Thursday, March 09, 2017

Stories of Sexism and Violence

There is a blog that I posted last year and again this year when it showed up in my memories for the day. The author grew up in Montreal, Canada. Except for a few early years in Texas, I grew up in California and then Oregon. I should feel a kinship with this woman on the other side of the continent, in another country, and I do. Our experiences are eerily familiar. And this horrifies me. It is disturbing that two women so far apart can have the same feelings, been preyed upon in the same manner. It means that our experiences aren't limited to a geographical area. Or a certain type of man. Or a period in time. They are rampant. They happen every day to every one of us. And there is no end soon in sight.

As I read her words again, I started to recall my own stories. The ones that are non-fiction. Those that haunt me. These are just some of them.

I'm four or five. Young. My class is on a field trip at the police station. There is a large carpet depicting roads and street signs. There is a tricycle on the carpet meant to be a vehicle. I want to "drive" the streets so I raise my hand. The police man chooses me. He says, "My, you're a pretty little girl." I can "drive" and show the other kids how to use the traffic signs, but first I must kiss him on the cheek. I don't really want to "drive" after that.

I'm five. My parents are divorced and my dad has custody but he works so his family friend watches me during the day. Her son is my age. He wants to show me his penis. I don't really care to, but he makes it sound like I really want to. Only he wants to see what I have. I do it just so we can move on and play. It happens a few times and one day his mom catches us and beats the shit out of me.

In sixth grade there is a boy who torments me relentlessly. He snaps my bra and when I get mad, he tells our teacher that I told him to "keep his black hands off of me." I am both humiliated that my teacher, who I respect more than almost anyone, knows that I now wear a bra and that someone touched me without my permission. I am devastated that he thinks I blamed it on the color of his skin when the thought never occurred to me and I cry like my heart is broken. Because it is.

I'm 12 and a family member hugs me but his hand lands between my legs. I pull away in disgust and he acts innocent. "What? What's wrong?" This happens intermittently and semi-regularly until I am 17. He shoves his tongue in my mouth, grabs a breast. I stop him every time and leave the room, but I don't tell anyone because I'm the one that feels ashamed. I don't tell my mom until after I'm married and I think the only reason I forgive him now is because he's old and frail and can't hurt me anymore.

I'm 18. My boyfriend is arguing with me for no reason, we work together in a store at the mall. I turn to leave and he grabs me, turns me around, and shoves me against the door. It's a metal door with a bar in the middle. I try to hit him but he has my arms pinned. As recognition at what he's done spreads across his face, he tells me with fat tears how sorry he is and that I must be so worried about what will happen next time. I tell him that a next time means he'll never see me again. He never touches me like that again, but he breaks things. He breaks my windshield and then his on separate occasions. When I'm 21 and I drive from Oregon back to college in Southern California, I decide to stay with my roommate and her mom in their hotel. I'm tired and tired of being in the car so I deny his invitation to go to his place. His invitation turns into a demand and then a threat. I hear a bottle break in the sink as he threatens to kill himself and I hang up. I end the relationship a few days later.

I'm 22 and engaged. We live together. I weigh maybe 96 pounds but I've always had a little belly. He tells me I'm fat. When he gets home from work he asks if I worked out, saying, "You were home all day. What else do you have to do?" I cry and wish I could be really fat so he'd have something real to complain about.

Years later when we're getting divorced, he tells me he will find someone young, blond, and thin. I am 10 years younger than him at 26 and still weigh under 110 pounds.

I'm a single mom and I work in an insurance office.  When I first start, the owner tells a male co-worker to tell a female co-worker to to tell me to wear a bra with more padding. The office is always freezing. There is an underwriter who asks inappropriate and personal questions when I make changes to my own policies. I tell my boss and he laughs it off. When I bring up sexual harassment and tell him I will do something if he doesn't, he finally calls the underwriter's supervisor. There continue to be comments on how I dress.

I'm in my 30's and live with a boyfriend. I go home at my lunch hour and the husband of his friend is working construction in our neighborhood. He follows me to the mailbox and grins, saying I should invite him over for lunch sometime. At a party with other friends, he walks behind me and rubs his whole front against my back. The room isn't that crowded.

I'm at a dinner with about 10 other people and an executive of our company who is in town for some meeting. He goes on and on about his toddler and his wife and how much he loves her. As people start to leave, he slides around the booth and puts his hand on my thigh while he whispers his room number in my ear. I tell him I won't be needing it. Several months later I'm in a car full of co-workers and my manager on our way to a conference. I tell this story and everyone is repulsed. Several months more go by and I get pulled into the HR office because a rumor is going around about that incident. I confirm that it happened and that, because men are constantly inappropriate and I would probably never see him again, I didn't feel the need to report it. However, my manager gets called out for not reporting it when he heard the story months before. Soon after I'm put on a performance review and the HR manager tells me she thinks it's a retaliation and to keep her informed if my manager says anything out of bounds.

I'm over 40. My boyfriend gets mad when I buy a pair of shoes in a color he doesn't like. When we argue, I tell him he needs to leave but he continues on and on until I hyperventilate. He tells me that my ear piercings look trashy. That I'm book smart but have no common sense. That I'm beautiful but, but, but...

I'm 45 and have recently ended a relationship. It was a mutual breakup with no animosity. A few weeks later he texts me, he's at his company Christmas party in my neighborhood and asks if he can stop by. I assume we're adults and can be friends. He shows up having had more to drink than I thought and continues to work his way through my bottle of whiskey. I tell him he's going to have to leave because I'm tired and need to sleep. He asks, over and over and over, why he can't stay in my bed because he has so many times before. I finally go to my room and lock my door and he leaves. I haven't seen him since.

I'm in a bar, walking through a crowd, at a concert, .....
..... a man puts his hand on my thigh.
..... a man rubs up against me.
..... a man "accidentally" grazes my breast.
..... a man gets offended and angry when I decline his interest. I'm a bitch, a dyke, ugly.....

These are just the stories that stand out. There are other moments. Other experiences. Too numerous to mention, too many to remember.

This is how men and women aren't equal. This is why we so often don't report harassment, abuse, coercion, rape. It happens ever day in small, seemingly innocuous ways and in ways we can't believe someone gets away with it. If I call out this one, another one will do something else tomorrow. And we still are blamed for what we wear, what we say, the time of day, the places we go.

I'm too tired by it all right now to even contemplate a solution.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Choices, Consequences, and Prevention

Last night I inadvertently posted something inflammatory on Facebook. It was meant to express my dismay at discovering how many men my age have young children and how, as a single woman, my preference is not to date those men. My post was taken as a stance against women who choose to have children later in life. Over and over the comments expressed were, "I had my child later - I wanted it that way" or "That was how it happened for me, what's wrong with it?" There is nothing wrong with it. We should have the choice as women to have children at whatever age we feel is appropriate for us and for our families. The general response was a resounding MY body, MY choice.

And THAT, when we are talking about reproduction, is really what it should come down to. Choice. Have a child at 20, or 30, or 45. It is and should be a personal choice. On the flip side, NOT having a child should also be a choice and this is where it gets sticky.

I promise you that no woman wants to have an abortion. Who would put that on their bucket list? But the conversation is always about limiting, restricting, or banning abortion. And this is not where the conversation should start. Once we solve what happens well before a woman is faced with an unwanted pregnancy, maybe we'll stop having this debate.

There is sometimes talk about expanding sex education, but even that comes later. The talks start with young children. Girls and boys both. Parents, tell your children from the start that they own their bodies. When you think pushing a child towards an older person and saying, "Give grandpa a hug" is harmless, it's not. At very young ages you are telling children when they do and don't own their bodies. Maybe grandpa stinks. Maybe your child has sensory/touch sensitivities. There are a myriad of reasons children don't want to show affection to adults and it's not rude for them not to. It is our job to protect our children from predators and taking away control in a a seemingly-innocent situation is failure from the start.

One of the most important things we can do is to use proper terminology. Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Using silly, cutesy names undermines a child's authority in a couple of ways. I once heard a story that I regularly tell my customers at my parties. A young girl told every adult she met that her uncle pet her kitty. Okay. That's nice. How cute. NO. NOT cute. Her "kitty" was not a cat. This child was being abused and asking anyone she could find for help. Their inability to understand her because she used improper terminology told her both that what her uncle was doing was okay and that she had no right to ask for help. Additionally, when a child uses the right words, grown-up words, he or she is taken seriously by adults. It demonstrates that they are very clear and knowledgeable about what is happening.

As children grow, we need to repeat these lessons. I am going to focus on young women solely for the reason that the vast majority of rape crimes are committed by men against women, but understand it can happen to young men too. We need to raise our daughters so that they understand they have a choice and that they are worthy. That attention from a cute boy is nice, but not validation of who they are as a person. This makes it easier for her to say "no" when a boy tries to convince her to go farther than she's comfortable with. It makes it easier for her to have a conversation and dialogue about what her boundaries are and, if she's then rejected in favor of another girl, she won't be as likely to feel that she should have given in.

And this, years later, is where sex education comes in. Certain groups of people are just terrified of sex and any mention of it and are convinced that teaching children about body parts is wrong. It's not. Our vaginas and penises aren't any dirtier than our legs or elbows. If I have a headache, someone will offer me aspirin. If I have a pain in my breast, I should be able to talk about that and get aid just the same. If we don't talk to our kids about sex, they'll get the information somewhere else. Most likely it will be the wrong information. Myths about what will and won't cause pregnancy. Boys telling girls what they think will get her to change her mind. Information is power, arm your children with it.

Birth control is a tricky one as a parent. I know. I've been there. Offering it feels like giving permission. As adults with experience, we know that 16 is SO young, too young. They aren't mentally or emotionally ready for the consequences. You can do everything perfectly up to this point and then hormones happen. Teenagers are walking hormones. Again, information is just a necessity. Arming a kid with birth control isn't encouragement or permission for sex. It's offering a choice in the event that those hormones take over. Just because you have it doesn't mean you have to use it.

Teaching respect for self and others simultaneously teaches respect for life. Let's change the conversation and start it earlier before we demonize women for making choices they'd rather not face. Provide the messages of prevention earlier and we might not have the need for the really tough, divisive arguments later.
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