One good thing came out of this year’s horrible presidential campaign: Women are speaking openly about how we are treated in the workplace and public spaces.
It’s not that we never did before, of course. The @everydaysexism account on Twitter was started in March 2012. You can read thousands of personal stories there (though they might give you nightmares).
Personally, I’ve had many conversations with other women about our harassment experiences, but it’s usually been about our “funny” experiences. (Liz Meriwether wrote a great essay last month about how women desperately try to find something humorous while describing traumatic events.) For instance, I have several times told the story about how I was stalked in Rome the summer after I graduated from college. It’s “funny” because I scared the stalker away by confronting him and screaming, “Fuck you, I’m from NEW YORK!” I like to think that the words “New York” terrified him more than the “fuck you.”
I also like to tell people about the time I nearly got snatched out of my parents’ driveway in New Jersey while walking our elderly dog, because it’s educational as well as entertaining.
Here’s the educational part: My late cousin Bobby, who was a New York City cop for many years, once told me, “If you have a bad feeling about a man, run! You have plenty of time to be embarrassed later.” He said that rape victims frequently told him that they’d felt uncomfortable about a man in their vicinity, but they didn’t want to seem impolite or crazy by overreacting to someone who was really harmless. REMEMBER THIS ADVICE!
I remembered Bobby’s advice and it probably saved my life. A few years after the Rome incident, I was walking down my parents’ driveway around midnight with Ringo, our old dog. When a van turned onto our unlit street, I backed up towards the house. Hardly any cars came through that street except those of the people who lived there, and something made me suspicious of this van. As the van passed the driveway, I started walking back out. The guys in the van saw me. They slammed on the brakes and threw the car into reverse, stopping right at the driveway. A white guy with shaggy hair leaned out the passenger side window and told me he needed directions. Admittedly, this was long before GPS and smart phones, but I was leery. This dark street didn’t seem like a good one to choose if you were lost. I said I couldn’t help them and inched backwards. THEN THE GUY OPENED THE VAN DOOR AND STARTED GETTING OUT. I turned and ran like the wind, back into the house, dragging the dog behind me. Back in the safety of the kitchen, I did feel embarrassed: What if they really needed directions and I acted like a lunatic? But the embarrassment only lasted a split second because my sister came flying into the kitchen screaming. She’d seen the whole thing from her bedroom window and it looked exactly how I thought it was. (A few years ago, I asked her, “Do you remember the thing with the van?” and she screamed, “YES!!!!” at me like I was out of my mind to even wonder.)
That’s the kind of story women I know have told each other easily: stories with “happy” endings — meaning no physical harm was done. We were merely terrified. Using “New York” as a defense and giving old dogs road rash? Totally something we can laugh about.
The conversations changed after Oct. 7, when Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold broke the story of Donald Trump’s 2005 “Grab them by the pussy” tape. Trump’s lies, threats, name-calling and bullying had already reminded plenty of women of bad experiences they’d had. But the “pussy” tape and Trump’s reaction to it — his dismissal of the women who came forward with stories confirming behavior that he had described himself — shattered a silence I didn’t even realize was there.
The reaction of other men to Trump added to the impact. It was fantastic to see so many guys say that they never heard anything remotely like Trump’s so-called locker room talk in any locker room, ever. At the same time, it was fascinating to see the hypocrisy of other men exposed. I’m talking about the kind of men who put themselves in the center of any conversation about sexual abuse of women by insisting that “not all men” are a threat. (Yeah, WE KNOW THAT! The problem is that #yesallwomen experience threats.) Suddenly, that kind of guy was defending Trump, saying “boys will be boys.” Which is it, fellas? Bad behavior is either standard or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.
men: not ALL men.
men to their daughters: yes, all men. every single one of them.
— sal (@sempiternal_) June 19, 2015
In the wake of this, I now see (and hear) women telling the stories that can’t be spun in some funny way. The ones that we’re ashamed of, because even though we know intellectually that these things aren’t our fault, we’ve internalized society’s blame game. A couple of days after the Trump tape came out, I used Twitter to tell a story I have rarely mentioned to friends (even though it involves dogs again) because the masturbator I encountered was in no way amusing. Plus, I was annoyed with myself for being out by myself at 2 a.m. …
If you're a man who says a woman is at risk when she does something you would do w/o a second thought, you've acknowledged rape culture. /1
— WendyBrandes (@WendyBrandes) October 9, 2016
… but then what do we say about the guy who started jerking off in front of me on a rush-hour subway train, skillfully hiding his gross activity from everyone else with a gym bag? I was out during the day, surrounded by people, and I still had a disgusting experience.
Some stories haven’t been told before because women fear professional repercussions. Even telling the stories now, we often don’t name names. My friend Barbara bravely wrote about the harassment she has experienced in the jewelry industry including, to my horror, something that happened at the trade show we both attended in June. I must have seen her either right before or after she was groped. I certainly saw her in the days following the incident. I never had a clue.
Certain work stories are old stories. For those who hear a woman’s story of abuse and say, “Why didn’t she report it 20 years ago” — well, I DID report it 20 years ago, and I still wound up leaving the company while the man stayed. It wasn’t his first offense either. Notice that I didn’t put the harasser’s name in writing. I didn’t dare. (I put in the name of another manager who could testify to his identity.)
The way people are complaining that women don't expose harassment on the spot reminds me of my own fears. This paragraph is from a report I wrote in 1995 about my job situation at the time. The harassment had begun when I started the job three years earlier. This is the first time I've shared this publicly. #sexualharassment #trump
But the conversations that have surprised me the most have been the ones about street commenting. That’s something where I’m used to sharing the extreme versions — like the guy in a brown three-piece suit who got really close to me and hissed, “Pussy, pussy, pussy” in my ear — but not the run-of-the-mill ones. The ones that aren’t so bad, that we’ve learned to tolerate. Until the past few weeks, I’ve never had so many women tell me that they simply don’t want to hear ANYTHING from ANY strange men on the street. (Keep in mind that my friends and I are in New York and other large cities, where we have sensory overload even before we’re accosted by strangers.) We don’t need “compliments.” We all know what we look like. Our friends, family, and colleagues have — as long as they aren’t vision-impaired — seen us. Many of us (not all — some women like it) have no need for validation from random guys on the street. I know I’m tooting my own horn here but I happen to think I have nice lips. That means a guy yelling “Nice lips” at me isn’t bringing me breaking news. It simply means I’m stuck giving a total stranger a weak smile, because if I don’t smile, he might yell, “Smile, bitch!” and that kind of shit makes me feel tense. I’m not flattered in this situation. I’m nervous. It’s another drop in a big bucket of near-constant threat.
Then there are the men who try to pass themselves off as harmless fashion lovers by commenting on clothing. You aren’t fooling us. Women can tell the difference between a insincere fashion compliment and a sincere one. We have years of experience. I’ve received and given sincere fashion compliments many times. If it’s a sidewalk situation, it nearly always goes like this: The sincere complimenter (whether male or female) walks abreast of the complimentee, catches her eye, smiles widely, and says with great enthusiasm, “I love your boots/dress/hair/whatever.” The sincere complimenter doesn’t startle a woman by shouting something out as she passes by. Here’s how my designing friend Stacy Lomman recently described the latter experience on Facebook.
Walking down Madison Avenue yesterday, minding my own business, I hear a voice say, ‘Great boots.’ A man’s voice. A random maintenance worker or building super on a smoke break outside his building. It’s pouring and I am juggling my umbrella, a cup of coffee and a 20 pound handbag loaded with work I need to get done. I’m in NO mood to chat, be cordial or even acknowledge some stranger who thinks he is entitled to insert himself into my life in some tiny way. And seriously, do you REALLY care about my boots, dude? Are you an expert in footwear? In fashion? No, I didn’t think so. LISTEN UP, unless you are KARL LAGERFELD (all hail the King), Iris Apfel, or the late, great Bill Cunningham back from the grave to take my photo for the Style section of the NYT, I don’t care about your opinion of my boots, my outfit, or my hair. I do NOT need your your reassurance, flattery or attention. In fact, your attention is annoying and you are not important to me — at all. Guys like this (and there are loads of them!) aren’t being nice, they are invading women’s space and putting us in uncomfortable situations, even if it’s only for a few seconds. Do we give a little smile and say, ‘thanks,’ just to appease their egos because if we ignore them we’re called a ‘bitch?’ How is this fair? Just because they make a so-called ‘nice’ remark doesn’t mean that it’s actually a nice thing to do. Don’t say ANYTHING. Just leave us alone so that we can go about our days just like you guys. Do men look at other men and say, ‘great shoes’ or ‘nice smile’ as they walk by? I seriously doubt it. So, the only reason they say these things to women is to get our attention, to exercise the ‘power’ they believe they hold over the ‘weaker’ sex. If this guy truly thought my boots were cool, he could have just THOUGHT it. There’s really no need to tell me. I know they’re cool, that’s why I bought them.
I love what she said about men addressing other men. It reminds me of this tweet.
Funny how men suddenly understand the need to approach people respectfully and being mindful of personal space when gay men hit on them pic.twitter.com/T6PaIwUkuC
— C-Murda McPhearson (@Katlego_Tefu) October 20, 2016
Amazingly, a man that both Stacy and I know chose to argue with her that she should, indeed, be flattered. She’s not entitled to her own feelings, apparently.
you’re not too sensitive. you’re not overreacting. if it hurts you, it hurts you
— Lonni Giovanni (@longlivelonni) November 6, 2016
He kept the argument going for some time. I pointed out that he was valuing the actions of a man he DOES NOT KNOW over the feelings of a woman he does know. WTF! I notice this a lot. There are some men out there — including men who say that they are too nice to ever yell at a woman on the street — who insist that men in general have the right to “compliment” women on the street. They know the comments aren’t nice. That’s why they don’t make them themselves. But they will still defend the potential behavior of hypothetical not-nice men to an actual living, breathing woman who says, “I don’t like that.”
@WillCaskey Men are truly afraid that, given power, women will treat them like they've been treating women all this time.
— Free Falling (@soundscaper) October 14, 2016
When you boil it down, this is how the argument about street harassment sounds to me:
- Woman: I don’t want you to do this to me.
- Man: I’m going to do it anyway.
She is saying no, and he is saying, “Too bad.” And that brings me back to thoughts I’ve been having about the meaning of consent ever since a tweet I wrote in August went a little viral.
If Ryan Lochte lied about that robbery, how can we ever believe any man's allegations of robbery? ?
— WendyBrandes (@WendyBrandes) August 18, 2016
It was remarkable to me how many people missed the sarcastic point of that comment. It also brought out quite a few people who felt that acquaintance rape is a gray area, especially when alcohol is involved. To start, there’s the popular notion that both parties are equally drunk in a situation like that of Stanford rapist Brock Turner. This is incorrect. If one person is unconscious and unable or barely able to move, and the other person is conscious and moving about, those two people are not equally drunk. In other words, one person is unable to give consent. This scenario and other ones pertaining to consent — including previous sexual encounters — are illustrated in this charming video about tea.
Are you still confused about consent because you hate tea? Maybe you like pizza better. Imagine asking two people if they would like a delicious slice of pepperoni pizza. One, who is conscious, says, “Yes, the pizza will help absorb all this alcohol!” The other person, who is unconscious, groans a little and then says nothing else. Is it appropriate to stuff a slice of pizza in the mouth of the unconscious person? No. What if you know that the person has eaten pizza in the past? Still no. Allow educator Al Vernacchio to elaborate.
Are you someone who doesn’t like pizza? You can probably relate to money. Let’s imagine that I ask you for a $5 bill and you say no … because you are secretly going to buy pizza with that money! You lied to me about not liking pizza so that I wouldn’t ask for a bite! Anyway, after you say no, is it okay for me to grab the money out of your hand? No! That’s your damn pizza money and you need it. Or, what if I ask you for $5 and you smile and say “Sure!”, but then you remember the new pizza place you want to try out, so you say, “Oh, actually, I can’t.” Would it be appropriate for me to grab the money from you then because you said yes initially? No, that would be obnoxious.
My own favorite and very thorough description of consent comes from a woman who hosts big sex parties. When I read her story on the Huffington Post, I thought, “Why have we never asked a big-sex-party host about this issue before?” In hindsight, it seems obvious that a person who plans a 60-person orgy would have to have good ground rules. Here are three key points.
- Only act on enthusiastic consent: “Yes!” not “Maybe…”
- You can revoke consent at any time if you change your mind.
- Consent for one activity is not consent for another.
The essay includes a helpful link to forms of nonverbal consent, for you kinky peeps who like to be tied up and gagged.
It’s reassuring to know that there are people out there explaining consent in such clear terms. Combined with a new frankness about women’s experiences of harassment and abuse, I feel like we might be on the verge of a happy revolution. Maybe we can finally make it clear — starting with our answers to the childhood question, “How do I know if s/he likes me?” — that permission to make your sex-ay move is ONLY granted when everyone involved says …