I have always been an assertive person. I’ve never had a problem standing up for myself, both assertively and aggressively, and sometimes I have even been the unfair aggressor in a situation. I think this is why an event I experienced recently triggered a great deal of pause and reflection for me.
While visiting a gas station that I frequent regularly (it sits directly outside my apartment complex) and waiting in the checkout line, a man verbally sexually-harassed me in a crude and crash manner. Instead of turning around and asserting myself, I stared straight ahead, waiting and hoping it would be my turn to pay soon so I could get out of there quickly. I didn’t acknowledge him, though I made eye contact with the cashier, also a female, who seemed equally uncomfortable by this man’s remarks.
Maybe it is because I recently read Missoula by Jon Krakauer, or because I went to a viewing of The Hunting Ground hosted by UF’s College of Education. Maybe it’s because it’s an election year and women’s rights are in the news more and more. Maybe it’s because I’ll turn 25 next month and I have experienced more of this systematized sexism than when I was younger. Maybe it’s because I recently realized that 3 of the 6 women I have lived with during my academic career have been sexually-assaulted (that’s one 1 in 2 folks) or because my baby sister started college this year and I constantly worry about what situations she might find herself in as she joins the “adult” world…but my reaction, though at first shocked me, instead fills me with sadness.
How many times has a woman stared straight ahead, ignoring vulgar comments or offered a polite smile after a man forced her attention upon him? How many times has a woman silently prayed an encounter would be over soon? How many times has a woman been asked after a sexual assault, “Well why didn’t you fight? Did you scream?”
Why is the act of silently, begrudgingly enduring abuse so ingrained in women? Why does that so often seem like the safest reaction?
When I posted about my gas station experience on Facebook (something I rarely do in regards to controversial or dramatic topics), the majority of those who reacted were women. Only a few men engaged in the conversation – and what did they do when they did comment? They offered up suggestions of how I should have reacted: carry mace, carry a gun, shoot his ass.
I was raised by a father who worried about his children. We weren’t allowed to ride our bikes off the street, we had to call when we arrived at or left destinations. I was taught to always be aware of my surroundings. I’m not even sure who first told me girls in skirts and ponytails were more vulnerable, but I know my mother taught me never to park next to a foreboding van in a parking garage. One of my first bosses showed me how to hold my car key firmly between my knuckles in case I needed to defend myself in the dark parking lot.
In a conversation with my roommates once about sexual assaults after nights of drinking in college, I remember stating that “I had been lucky.” I had been lucky that I had “put myself in questionable situations” throughout young adulthood – situations where I drank too much, or misled a guy because my advances didn’t match my intentions, or ended up at someone’s house or in someone’s bed when I decided I didn’t want to be there, and nothing bad had happened. I said I had been lucky that each of those men had been “good guys” and I had never been taken advantage of in a vulnerable state.
I’ve uttered that statement countless times, and it finally dawns on me: why the hell should that be considered “lucky”? Who taught me that I should expect to be assaulted or taken advantage of in certain situations, that the only way to avoid such a thing is by my own diligence and my own preventative measures? Not being taken advantage of shouldn’t be considered lucky or rare or unique.
A day after International Women’s Day, it strikes me how much women still have to struggle against, and I am a white, middle class, heterosexual, highly -educated female in the United States. Arguably, I am treated the best of the bunch of the billions of women on this planet.
I am not here to propose solutions, because I am not well-versed in the methods of combating gender inequality or sexism or sexual violence; but I am well-versed in being a woman. Though I am not trying to place blame, there are those who can contribute to this conversation who don’t. It is those people – men who turn a blind eye when a buddy catcalls a woman on the street, bosses who pay two employees performing the same function differently based on gender, women who demean and hate on other women – who need to educate themselves and join the conversation.
Next time, a man is vulgar to me in an everyday situation I will do my best to remember that I am not powerless, that nothing good comes from turning the other cheek, and that there are strong women laying the foundation every day for change whose paths I should try to follow.