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.