I was in my early 20s and home for the winter holidays. Family friends had come round for dinner. I was in the living room with one of them, a father with three grown sons around my age. I had known them all my whole life; their smiles evoked memories of beach picnics and summer ball games.
My mother was in the kitchen. I don’t know where my sisters were. My father was long since dead.
“Isn’t Rose looking beautiful?” the father said, standing next to me, addressing his sons.
My throat seized up. I couldn’t remember a precedent for this with him. Rushed thoughts – evaluating my safety levels, appraising the social situation at hand – flooded my brain.
I only had half a second. As he finished his question, staring straight into his sons’ eyes, he placed a hand on my ass, and held it there.
The sons shuffled, mumbling embarrassed acquiescence.
His touch sent sickening and humiliating shock waves through my body. I went into a combination of survival and appeasement mode. My reactions were passive but felt programmed, the result of experience and implicit lessons I had been learning since I was a child.
I didn’t run or scream. I paused, turned around and left the room. I avoided proximity to the patriarch for the rest of the night. Worse, for the rest of the evening, I kept smiling and stayed polite while making a note to do everything in my power to avoid seeing this man ever again (the list already had a few names on it). I had certainly been through worse over the years, including with a stranger who had assaulted me in an underground tunnel in Rome with a knife.
Years later, I realized the abuse was less in the act I had been subjected to, and more in my learned silence. De-escalation had been my trick, to the detriment of my agency.
A blog entry from last fall put this into words for me. It made me realise that women around me had been doing for years: de-escalating situations caused by men, with the burden of minimising incidents being placed squarely on our shoulders.
Occurrences could be as mundane as a street catcall, as infuriating as a sexist comment at work, or as troubling as an unwelcome physical touch. Occurrences also include compliments we have to decipher (just nice, or suggesting an expression of male ownership over our bodies?).
To the initial weight of having to deal with those acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.
For Hanna Rusin, a 29-year-old fashion industry worker based in New York, gendered micro- and macro-aggressions are a “vast, vast” part of her everyday life.
She recalls, off the top of her head, scarring incidents including being stalked by a man who was her neighbor for six years and being followed home by a policeman after he asked to see her ID on the subway. She also remembers unwelcome attention growing up – comments and physical contact in private settings – but being taught to dismiss it.
“In a more intimate setting, it’s more subtle. If you say something, you’re a troublemaker,” Rusin says. “If you would go to your mother, they would just say, ‘This is how they are, they’re just drunk old men, ignore them.’ Women don’t even notice that it’s happening to them until they hear someone else talk about it. And then they are like, wait, is this what this is?”
Rusin speaks of the mental toll of deciding whether to report incidents. The situation became so bad with her neighbor that she worried making too much of a fuss with authorities could result in him murdering her in revenge. As unrealistic as that may sound (and it may not be as unrealistic as you think), the fear was very real, she says.
Ashwini Hardikar, a 31-year-old health center program director, says that after years of come-ons and unwelcome comments, she has come up with her own solution.
“If someone compliments me, tells me I am attractive or whatever, I reply, ‘OK.’ It works for me.” Hardikar says she does not want to say “thank you” to something she is not sure she feels thankful for, but knows that for her own safety, she must express acknowledgement.
“Not saying thank you or not responding to someone telling you you are beautiful can escalate into a really unsafe situation. There are women who have been killed over not responding to men’s advances. It’s not as simple as men are just giving you a compliment … You’ve got to make that decision in a second. That is the difference between being safe and not safe.”
Ashlie Butler, a 30-year-old doula and executive assistant in the academic field, says she is subjected to sexist comments at work, but feels that for her own professional survival she cannot say anything – certainly not while she hopes to continue being employed. “In my current position, I am the administrator, so people – men – are commenting on my looks in a way that is inappropriate and makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Minimizing the situation and ignoring comments are part of her economic survival. “I struggle a lot. I have seen how when other people do speak up, things don’t change – they get bullied or penalized.”
Nichole Thomas, a 26-year-old attorney, says the sexism she feels in her male-dominated law office is understated but very real. When she was at an office outing recently, she noticed every time a junior male colleague spoke, his point was uplifted and highlighted by other men, including higher-ranking men. Women did not receive the same treatment.
The way in which Thomas has decided to deal with what she is sure are expressions of sexism at work? De-escalating by taking it in her stride and not letting it affect her work performance. “I would never say anything at all to anybody. I notice it in that moment and then I forget about it. I try and not think about it every day.”
Butler, the academic executive assistant, says not speaking up is also a decision, but it is less of a peaceful one: “It’s tough, because I am very vocal, I am very militant, but there are some spaces where you can’t do that.” Butler, who is faced with what she calls a “double whammy” of prejudice because she is black, says there are limited solutions in terms of avoiding forced silencing.
“If you don’t like it then create your own business, become an entrepreneur … because it’s not changing,” she says.
When she tries to explain the toll of such experiences to men, she says it is so exhausting she feels “it’s not even worth the effort half the time”.
“They don’t get it. It’s just not a reality for them.”
Hardikar, the health worker, adds: “There is a construct within masculinity that teaches them that they have the right to exert power over any space … It’s about demonstrating who is in charge in that space. I am sure that it’s subconscious, but it is learned and it is taught.”
This reminded me of yet another anecdote.
Riding the Greyhound bus on a night trip back from New York to Detroit while I was living in the Motor City, a middle-aged man sitting two rows in front of me turned to strike up a conversation.
He commented positively on my ability to write while the bus was moving and remarked on my short hair. Perhaps emboldened by his previous comments, he told me I was beautiful before adding: “You are lucky to make it home safe.”
Safe was a funny word to use. His words made sure I felt anything but.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010