I recently finished Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill, and I don’t want this to turn into a book review, but I do want to tell you to go buy it. Right now. It was witty and funny and perfectly depicted the rampant sexism still ripping across this country.
When West took on male comedians defending rape jokes and faced criticism, (FOR STANDING UP FOR RAPE VICTIMS) I sort of lost my cool. The comedy community didn’t get behind her (and the handful of other women calling comedians out on their victimizing cheap laugh routines) until a few men decided to get on her side. No one wanted to listen to women, but once men stood up for an issue, the community backed off, their asshole fans stepped down.
West pointed out that people don’t care about these issues when they don’t see them happening. That these men defending rape jokes had never been a part of rape culture first hand. People don’t believe sexism exists because they’ve just simply never experienced it. And women claiming it exists is for some reason not good enough. Because they’re women. (Great argument society. REALLY CREATIVE.)
Imagine a man complaining about prostate cancer and a bunch of women saying, “Well I’ve never experienced prostate cancer and neither have any of my female friends, so why don’t you just calm down and stop being all hysterical?”
That’s what you sound like when you claim sexism doesn’t exist. Or that it’s not as bad as women make it out to be. Or that we’re overreacting.
Two weeks ago at work, the recycling guys came in to pick up our office cardboard leftovers. They come in every Monday. I know to expect them.
One of the guys makes me uncomfortable. He comments on my appearance and what I’m wearing just about every time I see him. I brush it off.
Last week, I held open the door so they could wheel in their giant green garbage cans.
“How’s it going?” I asked. I always ask this. To anyone who walks through the door. I’m a part-time receptionist. It’s basically my job to ask you how you’re doing. (Side Note: I don’t actually care how you’re doing most of the time, especially if I don’t know you. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is just a thing we ask in America to be polite. I’m not expressing my sexual attraction to you if I ask you how you’re doing. I’m just being polite. Because I’m not an asshat.)
“Oh, it’s alright,” the older guy said. “Pretty average Monday.” I told him I agreed. That’s when the younger fellow looked at me and said, “I bet it’s better now that you get to see my face.” He winked.
I didn’t respond.
“What do you do for fun?” he asked me later when he walked by the front desk. I told him I’m a Master’s student, finishing my thesis and this is one of three jobs I currently work to pay my rent, so not a ton in the way of “fun” lately. “Whoa, alright,” he said, frowning. “Don’t act so serious. You should smile more.”
This is thankfully only the second time in my life a man has told me I should smile. The first time was on a public bus after I got some really bad news at a doctor’s appointment. Here’s how that scenario went:
Doctor: You might have chronic joint pain for the rest of your life and we don’t know why and we can’t do anything about it.
Me: Cool. *begins crying that will last for the next 12 hours*
All Knowing Wise Man on bus: You should smile more.
Me: Thank you wise man who clearly knows more about my emotional state than I do. I had not considered that my sad appearance might be making it hard for you to be sexually attracted to me. That is my fault. I will work harder on not disappointing your penis in the future.
Earlier in February, one of the delivery guys at work asked me about my Valentine’s Day plans.
“I don’t know if I’m doing anything tonight,” I said. “I have a ton of homework.”
I guess I failed to sprinkle in the fact that I have a boyfriend, and no we’re probably not doing anything because, as I said, I’m fucking busy with school, and being a student and being poor. It didn’t seem necessary. (Like, my bad, I didn’t realize knowing whether or not I’ll be having sex tonight will help you make this delivery.)
He felt the need to tell me about his ex-girlfriend anyways, and how she texted him a picture of her engagement ring the night before.
“She’s crazy,” he said. “I bet you’re not crazy like her. People like us have to stick together.”
The same delivery guy came in this week and told me to take off my sweater because it was too nice out and I was too pretty to hide under it.
See, the thing is, I’m stuck behind the desk at work and the men who come in and out of the building know it. They know it’s my job to be pleasant and agreeable. It’s predatory. They know I’m cornered, like prey. Despite the fact that some of them are twice my age, they jump on me like an injured rabbit.
But they’re smart. They never say things like, “do you want to go on a date with me?” because if they did, they know I could (1) call them out for actually hitting on me at work and (2) actually reject them. Instead they make vague, yet controlling passes so that when I do call them out on it, they respond with, “I’m just being nice.” “Don’t get all defensive.” “You must be one of those feminists.” (Actual phrases said to me at work by creepy men hitting on me).
Let’s talk about my second job.
Occasionally, I help run events for a local environmental nonprofit. My boyfriend usually volunteers to help as well.
Despite the fact that I’m the one with the undergraduate degree in environmental studies, helped run campaigns and table for other environmental nonprofits and am about to finish up a graduate degree in environmental journalism, when we show up to these events, the event coordinators always shake J.’s hand first. Even though I’m the one who’s been e-mailing them, I’m the one who picked up the supplies, I’m the one who made sure everything was prepared, they see me as an extension of the male I’m with rather than an actual person who might be capable of talking coherently about our organization all night.
At the first event I helped at, this happened. People approached J. They told J. where to set up the table. They told J. the schedule for the night. Sometimes people talking to “us” wouldn’t even look at me.
About 40 minutes into the night, some bro came up to our table, asked J. about the organization, then creepily asked me to come out from behind the table and HUG HIM. Then asked me for my phone number.
At the event I helped with this past week, things went a little better. When people came up to the table and asked us about the organization, J. pointed to me and said, “She’s the one running the show.”
But later that night, when I left J. and went down into the crowd, things got weird.
I went up to a group of guys and asked if they wanted to buy anymore raffle tickets before we drew prizes.
“I can’t pay you for the tickets,” one of the guys said to me, “But I’ll definitely kiss you if you give me some.”
I can almost guarantee if J. and I had switched places, no woman would have said that to him. Did I also mention I heard creepy give-me-a-kiss guy and his friends call me a bitch as I walked away? Yep, I’m definitely a bitch for politely declining a sexual advance I don’t want at all…while I’m on the job…with my boyfriend.
And this is just my working life. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that since starting grad school two years ago, I haven’t had A SINGLE female professor or advisor. Which probably explains why this program has felt so alienating and anxiety ridden.
This isn’t an “I hate all men” rant, but seriously, where are all of the women? Probably hiding somewhere because some creepy dude with a porn-stache is waiting to call them a bitch when they decline his unwanted advances. And I can’t blame them. Why make yourself visible and vulnerable to a bunch of disgusting people waiting to put you down for their own insecurities while society backs them up?
And don’t tell me that this is harmless. Women have a right to be afraid. Let’s look at the statistics.
- A rape occurs every 6.2 minutes in the U.S., but so many go unreported it might be closer to a rape a minute.
- A woman is beaten every nine seconds in the U.S. It is the number one cause of injury to American women.
- In the U.S., spouses are the leading cause of death for pregnant women.
- Women ages 15-44 globally are more likely to die at the hands of men than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents COMBINED.
- Two-thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by a partner or ex-partner.
- Murder is a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.
(These statistics from Rebecca Solnit’s, Men Explain Things to Me.)
Knowing these things absolutely makes me want to be less visible. If you think women don’t take positions of power because they’re not as good as men, think again. The death and rape threats to women who are in the public eye are constant. And those threats go largely unresolved. A young girl recently reported her ex-boyfriend to the police for fear of violence. The police told her to stop acting hysterical and FINED HER for wasting their time. The ex-boyfriend is now on trial for her murder.
My point is that just because you’ve never seen sexism (or you don’t fully understand what sexism is) that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. When you don’t hear women talking about it or calling men out on it, it’s not because it’s not there; it’s because they’re afraid. When death threats and harassment go unreported, it’s not because they didn’t happen, it’s because no one listens to women.
And I get it, NOT ALL MEN. I hear it all the time. If you actually want that to hold, go talk to a woman (yep, a real live woman) and ask about her experience with sexism. Don’t explain what happened to her. Don’t patronize her. Don’t criticize her. Just listen. Then go home and find some actress, a female politician, a female CEO on Twitter and read the comments. Find a female blogger who writes about this stuff and see what follows. Start defending her like crazy when you find the rape and death threats pouring in.
If that makes you feel unsafe, if you feel like you’re unnecessarily drawing negative attention to yourself, then congratulations, you now understand a tiny sliver of what it’s like to simply exist as a woman.