Phrase #1 “Those boys are bothering me.”
When I was in 1st grade, I rode a county bus that picked up students from kindergarten to 12th grade. My seat was the third on the left, and I shared it with my friend Staci. At some point during the year, some troublemaker middle-schoolers were moved to the very front seat where our bus driver could keep an eye on them. Because of the mirror directly above the driver’s seat, these boys could also keep an eye on me, and, though I’m not entirely sure why, they decided that their newest diversion would be tormenting me from several seats ahead. “Little girl, little girl …” they would begin in mock-high voices as soon as I had claimed my seat on the bus, ogling at me through the mirror. “Look in the mirror, little girl.” I suppose they wanted me to look in the mirror because it was, under the observation of the bus driver, the only way they could exert their control and superiority over me. To this day, I wish I had cheesily smiled up at them through the mirror and then shrugged—that I had somehow shown that they didn’t have the power to make me feel small. But they did have that power. Instead, I hung my head and stared at my feet, refusing to look even remotely in the mirror’s direction. The bus driver asked me once if they were bothering me, but I didn’t want to be a problem. And if she had to ask, I wasn’t sure she could understand just how much they were bothering me.
Each day, Staci would join me in my seat, I’d mumble to her, “They’re doing it again,” and be grateful for her company. I never told anyone but Staci about it. For some reason I felt embarrassed and guilty about their behavior, as if I was the cause, not the victim. Until the bus driver finally moved them again, I truly felt like a very small, very powerless “little girl.”
Phrase #2 “You are very kind, but I’ve really spent about as much time with you as I can manage.”
It was my freshman year of college, my first year of adulthood, and my first real foray into the world of dates and rejecting them properly. I can’t be sure Jeremiah was asking me out, but I do believe he was trying. I don’t remember if this was before or after the time he awkwardly stood in my room engaging me in conversation while I waited for him to leave, or before or after the time I literally had to kick him out of my room because it was past dorm visiting hours. But he asked to eat dinner with me, and I told him that I was busy that night—instead of, as was called for in each situation, saying, “You really are very kind, but you can’t take a hint. I’m done now. I’ve really spent about as much time with you as I can manage. Please leave me alone.” He meant no harm, but his obliviousness to my body language and even my verbal language erased my own desires, and if he didn’t understand these boundaries, what other boundaries could he cross? I was afraid that outright rejection would leave me exposed. So I gave an excuse and hoped he wouldn’t feel cheated out of something I owed him.
Phrase #3 “You think you’re being clever, but actually you are living into a misogynist narrative that does not become you.”
I was writing a paper—probably for my Philosophy of Gender class—about the stereotype of the over-emotional woman or some similar thing. I first decided to write the paper because of an exchange with a male friend in which, after expressing incredulity that I get in bad moods, he said finally, “Oh, well, of course you have bad moods; you’re a woman.” That, it seemed, explained everything.
Whenever I brought up the paper topic with my male friends, they would typically respond with a quip like, “the stereotype?!?” Of course implying that the over-emotional woman was no stereotype at all but verifiable fact. I would simply grimace and move on, but I used their responses as fodder for my paper. It was always disconcerting, though; my otherwise kind, enlightened, respectful male friends had no difficulty perpetuating the idea that women are more emotional than men and that this emotion is something problematic. I felt angry and dismissed, but also sad. They were stunting me, yes, but also themselves.
Phrase #4 “Our mutual existence in physical space does not give you ownership over my body!!!!”
So I probably wouldn’t have shouted that exact phrase. And perhaps it should have been expletive-laden for extra effect.
I was in Berlin, slightly jet-lagged and mildly culture-shocked, walking down a sidewalk at dusk. My two female companions and I were attempting to take up only the polite amount of sidewalk, but it was difficult with the myriad outdoor seating, recycling bins, and ornamental trees that shared the walkways. Some young men came whizzing from behind on their bikes, passing us on the left. One of them reached out and slapped my rear as he sped by. I didn’t say anything—not to the swiftly speeding boys, not to my companions, not to anyone, ever. I immediately assumed that I had been in the wrong in some way—that I’d been taking up too much of the sidewalk or walking on the wrong side. Somehow I convinced myself that my actions gave a random stranger the right to touch me. Even if I had been doing something problematic, which I wasn’t (sidewalks are for walking and roads are for biking, friends), my body and the space it inhabits is still my own. I wasn’t the one transgressing boundaries—the young man was. But it’s taken me a decade to come to that conclusion; so many other voices suggested otherwise.
Phrase #5 “No, you may not hold my hand, Philip!”
I was once again in Europe, this time in Paris, taking in the sights on a solo journey. One sunny afternoon, I walked down the Champs Elysee toward the Louvre, intent on getting in line for the museum’s weekly free evening. As I shuffled up a pair of steps, someone spoke to me, in French, and I responded, in my best but broken French, that I did not, in fact, speak French. The gentleman then switched to English, asking an innocuous question about where I had gotten my shoes. It seemed like such an innocent and normal question, and the conversation that followed was in the same normal-sounding vein.
It wasn’t until we got closer to the Louvre that things began to feel “off” with my new acquaintance Philip. His questions were more prying, his tone was more insistent. He invited me to come with him on a tour of the city. Internally I said, “Hell, no,” and externally I politely declined. He was persistent, saying I could go the Louvre any old time. I told him I really needed to get in line. He said it was much too early—the museum didn’t open for an hour. I didn’t know how to argue with him; I hadn’t learned how to say phrase #2 yet. For some reason, not offending him was more important than my wellbeing—or, perhaps, not offending him seemed paramount to my wellbeing. I finally agreed to sit with him on a bench in a nearby public courtyard until it was closer to opening time.
As we walked past the growing, snaking line, he grabbed my hand. Everything in me froze; I didn’t want to hold his hand. I didn’t even want to be talking with him. I didn’t want him anywhere near me. But something inside me was paralyzed. Instead of saying “no,” or forcefully—or even gently—extracting my hand, I felt I needed to justify my movement somehow. So I pulled my hand away to open my water bottle. I then kept my hands on my purse.
After we sat on the bench, his sentences and body language became halting, unsure, agitated. He talked for 20 minutes straight about everything and the kitchen sink. I nodded along and tried to summon up the courage to interrupt him. Finally, I told him that it had been lovely talking with him, but I really had to get in that line. He hung his head and said I must not have enjoyed myself if I wanted to leave. I don’t know if he bought my lies, but I had finally had enough. The frustration that might have propelled me to yell out, “You may not hold my hand, Philip!” won out over the politeness that had silently withdrawn my hand, and I said and abrupt goodbye and walked swiftly back the Louvre. My common sense had kept me from doing anything dangerous, but my fear of upsetting Philip kept me from living into my own agency. It felt like a living example of the phrase, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Phrase #6 “Why don’t you respect my own authority?”
I got on a Chicago city bus with two other young women connected to the campus ministry I was working for. We sat near the back where there were more seats since we were waiting for two young men to join us. A man we did not know came to the back of the bus and sat among us. He asked us if we had anything to eat and then laughed. He tried to engage us all in rather condescending conversation—we all felt uncomfortable. I rolled my eyes at one of my companions, but I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t know what he would do if we asked him to leave.
Finally, our male friends joined us, coming to the back section of seats. The creepy man immediately jumped up and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were with them.” In his mind, he now saw that we were already claimed by a man, and, because of that other man’s presence, creepy man now had no right to be there. I felt both demeaned and livid. And though I was glad the creepy man left us alone, I wanted him to respect us for ourselves, not for any supposed male authority over us.
Phrase #7 “Stop!”
I actually did say this one.
I was in the Grand Bazaar in Turkey, and we had to enter a tremendous press of people to get through to the other side of the street. It was a pedestrian traffic jam such as I have never seen. Bodies pressed against bodies, everyone trying to push their way through, a whole seething mess of humanity. Suddenly, one of my female travel companions came up to me and said, “Someone just groped my breast.” Her eyes were wide and terrified. I pulled her under my arm and tried to push through faster. Then I felt someone grab and squeeze my own rear end. I whirled around and pushed the person directly behind me. “Stop!” I yelled, not caring if this person spoke English. My tone would speak for me. He didn’t respond in any way, didn’t look at me, just stared at the ground. I was shaking. And I didn’t stop shaking all day.
As a group that night, we all sat together in one of our rooms and talked about what had happened. We talked about sexual assault and sexism, and I felt better for the conversation and discussion. Holding things in had made me feel less vulnerable initially, but sharing the experience eventually made me feel held in my pain and righteous in my anger.
I am not a timid person. I’ve been told more times than I can count that I am confident, even sometimes intimidating. My parents taught me that being female did not change what I could and could not do. I have surrounded myself with strong, loving, and encouraging people. I generally feel powerful enough to make choices that ensure my own safety. But somehow, in the midst of all this, I absorbed the cultural messages which said that any discomfort, pain, or embarrassment I experience at the hands of a man is my own fault, that to speak up for my own desires is to be too abrasive, and that a man’s agency is more important than my own. I have learned to keep silent, to keep the peace, to keep a man’s pride intact. I have learned to be afraid of using my voice.
I refuse to be afraid any longer. Some of these instances were minor. Some feel more pressing. None were life threatening, at least not in the traditional sense. But all of them threaten my life in that they each contain a moment when my existence was deemed less valuable because it was a female existence. Each experience on its own might not add up to much. But put together, along with countless other micro- and macro-aggressions against women, these moments threaten to silence and dehumanize me. I wish that I had been empowered to speak each of these phrases when the occasion called, but it is my choice now to speak up and speak loudly, until every woman’s voice is freed and heard.