Not a Funny Joke
In the past several weeks my Trigonometry class has been the least serious group of students I have seen in my technical college. They are less responsible, more rowdy, and far less respectful than the students I dealt with even in my remedial classes. We had an exam today, and when I arrived one student was joking about coming to class high (it was unclear weather it was a non-humorous joke or the truth). Another, who showed up without a notebook or calculator, asked me if he could borrow a pencil. During our review before the exam about half of my class talked between each other, ignoring our instructor. I sat in the front to follow along, but even then found it hard to concentrate. This is normal behavior in this class, but not common in my school in general.
I was definitely already annoyed with my fellow students when our class break came around. Our instructor gave us 10 minutes before our exam was to begin, and I walked out into the hall. I was looking at my phone and heading down the hall towards the bubblers* as I passed the elevators near our classroom. A cluster of the more obnoxious guys in my class were around, and as one of the elevators opened the guy who had been previously bragging about coming to class high stepped into it. It was empty, and he promptly stepped back out again.
One of the other guys asked “Going somewhere bro?”
The guy who’d stepped onto the elevator normally swaggers around school, being loud in the hallways and making smart-assed comments about everything. He is not someone I am inclined to like or respect. He responded, “No, I just like to get on elevators because sometimes there’s hot chicks in there, and I like to stare at them.”
I was a few steps past the elevators at this point, and I turned my ass around. I shoved my phone back into my pocket and walked directly back towards the guy.
“Hey, has it ever occurred to you that getting into a small enclosed space like an elevator, and objectifying women there, is super fucking creepy?” I asked. My heart POUNDED in my chest, but I hid it. All of my 5’3″ frame stood straight in front of this tall kid and I looked him right in the eye. I was terrified, but I was RIGHT.
“Dude! It’s just a joke!” He was laughing.
I wasn’t. “Well, it’s not a funny one.” Then I turned away again, and walked away. That was as much confrontation as I could handle, but I HOPE it was interpreted as confidence and not fear. I know how to walk like I own the place, even when I’m shaking.
He let me walk away, and I heard nothing from him or the other guys (2 or 3?) standing around. I wonder if he would have done the same if I was (perceived to be) a woman, or if I were closer to his age, but he said nothing.
I went to the bathroom, and waited for a bit. I returned to our class last, waiting until most other people had started their exam. Yes, I was afraid. I wanted to make sure this guy didn’t have the opportunity to restart the conversation with me. I took my exam (probably faster than I should have) and left the classroom to head for home before he was done. I won’t have to see him again until next Tuesday.
I don’t know if other men who stand up to sexist jokes get this scared. I don’t know, in part because I honestly haven’t ever seen it done like this before. I wish this was because I rarely heard sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic talk, but I do. I have spoken up before with people I knew a bit, and respected, but I was careful and quiet about how I did it, and I knew they were people who would bother to listen. I have never, before today, publicly denounced sexist behavior.
I’m not sure I could have done it if I were not already annoyed. I was already frustrated, and I already didn’t respect this guy because of his previous behavior in class. I didn’t care what he thought of me, and that helped enormously. Nonetheless, I did do it, and I’m proud of myself for that.
I also am not sure if it is likely to adjust his individual behavior. It is possible “objectifying” has too many syllables for him to comprehend. He may write me off as a hard-assed old guy, or any other way he can come up with to avoid considering my response. However, the guys who witnessed this may not write me off so fast. They may even have agreed with me, I have no way of knowing.
More importantly, it helped me. It gave me important practice in standing up to sexism I see in the world. I had an opportunity to stand up to something awful, I did it, and it turned out not-bad. This will help me a lot when I need to face similar situations in the future, and it has increased my confidence enormously.
I also think it’s important to create a culture in which blatantly sexist (or racist, homophobic, ableist etc) behavior is not ignored, or allowed to pass on by without comment. I can contribute to changing the culture, by calling it out when I see it. I can, and I did. You can too. It’s hard, and scary, but it’s also important.
It might even work.
*“Bubblers” is the Wisconsin name for drinking fountains. More info on Wikipedia
The featured image on this post is actually a shirt I have seen around my school on two different people, and is available at multiple shops in town.
I think I would’ve been a bit too afraid to stand up to that guy. I’m a bit more meek to start with.
P.S. As a fellow Wisconsinite, I approve of your use of Bubbler 😀
Thank you for doing that. I’m scared to death of confrontation, but I’ve done by best to call out sexism, transphobia and racism when I see it in the past few years. (I just started learning about these problems and privilege, etc.)
It’s not easy, it’s down right scary, so a round of applause for you, Benny.
I hope you did well on the test!
Actually between being shaken up about that and having a cold, I think I didn’t do as well on the test as I could have. It’s not a huge part of my grade though, so I’m not extremely worried about it.
I’m proud of you, calling out such behavior terrifies me. There are times I’ve done it and known I might get my ass kicked and times I could have snapped the guy in half had I needed to but my heart hammers in my chest each and every time.
The excuses people try to spew afterwards make me almost as mad as the initial behavior. It’s just a joke? So you would never get into an elevator with nowhere to go, just to stare at women? You mean you would never do that thing you just did? Right.
I think your exit was just right, yes there are a million different things you will think of that you could have said, but your curt response and walking away were about as simple and effective as it’s going to get.
You know, I haven’t even had the “Aw, I should have said…” thoughts much about this. I am pretty sure I did the best I could, and that’s not something I feel very often so it’s really nice to feel like I did it right this time.
I agree that my exit was right – or at least that anything else I could have said in that moment would not have made my case stronger.
Thank you so much for this. While you will probably never know if you changed this guy’s behaviour, you did a great thing. You showed his companions that decent don’t let other men get away with this. Women are not objects that you can make uncomfortable for your own pleasure.
I know it must have been very hard to do what you did, and I personally thank you for having the courage to do what I couldn’t have done.
Thanks for saying this.
It just so happens that I’m the ornery type who’s done this since grade school, so it’s not new to me, but I also very clearly remember the day when I realized the lads were getting taller than I was, and how the balance of power had shifted in their favor.
I think I got away with it after that point because I had a reputation already, but I would have welcomed any, ANY, show of solidarity from another classmate. There wasn’t much. Thanks for being an ally, you’re needed.
(Found you from Shakesville.)
That was awesome, I am super proud of you.
Also, keep in mind that a lot of us are pretty fucking stupid when we are 19, and then we mature and grow out of it. Sometimes it takes something like that to shake someone up a bit. Maybe, as he matures into a life-like person he will have that sitting in the back of his head and it will influence him. Or, maybe he’ll continue to be a sexist, predatory jerk. Who knows.
Kudos, Benny! <3
Awesome. When I get really upset and confront people, even if I see calm, my heart is POUNDING. It’s almost painful to breathe normally. But I do it because those people need to be told.
Hope you scored higher than you think.