When I first felt a compulsion to write a piece like this is difficult to pinpoint, but when it began to take shape was today, after I began reading Roxane Gay’s new collection of essays titled Bad Feminist. In short sentences, layered throughout her essays, she evokes her own experience with sexual violence, how it has permeated her life, how it could never be ignored.
My experience with sexual violation is pedestrian, and to use a word that should really never be associated with the way women are routinely treated, tame.
The first time I can recall the type of embarrassment, of discomfort, peculiar to women I was about eight and my grandfather showed just a little bit too much interest in my new purchases of underwear and a training bra.
The next moment I can pinpoint I was about 11 and, during a game, a boy I was playing with reached over and groped my crotch. I still remember the sense of shame, embarrassment and then anger I felt. This boy was younger than me and still he had the ability to make me feel powerless. To take away the control I naively thought I had over my young body.
Aside from what I now refer to as an “almost rape” and several narrowly avoided gropings, as an adult, these violations have most often taken shape in the form of persistent street harassment, sometimes aggressive, sometimes just vaguely annoying.
It is part of every conversation I have with women when we discuss running or otherwise being active outside. “How often do you deal with it?” we ask each other, “what was the worst time?”, “where is it safe to run, to be on the street as a woman?”.
And, as a queer woman, it takes a special form that I have grown to hate.
The endless intrusions by men into my space, my conversations, my intimate moments with women.
I’ve nearly lost track of the number of times strange men have come up to me and whatever woman I am with and told us we should make out, or commanded us to do so.
Once, last year, I was out having drinks, after a lovely dinner with a girlfriend, and an old drunk man came up to our table and began aggressively complimenting first my date and then me in the entitled way that seems to be the unique province of old men. We both laughed nervously until he went away. I was angry afterwards, thinking of all the things I could have, should have, said to him.
This winter, when a woman I am seeing visited me, we were stared at as we walked down the street together, hollered at, and had biblical references to Leviticus hurled in our direction.
Another time, I was out dancing on a date and we were physically assaulted twice on the dance floor by two men who thought it was HILARIOUS to come up behind us and grab us in something I hesitate to call a hug, since it doesn’t do justice to how unnerving the experience was.
I could go on. But you get the picture.
Because I am a woman, this is a normal experience. And because I am a queer woman, this is a normal experience with added layers of entitlement from men to not only my body and my space, but to the moments I share with women that happen to take place in public and semi-public venues.
It has become a commonplace now for feminists to write these pieces about our lives, about all the different ways we’ve experienced harassment and assault. But until men stop treating us this way, I see no other possible avenue of response but to keep writing and protesting against this. Perhaps, eventually, these narratives will begin to matter. Perhaps, someday, women will stop being treated like public property to be bandied about and commented on by any man who feels the inclination.