I'm taking a moment to talk about something that happened to me this week, something that I've been having a hard time getting out of my head.
It wasn't really anything too out of the ordinary, just another party with friends. I was in the middle of putting some food away, when a guy I don't know comes up and gets faux-upset about me putting the food away. He tells me to stop. My stock response to something like that is a quick, "Don't tell me what to do!" So I said that as I walked around the other side of the guy, as he's now standing in the middle of where I was trying to put food away.
I finished with the last pizza box and looked up, only to see the guy raising his hand across his chest, pretending he was about to backhand me.
Now, I don't know this guy very well, and he's a pretty tall and physically fit guy. But, okay. It's a joke, whatever. But even in a joke, I'm not really one to back down. So I gave a half-hearted shrugging motion, asking, "Sup?"
His response was to swing the hand further back to his chest, up towards the sky, saying something like, "I'll kick your ass."
Now, I say "something like" because at this point I'm getting freaked out and the blood roaring in my ears blocked out what he was saying.
I stand a good 5'8". To have somebody easily a half foot taller than me, who could probably bench as much as I weigh, that I just met that night, tower over me with a hand raised less than a foot from my face, was a little bit much. So I turned away and got some more beer, trying to keep calm and take some steady breaths. The guy comes around the side of me, asking, "You know I was just joking, right?"
I was still trying to collect myself, so I just gave a half-hearted, "Yeah."
A guy friend who had seen the exchange, and could tell how it had freaked me out, gave me a hug as I walked by. I walked out, sat with some friends and told them about what had happened.
"I can't believe that just happened."
So I sat there, thinking about it and talking it over with a group of friends, both guys and girls. That the guys were the ones who were the most shocked that it had happened was interesting to me, but I didn't think much of it then. I was just trying to get it out of my head.
It wasn't until a couple days later, when I ran into mutual friends of the guy I had the exchange with, that the disconnect began to resonate a little more. My friend asked, "So I hear you and [name] almost got into a fight last night."
Now, I was a little surprised about this way of phrasing what happened. A guy pretending he's about to backhand me, in response to a joke I made about doing whatever I want to do feels like something a little ... else. Ominous? Threatening? A reminder of what happens when a woman [bitch] even pretends to get out of her place?
But looking into the faces of my good (male) friends, as they patiently explained to me, "Oh, it was just a joke," "You know not to take that seriously, right?" and "Yeah, he does that kind of stuff all the time," it dawned on me.
These guys are some of my favorite people in the world. And they really, truly, and honestly have no freaking clue how scary is to be a woman sometimes.
And why should they? Sure they'll have sympathy for the ones the unthinkable happens to. They support the right policies and politicians, and would never actually commit violence against a woman themselves. As far as men are concerned, they're doing all the right things. But there are some things they will never know, because of who they are and where they are in the world. They haven't dealt with the constant warnings, ("Don't go dressed like that, you never know who's out there," "Watch your drinks, ladies!") the late night cat-calls when you're walking through the parking lot alone, the hushed conversations about what happened to the girl who passed out in the room upstairs from the party last night. Stories from family, friends, strangers about what happened to them and when, with the knowledge that all it really takes is to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for it to happen to you. Because you think you know what those conversations will turn into.
"Why hadn't she taken any self-defense classes?"
"What was she doing out so late?"
"Well, she DID drink a lot last night."
"That guy was always a creep. I don't know what she was thinking going out with him."
So why am I surprised when I'm told it was supposed to be a joke? That there's something up with me, for not being able to get the joke, as opposed to him, for thinking something like that was funny in the first place?
I'm not going to try to explain why the situation wasn't funny to me. I'm tired of that being my job. I'm tired of the statistics, the fight over the legislation that helps combat the problem, of the stories that win prizes due in part to terrific writing, in part because of how tragic the subject matter is. I'm tired of being told to lighten up, to not worry so much, to stop thinking so hard about this. I'm tired of fighting with friends over something that to them is an intellectual debate, and to me is a lived reality. Most of all, though, I'm tired of telling my story and knowing that nobody is listening. Hearing, yes. But not listening.
That's why the story about the conversation that happened on Reddit a while ago was so interesting. Jezebel did a really nice write-up of the time that men who had committed rape told their stories. Some acted intentionally, knowing what they were in the middle of doing and they simply didn't care. But the majority profiled in the piece were simply unaware of their own actions, or did not notice the absence of consent. These are some of the men behind the statistics that occupy my thoughts more often than I care to admit. Maybe if more women in their lives had simply spoken up about the times they were scared, had been physically or emotionally coerced into sex, or maybe had even actually been physically or sexually abused, things wouldn't have gone as far in the stories these men told. Maybe the more we personalize these stories, refuse to take these moments in stride, and ask the men in our lives to recognize the power differential inherent in these situations on a much deeper level than, "Yeah, sure, whatever," things could change. We don't seem to be making too much progress in the fight against gendered and sexualized violence. Maybe that's the magic bullet: make it personal. If it hurts, and you're in a position where you can explain the hurt, do it. It may be better than staying quiet.
Then again, what do I know. Maybe I just need to lighten up.