Last week, while out of town for work, I accidentally struck up a conversation with a man behind me in line to get coffee. I am a person who requires coffee before coffee and had just a few minutes before my co-worker would meet me in front of the lobby and we’d take a shuttle to the convention center serving as our office for the week. I did not mean to talk to this man but I am my mother’s daughter and sometimes I cannot stop myself from being friendly. I would rather not be. It’s much safer for women to be polite, but distant. The conversation was innocuous and I left with my coffee, sat down at a nearby table, and waited for my co-worker. When the man I’d just talked to walked by my table, I worried he’d want to continue our chat—it had been about our mutual addiction to caffeine and the times we’d both tried to quit. I was worried that my friendliness had been seen as transactional. I was worried my male co-worker would be late coming down from his hotel room. I worried the man wouldn’t leave me alone if I continued to be polite out of a sense of self-preservation. I worried no one would come to my aid even if my male co-worker showed up. He might not want to get involved. My male co-worker is much smaller than that man. My male co-worker is smaller than me. I also worried because I’m actually more likely to be attacked by my male co-worker if we are alone together. Familiarity and friendliness make me less safe. All of this took place in my head the 15 seconds it took the man to walk by my table, nod at me, and go on his way. I could have spent those 15 seconds more productively if I didn’t have to constantly negotiate my own survival.
I’m telling you this story because nothing happened. The man walked by, my co-worker arrived, we left for the convention center. You don’t have the right to the stories where something did happen. I don’t really want to tell you the stories about things that almost happened, mostly because there is just too many of them—an adult man stopping me at a bookstore in high school because he wants to know if I would like a boyfriend when I am still young enough that I had never had a boyfriend. Boys, and then men, taking advantage of any crowded space (a high school hallway between classes, a concert when I am standing next to one of my brothers, a bar during a hockey game, a metro car.) Any number of men from any number of cars from the time I was about 13 until just this morning when I went out for a run.
I wish I could say I was surprised by the allegations against Al Franken anymore than I’m shocked Roy Moore approached so many girls at the man he was allegedly banned from it. I was disappointed in Franken, certainly. But I know better than to think a history of public support for women precludes reprehensible behavior. Anymore, I am skeptical of men who are too quick to volunteer themselves as public feminists. I have to wonder if their support is transactional too. I have to wonder what it’s like to be in a room alone with them. Having said that, the solution isn’t in Mike Pence’s self-imposed isolation from all women to whom he is not currently married. It still assumes what school dress codes assume about the female body, even in prepubescence—that it is too tempting to be near. It assumes the female body is corrupting and men have no self-control. It makes female bodies simultaneously powerless and all-powerful while absolving men of any responsibility for their own actions. Every woman you know has been made to feel like her body is responsible for someone else’s actions. I’m reminded of an interview Louis C.K. gave on The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was still the host. Louis says that comedians and feminists are natural enemies. Stewart nods his head in agreement. This was back when only Gawker was running stories about the allegations against Louis and they were blind items that did not mention him by name. It was before Stewart expressed shock that Louis might masturbate in front of an unwilling woman. I don’t have the luxury of shock anymore. There are jokes I used to tell and jokes I used to laugh at that I don’t anymore because there is something about being a woman in the world that erodes your sense of humor. I started to see these jokes a way for men to gauge what they could get away with with me. They wanted to know if I was a cool girl, if I’d be accommodating. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t a bitch. I am definitely a bitch. When I realized I was the means by which men were absolving themselves, their jokes got less funny. When Al Franken mimed groping a sleeping woman’s breasts (after forcibly kissing her when she was awake), someone took a picture. He was posing for people who probably laughed and were not thinking about exposing him later. They didn’t expose him. The woman did.
Since the election of Donald Trump, it’s been impossible to pretend I live in a country that values women. Hell, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump after any number of stories came out about his own history of sexual violence, probably because they know (whether they say it or not) it’s much easier to be white in this country than it is to be a woman. Being a woman means you are always responsible, despite lacking real autonomy. When I meet new people, I have to wonder if they voted for him. I have to take the time to evaluate whether the person with whom I am interacting values women so little they were willing to vote for a man like Donald Trump. It takes up my time and my energy. I resent the added work. Getting coffee in the morning is already exhausting enough.