Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Thoughts on Nice-guy (and girl) Sexism

Maggie Stiefvater posted a beautiful rant detailing the anatomy of her sexism related rage (not specifically in publishing). And then more women followed her lead: Olivia Hinebaugh posted about Kindness and Safety, and Ava Jae posted about what sexism is.

You should read these posts in their entirety because they are wonderful, insightful, and poignant. In fact, they got me thinking about the sexism in my life.

First, I should say that I don’t immediately identify as a woman. I am a woman. And I even like a lot of female things. I dress like a woman and I live my life as a woman. But when I think about who I am I don’t think of myself as a girl first. Never have. I think of myself as strong, creative, honorable person. A friend. A warrior and a softie. I never think of myself as female first and then strong second. I just don’t.

I suspect this is true for a lot of people. Certainly there are those who identify first and foremost as ‘woman’ or ‘man’ but that’s not me.

So I don’t tend to dwell on issues like sexism until I’m confronted with them either through stories like Maggie’s or my own experiences. The anatomy of my rage is a lot like hers. It started when I was young and boys took liberties. They touched. They stared. They made comments about the size of my breasts. My nicknames were always sexual in nature:Foursome, Big Boob Girl, Mouth, etc.

And let me be clear, every man in my life did not treat me this way. I had male friends growing up who were honorable, kind, and sincere. Friends that valued me for me, without the assumption that we would sleep together. Men who didn’t care about my femaleness. They were the exception.

But what troubles me the most, in light of Maggie’s rant, and the rants that followed hers, is that we are systematically taught that sexism, in all its forms (whether an aggressive, possessive advance or something as subtle as wage inequality) is something that we are supposed to giggle at. Something we are supposed to turn away from quietly. Don’t make a scene. Don’t stand up. Just turn the other cheek.

We are taught that the problem is ours. If a guy grabs your breast while hitting on you it’s a compliment. If a stranger shoves his hand down your pants while you're in pit at a concert it’s a compliment. If the person you're dancing with at a bar pulls your top down and exposes your breasts in full view of other people it means your are...what? Hot? Sexy? If you’re offended to find your friends' older brother is feeling you up while you sleep, then that’s on you baby. If you aren’t making as much as the comparable man in your same position it must be because he is doing a better job.

But, as Maggie so deftly identified, the most insidious form of sexism comes from the nice guy or girl. We can all agree that the guy fingering you without consent is a bad-guy sexist. An obvious villain. But what about the sexism from nice-guys?

Around Halloween last year I attended a party hosted by a male friend of my husband’s. I should point out that my hubby is a computer nerd and the company he works for is a small tech business. His coworkers are nice men. Respectable men with hilarious opinions and the occasional rude comment. The party was mostly work colleagues and their SO’s. A few single men and only two single women. I’ve grown up with brothers and spent a lot of time hanging around guys. Typical guy behavior doesn't surprise me. What surprised me was when these nice, respectable men, who I count as friends, began sexually harassing a single woman at the party. It wasn’t overt. It was flirty, at first. But then it got out of hand. Publicly, one man kept flipping the girls skirt up. She said stop. She pleaded again and again but the man kept flipping her skirt up and laughing. And the room, of mostly guys, was cheering him on.

That’s nice-guy sexism.

And even more shocking was that the other women witnessing along side me were calling this poor girl – who obviously didn’t want this type of attention – a slut.

That’s nice-girl sexism.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell at this guy to stop. I wanted to tell the women they should do something instead of judging the poor girl. But I did nothing. I didn’t move a muscle because I was afraid.

I was recently traveling for my day job with male coworkers. We attended a social event with an open bar. After a long night of networking with drinks men started hitting on me. One colleague, a Vice President in my company, grabbed my ass so forcefully that he lifted my butt cheek up, shook it, and squeezed it.

My immediate reaction was to run. Get away from the group as fast as possible without drawing attention to myself or making a scene. So when one of my coworkers stepped outside for a smoke break I followed. We chatted about work in general and our frustrations with recent changes. When he was done smoking he asked if I wanted to go up.

I shrugged, assuming going up meant going up to our floor (we had rooms on the same floor). I followed him as we continued to chat about work. He stopped at his room and invited me in to “continue our discussion.” I followed.

As soon as the door shut behind me he grabbed my face and tried to kiss me. I pulled away and explained that I was married (which he already knew) and that this wasn’t going to happen.

It should have ended there but it didn’t.

Instead, he began bargaining. Telling me we could do everything except sex. That he wouldn’t tell anyone. That his girlfriend wouldn’t care.

I stayed in the room. I didn’t run. I didn’t punch him in the teeth. I stayed and tried to calm things down to make sure no offense was taken in my rejection. I stayed so I didn't make a scene even though we were alone and the advance was completely unwanted and unencouraged. I stayed to make sure everything was okay. There was a lot of awkward laughing and apologies from me to him.

I said “I’m sorry if anything I did misled you.”

That’s bullshit. That’s infuriating. Why did I feel the need to apologize? And when I went back to my room I began cataloging all the things I did right – I didn’t wear revealing clothing, I didn’t drink more than I could handle, I didn’t flirt. Why did I feel the need to justify my behavior? Why did I feel the need to prove I didn’t do anything wrong?
It’s self-inflicted nice-guy sexism. Or in this case, nice-girl sexism.

And in the end, I couldn’t explain my need to smooth things over. I couldn’t explain my need to not make a scene. Because there isn’t one single answer.

It’s court battles over whether or not a rape victim was ‘asking for it.’ It’s movies and television and music and books with the message that women are somehow lesser. It’s female politicians being judged on their appearance instead of their message. It’s women getting paid less to do the same job as a man. It's women being told they must be a fake geek because they're too pretty to be a real geek.

It’s a lifetime of a million tiny actions and inactions that have coalesced into the palpable sexism we live with.

The night I was harassed while traveling for work I typed an email to my best friend, who is a night owl and would likely still be up, detailing the night’s events. His response:

“You should have known better.”

That’s nice-guy sexism.

Nice guys and girls are contributing to sexism every day. It’s the nice-guy/-girl sexism that chills me because there isn’t a clear villain to burn. It’s not one damaged person in a sea of undamaged people. Nice-guy sexism is in all of us and I am angry about it. I am angry about living in this tapestry of subtle and not-so-subtle hate every day. But mostly I’m angry that I haven’t done enough about it. I should have stood up for that girl at the party. I should have stood up for myself on that business trip. I should do more. I should say more.

I will start with this post. I will start by questioning the status quo. I will start by not listening to my fear. I will start by trying.

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