Our kindergarten teacher sets aside a special block out of the day so the two most “girly” girls in class can show what they’ve been learning in their ballet class. I don’t want to be like them – they can’t play well in their dresses, which look tight and uncomfortable. I don’t care about my hair or if there’s dirt on my face, so I don’t look like them, and I feel like they treat me differently because of it. The teachers treat me differently; they make me spend longer washing my hands before lunch, and tell me I’m too loud when I talk.
Those girls like ballet, so I decide ballet is stupid. I’m angry that I have to sit and watch them. I wonder what I’m good at which would impress the teacher.
At recess each day, we have an unofficial race out to the playground. I’m the fastest, except when I’m sick. On the playground, I want to play on the pirate ship, where the boys pretend to be pirates, or pretend to be on Star Trek. They don’t let me play with them, though.
I spend countless recesses walking back and forth on the wooden planks around the sandbox. I pretend I’m a knight, or a fighter pilot. The other kids are in trouble, and I rescue all of them, and then I’m a hero.
I’m in second grade, and a boy on the playground won’t stop touching me. He follows me from the slide, to the monkey bars, to the swing. Finally, I ask, “Why are you touching me?”
He replies, “So that your skin will change to look like mine, so I can marry you.”
This makes me uncomfortable, so I go tell the teachers. They immediately pull him off the playground, bringing him inside. I’m confused. I just wanted him to stop touching me; was it really so bad that he had to be taken off the playground?
Later, I tell my parents. My father explains that some people may have said things to the boy, or he may have seen pictures from TV where pictures of people who “look like him” and people who “look like us” aren’t usually together. He explains that we are white, and privileged, and the boy was a victim of a racist system.
So…it was insensitive of me to complain like that.
I feel guilty, and ashamed. I hurt someone. It’s my fault he was in trouble. Next time, I’ll do better.
I’m 9 years old, bored, and going through my parents’ closet. In an old filing cabinet, I find a stack of Playboy magazines.
I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I’ve never heard the word “pornography,” but I’m not interested in seeing more. I’m angry, I feel exposed and disgusted, and I feel debased.
I immediately take them downstairs and throw them in the garbage, and then I track down my mother. “I found magazines full of naked women in the closet!” I tell her.
She sighs, says slowly, “Yes, I know. I bought them for your father as a wedding present.”
I’m flabbergasted. “Why?!”
She doesn’t move. “I don’t know. It was the ’70’s.”
For the next few days, I lock my door before going to sleep. I’m afraid my father might do something to me. I’m not entirely sure why I feel afraid. Eventually I feel silly about the whole thing. Then, years later, I don’t feel silly at all.
The boys are talking about us again on the way to music class.
“Suzie is definitely not a virgin.”
“Oh, yeah, definitely not.”
I turn on them. “You’re so stupid. You can’t tell that from looking at somebody.”
“Sure you can,” one says. “It’s in the way they walk.”
“You’re definitely a virgin,” says the other. Then they laugh.
Seventh grade health class, and it’s all about drugs, alcohol, and what young ladies go through during puberty. We’re given photocopied line art of the “female reproductive system,” with an expanded vagina, an empty uterus, and no vulva. We aren’t given pictures of the male reproductive system. The male teacher talks at the boys in the class, and the boys give us odd looks as if we’re specimens on display. He tells them about menstruation, and I keep my head down and doodle. I’m being vivisected, and all my pieces are being carefully labeled.
Only much later, after college, would this occur to me: he was explaining to them how to attack us.
I ask my mother what it’s like to have sex for the first time.
“It hurts,” she replies.
“And that’s it?” I ask.
She looks at me seriously for a moment, and says, “I didn’t know what was going on. I kept asking your father to get off, asked him what he was doing, told him it hurt….” She shrugged. “It feels good, eventually.”
In college, I was dedicated to my chosen martial arts style. I practiced four days a week for two hours. I did kata outside in winter so I would be used to cold-tensed muscles. I also did fencing, and escrima, and stretched while studying.
But I wasn’t “dedicated.” The men who came to practice – the ones who were the same belt level as me, who showed up half an hour early and did shirtless handstand pushups against the wall while the women’s aerobic class was using the space – were “dedicated.”
No, I was “nuts.” And “crazy.” And “kind of scary.”
I noticed the men were much harder on me than they were on each other in conditioning. It was a game for them – how much can she take? I didn’t complain, I didn’t make a sound; I got a fierce smile, a maddened joy. I knew this game, and I knew that I could never win. But I could continue to not lose.
The bruises never went away. Once, one of them grabbed the skin of my arm instead of my gi; the scabs from where his fingernails made me bleed went away after a few days, but the bruise stayed for weeks.
There were many women in our club – more women than men, actually. It was a style suited to our smaller bodies and shorter reaches, as it emphasized getting in under an opponent’s guard. It called for steady breath, for avoiding over-use of strength and power, and not investing too heavily in any move but using many multi-purpose techniques in combo. We loved it. It seemed as close to a martial art form for women as a man could have made.
And then, our sensei decided to emphasize single bursts of power. He said he would begin testing us in part on the strength of our punches. “You need to show me you can take down an opponent in a single shot,” he said, “because sometimes that may be all you get.”
This was a game I couldn’t keep from losing. I left before it happened. So did most of the rest of us, including the sole female black belt.
I kept my escrima sticks, but practiced alone. I blamed myself. For all that many women go into the style, there were no female black belts above third dan; I should’ve known.
My friend was being harassed by her college dormmate. The dormmate left racist messages up on her computer when she left the room. The straw was when my friend overhear her dormmate and the dormmate’s boyfriend discuss leaving semen-soaked tissues on my friend’s pillow.
The day my friend moved out, the dormmate and her boyfriend were there. I told the dormmate off, cursed her in the most heinous ways I could think, and was eventually dragged out of the room by other friends, kicking my shoes at her.
It took over a week for me to wonder why I didn’t say anything to the dormmate’s boyfriend. After all, it was his semen. What the hell was I thinking?
He seemed excited by “rough sex” and spanking and “let’s play a game – I’ll be a captured princess and you be….”
It almost felt like being safe. It was almost like the worst possible thing was already happening, so there was nothing else to worry about. I was safe, almost.
I couldn’t figure out why I usually cried afterwards. I always orgasmed, so that meant I was doing it right, didn’t it? I was happy, really. Really. Really, I was just so happy.
I spent two years busting my ass for the Gay-Straight Alliance, whose few female members were all straight. The men coordinated the party, I single-handedly coordinated the letter-writing campaign. The men reserved the hall for the speaker, I decorated it. The men decided to make posters, I was the one who brought poster-board and markers. I was the one who wrote editorials for the paper, and who got anonymous threats in her student mailbox.
Then the leader of the group sent around a group-wide email, copying a virulent (and misogynistic) rant about how “allies” just don’t get it, and if they want to be included in the movement they better shape up.
I sent a group-wide response, asking him to re-think the word “allies,” as it implies that it isn’t our fight. And, as a woman, I felt like I was part of the same struggle; the reason people hate gay men is the same reason they deride women, I posited.
The reaction was swift. I received several private emails and nearly a dozen more were posted to the list, all from men, many of whom had never come to the meeting. Some emails were not even from list members directly, but were sent “on behalf of a friend, who isn’t on the list but wanted to comment.”
The universal message, from straight and gay men alike: bitch is out of line.
When “it” happened, I was the only one she called. We had been best friends since sophomore year of college, and we both cried. She went over “it” again, and again, and again. She apologized, and I said, “No, don’t apologize. He raped you.”
“Oh my god, he did,” she said, and began to cry again.
We talked almost daily for a week. Her suicide attempt was two months later. She was hospitalized.
Then she found out he gave her HPV. She was soon hospitalized again, for a different reason – internal radiation therapy, surgery, and a ton of pills. She was told she would never have children.
My smart, kind, caring, awesome friend was dating an asshole. He was a white, liberal man with a degree in Social Justice whose mother’s mother was Jewish, and therefore he Understood Oppression.
My mother was Wrong for homeschooling me, he explained with disdain. Homeschooling is a way for race and class elites to keep their children out of the public school system, so they don’t have to fight for the rights of oppressed minorities who don’t have a choice but to use the public school system. He pontificated more vehemently than the Pope himself. Public schools should be mandatory, private schools should be eliminated….
“You went to a private university,” I point out.
He sniffs. “That’s different. It’s different at the college level.”
“The financial aspects are different.”
My friend and I met at a private all girl’s high school. I kept glancing at her; did he even realize he was criticizing her?
But she stayed silent. She had begun a careful practice of silence almost as soon as they began to date, as deliberately disinterested while he talked as the most ascetic nun. She took up knitting, professed no interest in social justice issues or politics, and stopped reading the newspaper.
I explained that my mother homeschooled me that year because my social studies teacher was investigated for raping two of his students and the school administrator warned him so he could skip town. I explained that my family was badly off. I explained that it was a rural school district, with almost no non-white students, and that there was nothing my parents could have done to help anybody even if I had remained there.
“That doesn’t explain why your mother didn’t just complain to the schoolboard, or go to the media.”
At the time, I didn’t know the terms “class privilege” or “male privilege” or “white privilege.” I bet he did.
He left my friend one day, quite suddenly. He was there that morning, and in the afternoon he was gone. She still talks to his mother more than he does.
But that’s to be expected, I suppose. He didn’t seem to have any love lost for mothers in general, so why would he care about his own?
My first day at my new job. I was in my supervisor’s office, meeting him for the first time.
“You’ll see the construction outside the window,” he said. “They’re building a new courthouse. Twelve stories. Twelve stories for only four judges.” He looked at me, and his eyes narrowed a bit as a slight grin spread on his face. “I know women need a lot of closet space, but there aren’t any women judges over there.”
I needed that job, and his supervisor was over a thousand miles away (no help there). I kept doing what women often do around men who make us uncomfortable, but who haven’t quite crossed that social line into full-on threat: keep smiling, and move slowly. It’s the same way most children are taught to act with potentially dangerous animals.
Later on, I found out that was probably for the best. My predecessor in the position was out as a lesbian, and he made her life miserable.
My aunt’s husband secretly took my five-year-old daughter for a ride, alone, on his ATV. My daughter says he did not touch her, but I told the family he was never to be left alone with her again. The next family reunion, he made it a point to give her candy after I just told her she couldn’t have any.
My mother told me to not expect support from the family if I “pressed the issue.” My great-uncle, she told me, had sexually assaulted my aunt when she was a teenager, but the female members of the family still cared for him for decades when he grew older.
“Why wasn’t I told?” I asked, incensed.
“You didn’t need to know,” she replied. “I kept you away from him, and now he’s too old to hurt your own daughters. There was no point to bringing it up.”
I will never endanger a woman’s or girl’s well-being to save a man’s pride. Never.
I had a miscarriage at eight weeks. I knew something was wrong; I’d had two prior pregnancies, and this one didn’t feel right. When I started having spotty bleeding, I called one of the midwives who operated out of a local ObGyn clinic.
She told me I had to go in for various tests. She told me that I couldn’t possibly be certain how far along I was, since I wasn’t having regular periods. She treated me as a delinquent child. I knew not to blame her – this was how she had been taught to treat patients.
Six days later, and half way through the tests she required before she would see me, I began having painful contractions. I passed the fetus, which my husband collected in a tupperware container.
Then the bleeding started. I began to feel light-headed, and we went to the hospital. During the 15 minute ride I soaked through the heavy-duty pad, soaked through my skirt, soaked through the towel, and soaked all over the seat. I was covered in blood.
I stood in the ER for fifteen minutes before being triaged; there was no seat, and nobody gave theirs up. I was bleeding all over the floor and the wall.
I passed out in triage. When I came to, I was surrounded by nurses. Wonderful, careful, compassionate, female nurses. They were force-pumping me with two IVs, and somebody was calling for a cardio team. I heard my blood pressure being read as 68/30. I knew I was in pain, but couldn’t feel it clearly. When I began to shake and feel numb, I told the nurse over me, “I think I’m in shock.” “Yes, sweetie, you are,” she replied, while cutting my clothes off.
Two male gynecologists came in. They told me they were going to do manual exams. The head nurse gave them a dirty look. While they did it, I bit my tongue and tried not to scream from the pain. While they did it, they chastised me not to squirm so much, and one of them sneered. While they did it, they asked me if it was a wanted baby. One of them did a manual exam three times. Then they did an ultrasound, and told me that after I was stabilized I would be given an emergency D&C. One of them did yet another manual exam. I was still shaking uncontrollably. When I told them the fetus was in a tupperware container, one of them went over to look. He gave it a cursory glance.
Later I found out the whole container was thrown away.
Two months after the miscarriage, I was eating with a close friend and her-husband-the-anesthesiologist (hereinafter “Dr. Dick”). I mentioned a report that a Canadian hospital had been allowing residents and interns to perform manual exams on unconscious women, without their fore-knowledge and consent, sometimes when the women weren’t even undergoing a gynecological procedure.
“Oh, yeah,” said Dr. Dick. “That’s pretty common here in the US. Most people in the medical profession don’t seem to think there’s any problem with it.”
“Well, I just had surgery a couple months ago,” I said. “It really makes me angry to think about that.”
“If you had surgery, I can just about guarantee that it happened,” he replied. Or he said something to that effect. All I can clearly remember is looking at his face, and being in shocked awe – I had never before seen such a perfect type specimen for a leer.
I found links to pornography sites on the home computer. According to the log, they were accessed while I was at work and my husband was at home watching the children.
I didn’t scream. I was full of cold anger. I didn’t have concise words for why I despised pornography so much, but he knew I did. I made him show me the clips he watched. He claimed he tried to find things that were not likely to involve trafficked women (as if you can tell? I asked). He said he only watched clips of women by themselves, and only ones which included their full bodies and heads (so who’s holding the camera? I asked. how can you say there’s no coercion? isn’t that still pretending she’s there just for you?) He said he wasn’t sure why he did it, that he had a problem (darn right, YOU have a problem, I said).
I called my mother.
She said I hadn’t thought it through. She said it wasn’t really that big of a deal. She put my father on the phone, who said it wasn’t that big of a deal. Was separation really what the children needed? How would I pay for childcare while I was at work? I wasn’t going to qualify for any assistance. I didn’t have any family nearby who could help out. I didn’t belong to a church which could help out. It was just a mistake, we know he loves you, he’s a great guy, you’re not going to find another guy like that, another one who will put up with your eccentricities since you know you aren’t the easiest person to get along with what with you getting hung up on this little things like this is such a little thing, and anyway what aren’t you giving him and what did you expect?
I still decided on a separation. A day or so later, when I was complaining to my parents about their lack of emotional support, my mother started to cry and handed the phone to my father. “You’ve upset your mother,” he told me. “And you’ve upset me. Call us when you decide to act like an adult and grow up.”
It became easier to give him a “second chance.” Who else did I have to help me? I insisted he start reading anti-pornography literature, and so did I. He went to therapy. He swore he would never do it again, he would never hurt me again. But a year later, that “second chance” became a “third chance,” and….
We’re all so very alone, aren’t we?
My mother later apologized. My father never has.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
In how many languages have I heard the term “rape”?
I’ve been told the Mosuo have no word for “rape” in their language. But I’ve also been told the Chinese government has permitted brothels to be built in Mosuo villages, so I suspect they have a word to mean “rape” now.
The young woman had been brought into the country when she was 3 months old. Her mother was deported when she was 16, and as her father was long gone, she was left to raise her siblings alone. At 18, scared that she was pregnant with her abusive boyfriend’s child, she went with a friend to shoplift a pregnancy test from Walmart. She was caught, prosecuted, and somebody called ICE.
Turned out she was pregnant. She was kept detained, as her boyfriend wouldn’t pay her bail. Two years passed before I saw the case; she had been ordered removed from the only home she had ever known, to a place where she didn’t speak the language and had no family, alone, with her two-year-old child.
And there was absolutely nothing I could do to help her.
I locked my office door, turned off the lights, sat on the floor and cried. Somebody knocked – once, twice. I didn’t answer.
On the way to visit my mother, I pass billboards. “Ultimate Massage, 24 hours, truck parking.” “Miss Amanda’s Gentleman’s Club.” “Azian Temptations Massage Parlour.”
I grit my teeth. Each time, I wonder how much it would cost to rent the billboard spaces nearby, and I try to come up with things I’d put on them.
What’s a catchy way to say, “Anybody who goes to these places is more disgusting than diarrhaic shit, I hate you forever, you don’t deserve to breathe the same air as the women you torment, and if I thought I could get away with it I’d murder the lot of you rapist scumbags”?
I think I’d post it next to a picture of a kitten.
Becoming a feminist is a process by which a female’s heart is broken; all the dogged sympathy for men is burned away, leaving only disgusted rage and indignation; and all the socialized disdain for women blossoms into the purest of love.
In July I will turn 30.