortable and my eyes will be smiling too. I’ll probably be close to you physically, may touch your arm or wink, and I’m comfortable with sustained eye contact. When in doubt, ask.
2. Handle being called out gracefully and maturely. Look, you’re my friends. If I do “make a scene” or stand up for myself, it’s because I want the outcome to be better for both of us. I don’t say something because I want a fight or I want to make you feel bad. I say something because I respect myself and also your ability to learn and grow. Deflecting your shame back onto me helps exactly no one.
3. Check yourself and your friends’ boundaries. Don’t assume that boundaries around touch are the same as they were several years ago, for example. Go ahead and ask the women in your life if you’re being respectful, then carefully listen to their answers. You’ll get brownie points just for asking, but taking their feedback seriously and using it to improve your own behavior will make everyone’s lives better, including yours.
4. Practice, practice, practice. Practice noticing when you cross a line, when you stop yourself from crossing a line, and when you call other men on their bullshit. Practice asking for consent and feedback.
5. Take feedback to heart but don’t take it personally. We’re all learning. I’m learning that I have a voice and the right to say, “Hey, that’s not ok with me.” You’re learning that some of the behaviors you consider most fun are actually hurting people you care about. I get it; it’s confusing and scary and at times you may think that you’re not allowed to have fun anymore. Taking it personally and throwing yourself a pity party just makes it worse for all of us, though. Let me assure you: mutually agreeable banter and flirting are some of my favorite things, but the key word is “mutual”. Do you really want to be having “fun” at my expense?
6. Call out other men on their sexist and harassing behavior/comments when you’re with men. Support women to stand up for themselves if/when they need or ask for it.
7. Apologize sincerely when you mess up. Reflect on the situation so you can make a different choice in the future.
8. Listen–to our stories and when we tell you that you crossed a line.
9. Educate yourself. The internet abounds with stories of everyday sexism, for example. It’s not my job to teach you, but here’s one link to get you started.
The actual impact of one’s actions can be worlds apart from one’s intentions. None of this is to suggest that you’re “bad” or deliberately trying to hurt anyone. I truly believe that most of this bullshit happens because of social conditioning, habit, and ignorance, and those aren’t the easiest blind spots to take stock of. And yet… It can be done. Once again, I love you guys. Now cut the crap.