Lucky is a Low Bar

This is a post I started writing a month ago, and then didn’t finish. This is the kind of post I’ve started writing a lot of times, and have never finished. I’m prompted to do so today by the bravery and strength of my cousin, who’s told her story of abuse in support of another woman who was abused by the same man.

Courtney says a lot of very true, very scary things — about how an abuser operates, how crazy and irrational they can make you feel, how hard it can be to admit what happened even to yourself, the challenges in coming forward, and how terribly, terribly common experiences like this are.

If you think you don’t know a woman who’s been raped, assaulted, or abused, you are just straight-up wrong. Most just don’t talk about it very openly. I don’t even have to look outside my own family to find multiple stories. That number goes exponential when I start counting friends. Which is just horrifying.

So.

A while back, I read Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence. This is far from the first such testimonial I’ve read, and I know it won’t be the last. Every one feels familiar. These experiences are universal. We don’t all experience them the same way, but we all know these stories. So this essay left me with the feeling that we should all — all girls, all women, all uterus-bearers who’ve faced these things — should write essays like this. Like maybe the sheer weight of a few million voices showing that these things happen to us will make some kind of a difference.

And then I thought that we all already are, all the time, and it has not yet mattered.

But the only way to fight is to keep talking. To keep telling the stories. To keep challenging the status quo that tells us to quiet down and just deal with it.

These are the facts of our lives. They shouldn’t be.


I am four years old the first time I can remember someone telling me I couldn’t possibly know something because I’m a girl. It’s an argument about dinosaurs. Girls don’t like dinosaurs, so girls can’t possibly know anything about dinosaurs. I’m a tiny ball of tow-headed fury, because I know I’m right about how many fingers a T-Rex had.

I’m five or six and curious about something on the news. A man’s been arrested for doing something behind a school in our county. I ask my dad — a prosecutor — about it. He has to find the words to tell his kindergartner about a sexual predator. For years, I will wonder what exactly he meant by “he made girls put their mouths on his penis”.

In the fourth grade, a boy teases me and pulls my hair for weeks. I’m told this is a sign he likes me. One day, he shoves me on the blacktop during a game of volleyball. I’ve finally had enough, so I shove him back. He grabs my pigtail and slings me to the ground. My knee, elbow, and arm are badly scraped up. My knee is also jarred so much that I will limp for two days, and enough skin comes off that when it scabs over, I won’t be able to fully bend my knee without cracking it all open again, but if the principal hadn’t happened to be passing by at the time, I don’t know if he would have been held accountable at all. My mother and father are furious. The boy’s mother makes him come to my house with flowers to apologize. My classmates somehow learn of this and say he’s my boyfriend now. I have to accept the apology but never want to speak to him again. To this day, if I get a dark enough tan, you can see a scar from this scrape on my knee.

The next summer, I’m walking my dog, alone, feeling very grown-up and responsible. A car passes me. A few minutes later, it circles around the median to pass by again, now with the windows down, and boys start shouting things I don’t even understand yet. They circle by to do it again, and while I don’t understand all of their words, I understand that they mean me harm. I try to ignore them, which just makes them yell louder. They’re driving by slower each time, pacing me until another car comes up behind them. The next time they are forced to go by, I tighten up the dog’s leash and bolt through the nearest backyard. I’m terrified of them and terrified someone will ask why I’m trespassing as I cut across neat lawns and bramble-filled easements to get home. My dad asks why I’m all scratched up and muddy. I don’t tell him about the boys. I’m worried he would find them and shoot them. The boys are barely old enough to drive. I am ten.

A confident and forthright child, I walk with my shoulders back and my chin up. When I am thirteen, my male friends start telling me this makes me look stuck up. Eventually the descriptor morphs into “bitchy”. I start looking at the ground when I walk instead. It will be over a decade before I realize I’m still walking like this and try to correct the behavior.

I’m fourteen when a boy shoots up Columbine High School. As it comes out that he may have done it because he felt bullied and ostracized, I feel confused. I’ve been bullied and ostracized for years now, but it’s never made me want to kill anyone, or think I had the right to.

As a senior in high school, a freshman friend of mine disappears at a dance, held in a hotel during a theatre convention. I don’t know where she’s gone, but a guy in his twenties was leering at her earlier. I find them in a stairwell. He’s got her pinned against the wall. He tells me to mind my own business and go away. I pull her away from him, push her out the door, and tell him that if he follows us a single step I’ll scream bloody murder. We go back to the dance.

I’m a sophomore in college and hanging out with other cast members after rehearsal. I’ve been playful and flirtatious with several of them over the course of rehearsals, but never with real intent. One guy, a senior very popular in the troupe, offers to hang with me as I’m waiting for the trolley. It’s cold, so we duck into the nearest building. After a few minutes of chatting, he tells me I’m gorgeous, grabs my wrist pulls me to him, and kisses me. He asks if I want to go back to his place. I’m flattered by the attention but not interested in him, and the kiss is sloppy and aggressive, so I beg off. In the meantime, I’ve missed the last trolley to my apartment, but choose to walk home rather than accept his offer of a ride. He doesn’t try anything again, and I don’t think anything of it. Months later, I learn that he spent the rest of the semester telling everyone what a slut and cocktease I am.

I’m in my early twenties when the man I think is the love of my life emotionally abuses me through relentless gaslighting. He never says it’s because I’m a woman, but everything in the language he uses is gendered. I’m too irrational. I’m too emotional. I’m too selfish. I’ve lost control. I can’t possibly understand. I should stop expecting so much of him. I should accept what he’s willing to give me. I’m acting too much like his crazy ex-wife. I don’t appreciate how much he loves me. When he hurts me, it’s my fault. When he loses control, it’s only because I made him. For two years, it doesn’t occur to me there’s anything wrong with the relationship. For two years after it ends, I’m still not ready to call it abuse. How could a strong, smart girl let that happen to her? How could she not know?

Twice at parties, I put all five-foot-three of myself, trembling with rage, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her. Both men look startled that I have the nerve to stand up to them. I know, someday, I will probably get hurt doing this. I know I can’t stop.

I’m twenty-six and an ex-boyfriend with whom I am on with friendly terms starts getting handsy whenever we hang out together. I have no interest in renewing the relationship, and tell him so. He persists. After one group dinner when he wouldn’t stop stroking my leg beneath the table, even when I tell him three times to stop, when he tries to take me by the waist in the parking lot on our way out, I snap and scream at him. He is so offended by my outburst that we never speak again. He swears up and down to our mutual friends that he never sexually harassed me, whatever I have to say about it.

I’m twenty-nine and becoming inured to gross comments during the interactive theatre work that I do, but still, the guy who tells me, “You make my dick hard. I bet you like that. I bet you wanna tell everybody about it” manages to astonish me.

I’m thirty years old, my heart bleeding for the women I know and love who’ve suffered, and thinking that I’m lucky. I’ve only been physically assaulted infrequently. I’m not still with my abuser. I haven’t been raped. I’m not dead.

What Happened To Jennifer Lawrence Was Sexual Assault

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on this topic, and this post hits them all with eloquence.

Yes, All Women: Cultural Misogyny from a Writer’s Perspective

First off, if you are somehow on the internet and not yet aware of the #YesAllWomen phenomenon going on over on Twitter, then you need to check it out. If you’re a woman, you will probably feel some combination of depressed, heartened, proud, scared, and totally unsurprised by the stories being shared. If you’re a man, especially a man who wants to think of himself as a good guy, as a feminist ally, as someone trustworthy, then you need to go read, absorb, learn, and resist the temptation to put your two cents in.

YesAllWomenTweet3

I have a lot of thoughts on this. A lot. It’s certainly no secret that I am an outspoken feminist, and this issue is one that cuts deep. It would at any time, but after the UCSB tragedy, after the girl who got stabbed to death when she wouldn’t go with a guy to prom, after the girl who got kicked out of her prom because her dress was considered impure by a bunch of gross fathers… it’s particularly timely.

I was ten years old the first time I feared for my safety because of sexual aggression from men. Boys, really — they probably weren’t much older than 16 or 17. But I was 10 years old, walking my dog, and they were following me in their car and shouting things I didn’t even understand yet. They circled back around again and again, until I, terrified, took a shortcut between several backyards to get home. I didn’t tell my father, because I was afraid he’d hunt them down with a gun.

It started when I was ten. It has not stopped.

I have friends who have been raped. I have friends who have narrowly escaped rape. I have friends who’ve been physically assaulted. I have been physically assaulted. I have been emotionally abused. I have friends who have been abused. I have friends who have been followed by men, on the street, in cars, in hallways, in hotels, in dorms, in museums, in libraries. I have friends who have had to resort to physical violence when men wouldn’t take the message. I don’t think I have a single female friend who doesn’t have a story about a time a man made her feel unsafe.

So I have a lot of feelings.

YesAllWomenTweet2

I’m also a writer. So I think about this issue as it pertains to storytelling.

And just as an exercise in that, it’s enormously powerful. The stories being told on that hashtag are emotionally moving — some are so sad, some are enraging, some are empowering, but they’re all getting my heart rate up. And as depressing as the stories are, as hard as they can be to read — particularly when the stream just keeps throttling, when the tales of misery and fear just. keep. coming. — it also makes me proud, and happy in a perverse, backwards sort of way. Because women so often feel silenced. Women don’t always get the space and the attention to tell their stories — and there are plenty of people out there trying to take this one away, to shame and silence what’s happening. (A note: If you’re a man arguing against this hashtag, you are part of the problem. If you’re a woman decrying it and claiming to be “not like those others”, you have some internalized misogyny that needs examining).

But I’m also a writer of fiction. So I’m thinking about that as well.

Media perpetuates these problems, but it can fight them, too — if done right. Some media tries and fails. Some — a lot — doesn’t try at all. And some stories — generally those told about women, by women, for women — succeed, at least in some measure. We can fight through stories. We can tell our own, we can tell each other’s, we can tell imagined stories that illustrate the reality.

YesAllWomenTweet4

I write fantasy and science fiction. When I write fantasy, it’s generally historical fantasy — but that means AUs, which means I could change any rules I want. And in futuristic sci-fi, you get to make it all up anyway. So could I write a world without misogyny? Could I write a world where women felt safe in public? Where sexual violence was not the first threat an opponent would think to make? Where it wasn’t something women just expected to have to guard against?

I don’t think I could. Because I wouldn’t believe it.

I have to believe what I write in order for the story to work. Not in a literal way, but in the “things need not have happened to be true” sort of way.

And while I can believe in the possibility of elemental magic, of starships and moving through dark matter, of alien races and alternate words, of the dominos effect in history that could create a whole new reality… the misogyny of the world that I live in  is so ingrained that I don’t know that my imagination stretches far enough to undo it. I can hope for it, but not really believe in it, and that would out in the writing.

And I doubt my readers — at least, my female readers — would be able to believe in it, either.

There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend.

YesAllWomenTweet1

Women’s Voices in History

I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.

On David Gilmour

Just a quick note regarding the ongoing David “I only teach real manly manly men, no homos, no lady bits, you understand?” Gilmour controversy — this post by Anne Thériault is one of the best things I’ve read on it so far. So go read it.

Because the thing is, if you’re not a cis white straight male, you are constantly expected not just to expose yourself to, but to immerse yourself in media that is not about you, not written by someone like you, not written for your experience. Gilmour’s flat-out refusal to examine any experience other than his own (and his promotion of that viewpoint to his students) is, well, a lot of what I feel is wrong with modern culture, really. Our world needs a greater degree of empathy and a greater capacity for divergent thinking. Gilmour — and the many, many others like him who deserve but aren’t receiving equal castigation — have a lesson to learn about that.