I was at a birthday party for two of my friends. It had already been going on for a few hours– a riotous game of beer pong had been going downhill for a while, a few people were in the middle of a jam session, and then there was the usual scattered groups of people milling about the living room, the porch, the kitchen . . .
I was talking to a woman I’d just met, Lisa*, who was in another graduate program at my university. Without warning, someone I’d also never seen before stumbled into the middle of our conversation, obviously drunk.
“I’m Todd*! What’s your name?” He looked at both of us, but then fixated on Lisa.
“Lisa,” she said, and I gave my name.
“Lisa! Is that how you normally introduce yourself, or do you normally say ‘Hi, I’m Lisa, and I’m exactly the right height?'” As he said this, he made a sloppy hip-thrust and pointed at his crotch.
I stared at him, agape, then turned to Lisa, raising my eyebrows, silently asking if she wanted me to step in. She shook her head, giving me the smile that said “don’t worry, I got this.” She raised one eyebrow, staring him down for a long moment while I stared down into my white Russian and tried not to laugh. Eventually he merely shrank away, completely cowed. We laughed, and I offered my hand for a hi-five.
There’s probably something that you should know for this story to make any sense.
Lisa is a little person.
But, in this story, she was a little person and a woman, and that made her very existence fair game to Todd– nothing more than the butt of incredibly crass joke. Both Lisa and I had to navigate complicated territory in that moment when he opened his mouth; because we were both women, our options as to how we could respond were incredibly limited. The most socially acceptable option is to laugh awkwardly and then earnestly hope that he leaves you alone. Doing anything that strays from that– calling him on his ass-hattery, for one– is usually pretty frowned upon, and would quickly relegate any woman to the label of bitch.
First, I highly recommend The Purity Myth– for everyone. Everyone.
Anyway, all of this research has been . . . illuminating and infuriating. Handsome joked today that “my default state is angry,” and right now, he’s right. A few weeks ago I spent two days–two days, I tell you– just watching Simon the Cat videos and eating cookies just because I couldn’t handle anything else. But there is . . . so much injustice. So much.
But, books like The Purity Myth have done a lot to completely rip off any blinders I might have had about violence against women– how pervasive it is, how often it happens, and how people in power rarely seem to bother to notice. And yes, I’m angry. Every once in a while, though, I get hopeful– when I find something I can personally do, I latch on to it. I want to make a difference. I want to fight this darkness. I want to hope that this can change, that violence against women can end.
A moment like that came when I was watching a TEDx talk put on by Mentors in Violence Prevention about the “bystander effect.” You should watch the video, but the essence of it was this: when you see violence happening, say something. It sounds so small, but it’s huge. In some social situations, it’s monumentally huge– insurmountably huge. Just speaking up and saying something sometimes mean that you’ll be punished severely by everyone you know.
Watching that video reminded me of the night I met Lisa– not even half an hour after Todd had cracked that horrible joke, he had accosted me again and started telling me how fuckable I was, that obviously he could just tell that I wanted him so badly. I insisted that no, I was most definitely not interested in him at all on any level, but he continued following me around and harassing me for the next hour. I was neck deep in his shit by then, so finally I snapped. I turned to face him, head on, looked him dead in the eye, and told him that he was being disgusting, that it was inappropriate what he had been doing for an hour, and that I was sick of it and if that he came anywhere near me again I’d knee him.
He did, finally, leave me alone, but seconds later one of my friends came up to me. “Why did you do that? Todd didn’t deserve that– I mean, I know he can be kind of an ass sometimes, but you were really bitchy just then.”
I was speechless. Part of me was angry– why weren’t they taking my side? Did they not notice that he’d been harassing me for over an hour? But the biggest part of me– the part of me that took over my mouth and apologized– was ashamed. Ashamed for speaking up for myself. Ashamed for not acquiescing. Ashamed for making a scene.
After I watched the TEDx talk, though, I decided– never again. If I hear sexism, I’m going to say something. If I hear something– no matter how “innocently” the people around me think it was meant– that encourages violence against women, I am not going to be quiet anymore.
I was talking about this epiphany with Handsome– and I specifically gave the example of something that a lot of people in our peer group are quite comfortable with saying: “I’ll make you my bitch” or “you’re my bitch” or “we just got raped” when what happened was they payed too much for tacos. I told him that if I heard someone in our peer group casually use a phrase that has violence against women at its heart, I’m going to say “That is sexist, it is not appropriate, and please don’t ever say something like that in front of me again.”
Handsome disagreed. “No, you shouldn’t do that. That would completely humiliate them. That’s totally not ok– that would be bitchy, Sam.”
I looked at him for a long, drawn-out moment, silent. Finally– “It’s only ‘humiliating’ because violence against women and sexism is normal and accepted behavior, Handsome.”
He stared back.
“Holy shit… you’re right.” He paused. “If we were in a room with black people, and some white dude started using the N-word, and a black person called him on it, we’d all be cheering and clapping.”
That’s why this it is so important to not let any of this slide anymore. We have to make sexism obsolete. We have to make violence against women be something of the ancient past. That can only start when one person at a time stops tolerating all the tiny, supposedly “insignificant” ways we commit violence against women every day.