What it means to be in a female body

TW, CW: verbal and sexual assault.

I am grateful for the #MeToo movement for letting me know that I am not alone, that my experiences as a female, in a female body, are normal.  Well – they aren’t normal.  They involve verbal and physical sexual assault and abuse.  Repeatedly.  But it lets me know that this is something that has happened and is happening to all women, and that the only thing that has allowed this to continue is secrecy. 

Men have assumed their behavior is normal.  Women have assumed men’s behavior is normal.  It isn’t normal. It isn’t healthy. It isn’t safe.

I am lucky that I have not been attacked.  I am lucky that I have not been forcibly raped. 

But I have been raped.

Rape is not always about force. It is any time there is sexual penetration without consent.  It can be with a boyfriend you have dated for many years.  It can be with a new guy, a potential boyfriend. It can be with a husband.  There doesn’t have to be force. It doesn’t have to be a stranger. It is any time you have sex when you don’t want to have sex. Period.

I will not go into much detail about the time a boyfriend raped me. It didn’t feel like rape at the time. It was the first time we’d had sex. I wasn’t ready. He thought I was. He didn’t ask. We’d fooled around before. But I wasn’t ready to make that next step.  Next thing I knew he’d put his penis inside me. So I didn’t get to decide.  It was happening. I didn’t want it, but it was too late.

It wasn’t like I was a virgin. But I’d not had sex with him before. We hadn’t talked about when we wanted to cross that line.

That is rape. Even though the sex wasn’t forced, it wasn’t welcome. He made me think that I’d asked for it, that I wanted it. But it wasn’t just him – it was years and years of other boyfriends teaching me (and other women) that my body was not my own. That I was a thing for them to use.

There are microaggresions – forceful words, ideas, thoughts – where guys program women into thinking they are things, they are objects of desire, they are objects – period.  We are repeatedly taught through words and actions and stories that we exist only to please men – that we do not have value on our own. This is a form of mind-rape, where we are taught to submit.

Even women’s fiction teaches women this, over and over, that their only purpose in life is to have a man – any man. That is her happy ending – to have a husband, a house, a family – and nothing else. This is programming.

So what does it mean to be in a female body?

It means that you have to think about what you wear when you go on a date. I learned early on that boys thought it was OK to start taking off my clothing without my permission. They would search for buttons and clasps while we were kissing. They didn’t ask.  I hadn’t said it was OK.  I hadn’t said that I wanted “to go past first base”. I started wearing difficult clothing to make them stop. Saying no wasn’t enough. I had a pair of pants that buttoned on the side, at the pockets.  This was unusual – and the guy was trying to undress me without my permission.  He stopped and asked how to undo my pants and I told him I had not said that was what I wanted.  He was frustrated and confused.  He had never thought to ask a woman what she wanted.  It was always about what he wanted.

On another date with a different guy I had on my favorite shirt. It was a beautiful green, long sleeves, really comfortable.  But it had snap buttons.  He started undressing me and I said no. He was confused. There was a lot of discussion, and I said I didn’t want to have sex. We’d just met – this was our first date. He said that I shouldn’t have worn a shirt with snap buttons then. That was a sign (to him) that I wanted to have sex.

They are not alone.  This is normal behavior of men towards women.  People in male bodies don’t experience this. They don’t go on dates and worry about if things will progress further than they want.  Most guys want things to progress to a “home run”. 

On the first date.

Without any talking about it.

Without any discussion at all.

I went out with a guy to a movie. When we got back to his dorm room, he wanted to have sex.  This was our first (and last) date.  He was surprised that I said no. His argument as to why we should have sex – he’d paid for the movie.  It was owed him, he thought.  As if I was a $10 whore.  As if I owed him sex. When I said no, he asked he could at least jerk off between my breasts. I said no.

Note that he was only interested in his sexual pleasure – not mine.  Note that only his needs were important.

Another guy, another first and last date, didn’t undress me but pulled out his penis and began jerking off while we were kissing. I said I was uncomfortable with him doing that and he put it back. We kissed a little more and he began jerking off again. I walked away, and he said that he’d finish up thinking about me.

This is disturbing behavior.  This isn’t OK.

I feel lucky that I have always been able to get away from these experiences without being raped. Some men don’t take no for an answer.  I know that women have been forced to have sex – under duress, under guilt, under wheedling and whining with the classic “blue balls” sob story. Guilt-trip sex is rape.

Women are taught over and over to please, to take care of others.

Women are taught that to be “good” we must put our needs and wishes second.

Men know this, and they use it against us.

Sometimes the problems aren’t so dramatic, but they still are scarring. They are still wrong. They are still abusive.

I’ve had a boss say “while you’re down there” – smirking and glancing at his crotch while I was getting something out of a cabinet.  He was standing up right next to me.  This was at a Record Bar in Eastgate Mall, in Chattanooga. The store was open to the public. He thought it was perfectly normal to ask me to give him a blow job. At work. We weren’t dating. He was married.

This was right before the term “sexual harassment” was normalized. Another employee turned him and the assistant manager (also male) in for sexual harassment against her. They were so confused about it. They didn’t think they had done anything wrong, ever.  The assistant manager even called me at home to ask me to call corporate to put in the good word for them – to say they weren’t guilty.

By the way – the assistant manager had asked me to be part of a threesome with him and his wife.

These two men thought this was all normal.

Sometimes sexual assault isn’t so obvious.  I had a male boss who thought it was OK to come up behind me while I was at my counter at JoAnn’s fabric store in Cool Springs and “goose” me.  I was in a tight space, with the counter in front of me, not room to move away. He would poke me on my sides to tickle me. I had not asked for this. I didn’t want this. I told him to stop. I understood in the back of my mind that this could mean I’d get low marks on my performance review.

That too is sexual harassment and assault.

Any unwanted physical contact isn’t OK.

So now guys are wondering what is OK. They say they are afraid of us now. They are afraid of lawsuits and criminal records. They are afraid of us damaging their reputations.

To this I say, good. We’ve been afraid of men for thousands of years. We’ve been threatened, coerced, and psychologically assaulted by men for too long. And what has continued this assault is secrecy. No longer.

Yes, not all men. Some men are good. But the chances of being harmed are high, and we’ve gotten scarred.  Being out in public is like playing a game of Russian roulette – where women are always the losers.

Then there are situations where it isn’t so obvious.

Men think it is normal to dump their emotional baggage on me while I’m at work, assuming that because I’m a woman I want to hear them complain about all the things going wrong in their lives. They don’t talk to other men like this.

I have worked behind a desk for most of my life – in retail and in other service industries. I’m not a counselor or a therapist but they treat me as if I am one.  This relationship is not two-way. They don’t want to hear about my life. This is not a friendship.  They want to use me as their emotional garbage dump, just because I am female. This is exhausting.  It is yet another way men condition women to be their servants, to be their objects.

Women are taught to beware of their surroundings at all times to protect against attack. Just walking across a mall parking lot can be as dangerous as walking in the wilderness. Being attacked by a bear and a man require the same precautions. I could go on and on about how our “normal” isn’t normal, and how men do not grasp how much some men (and sometimes they themselves) complicate the lives of women.  But I won’t right now.

I now live my life in my own power.

I now live my life in truth.

I now am a powerful, truthful, and whole woman.

So be it.

Uncomfortable tale

(Trigger warning – sexual abuse)

After his 34-year-old wife Laura Levis suffered a devastating asthma attack and later died, the Boston writer Peter DeMarco wrote the following letter to the ICU staff of CHA Cambridge Hospital who cared for her and helped him cope.

His letter, published online in the New York Times on October 6th, went viral.  It goes on for quite a long time in detail about the incredibly kind and compassionate care that the nurses gave him and his wife.

Here is the part that I have a huge problem with. This occurred in the hour just before she was to go into organ donor surgery – where her organs were to be what is euphemistically termed as “harvested”.

These are his words.

“I nestled my body against hers. She looked so beautiful, and I told her so, stroking her hair and face. Pulling her gown down slightly, I kissed her breasts, and laid my head on her chest, feeling it rise and fall with each breath, her heartbeat in my ear. It was our last tender moment as a husband and a wife, and it was more natural and pure and comforting than anything I’ve ever felt. And then I fell asleep.”

This is from the same person who observed earlier in his letter, in talking about the nurses –  “When you listened to her heart and lungs through your stethoscopes, and her gown began to slip, you pulled it up to respectfully cover her.”

His wife was comatose and dying.  Yet he found it acceptable to engage in a sexual act on her  – obviously without her consent.  It wasn’t “with” her – she was present in body only.  She did not participate.

He thought it was respectful for the staff to cover her up – yet he felt it was OK for him to uncover her.

And then he felt it was OK to write about it in a public way.

I am sickened by this man.

I’m sorry that his wife died, but I’m more sorry for her spirit that he felt it was OK to violate her dignity by his action – and then again by publicizing it.

Let’s make this clear –

Just because he is married doesn’t mean he has full access to her body, at all times.  It is still her body, and her decision as to what happens to her.  It is never OK to perform a sexual act on anyone if they are unconscious – even if they are married to you.

 

 

Turn away

I’ve seen several pictures of things that have really disturbed me recently, and rather than just turn away again, I’ve decided to meditate on exactly what I find repulsive about these pictures. This is part of my recent decision to be more mindful. It is not an easy practice, but it is necessary for being fully conscious and aware of my actions.

These images aren’t things that people normally would turn away from, such as violence or abuse for instance. Those are abhorrent as well, of course. What I’m writing about here are images of people who are in ICU, hooked up to machines and tubes. I never gave it a second thought as to why I was repulsed until I saw a video about a machine that can keep a heart alive outside of the body in preparation for transplant. That tipped the scales.

What disturbs me about it is not exactly the same as what disturbs me about the ICU pictures, but it is a good thing to start with. The donor was dead, as far as doctors could determine. The brain had ceased functioning. The heart had been removed, and rather than keep it on ice as was normally done in a transplant situation, it was hooked up to a machine that replicated the environment inside the chest. It was kept humid and warm, with blood circulating through it. This heart was beating just like a normal heart, but it was inside a plastic box. There was no person attached.

I also saw a video of two mothers who had a strange connection. Mother A had a young child who had suddenly died due to trauma. She had decided to donate his organs. Mother B’s child had received his heart. They met three years later and mother A used a stethoscope to hear the heart of her son beating inside the chest of Mother B’s daughter. It was supposed to be a touching video, but I was really disturbed. Something seemed deeply wrong about this.

I kept being triggered by these images. I decided to examine the original related triggers – images of people in ICU. I don’t seek these out – people share them sometimes on social media as part of a story.

One was about a new mother who had been in an accident and the nurse brought her child to her so she could breastfeed her child. While the person who posted it was pointing out the value of breastfeeding, it was very disturbing. The mother was not present in any form other than her body. She was not being helped to breastfeed. The nurse put the child to her breast and that was it.

I look at a sketching website every day, and today there was one of a man in ICU. The sketcher even commented about it, wondering if it was ethically correct to sketch such a thing. He did not mention if he’d thought about the ethics of sharing it online as well.

I read something recently that speaks to all of this in a useful way.

There is a Jewish belief that it is improper to have an open casket. To do so is to violate the privacy of the person. It is also putting focus and attention on the wrong thing, as the “person” is not there – their soul has left. When there is just a body and not a soul, it is not a person. It is a shell, a husk. An open casket is an insult to the person who had inhabited that body, because they have no say over how they are seen. They have no control over what happens to them. They are fully exposed for the world to see and cannot do anything about it.

I think this is at the center of it all. To show pictures of people who are not at their best (to say it lightly) is to violate their rights. It is an invasion of privacy. It is embarrassing. To focus on body parts rather than the whole is equally unethical.

The lady’s son was no longer present. His heart was just a piece of muscle, doing a job. The heart in the box for transplant was moving as if it was alive, but as it was not attached to a person, it was simply the illusion of life. There was no soul in it. It was the same as looking at a machine.

Being mindful and considerate of others’ feelings also applies to not sharing pictures of people who have passed out from being drunk or are intoxicated to the point that they are unaware of their actions.

Remember the story of Noah and his sons?

Genesis 9:18-27
18 Noah’s sons who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were Noah’s sons, and from them the whole earth was populated. 20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a cloak and placed it over both their shoulders, and walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father naked. 24 When Noah awoke from his drinking and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said: Canaan will be cursed. He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers. 26 He also said: Praise the LORD, the God of Shem; Canaan will be his slave. 27 God will extend Japheth; he will dwell in the tents of Shem; Canaan will be his slave.

The son who saw him in his drunken state, unable to control himself, was cursed, along with his children. The two sons who covered him and made sure not to see him exposed were blessed.

This is the core teaching. To look at someone who is dead, or like dead (in ICU, or passed out due to intoxication) is an insult to their very being as a person. It is disrespectful. It is a violation of their privacy. It is the same as stripping someone naked. One might even go so far as to say it is equivalent to rape, as the person is treated as a thing and not as a person.

Don’t shoot vs. don’t rape

Something is wrong with the world when we have to teach people using videos on YouTube on how to interact with the police so that they don’t get killed. I’ve seen videos for young black men and most recently for deaf people on how to have a safe interaction with the police if they are pulled over. The idea is so that there won’t be a misunderstanding where the police get jumpy and pull a gun on them.

This reminds me of the campaign to teach women how not to get raped. The campaign might say that you need to travel in pairs and always be aware of your surroundings. Or it might say you should make sure you have your phone on you, or that you don’t drink any unfamiliar drinks at a party. All these things are written with the idea that it is the woman’s responsibility to make sure she is safe at all times. It takes away the responsibility from her rapist. While these are good ideas, they don’t address the root of the problem. Fortunately the idea is turning around. Now instead of saying to women ‘don’t get raped’ we are saying to boys ‘don’t rape.’ We are teaching them what “consent” means and what it doesn’t mean.

Maybe we need to do the same thing with the police. Maybe we need to train police to think first and pull their guns second. Just like don’t rape, we should say “don’t shoot”.

Just like how we say it isn’t right to say that a woman dressed in a miniskirt is ‘asking for it’, we should also say that the person being pulled over by the police and being suspicious isn’t ‘asking for it.’

The value of women – on clothing

Our value as women is based on our relationship with other people and not on our own merits as human beings. We are seen as someone’s daughter, or mother, or wife. We are sold the idea that if we don’t get married and have a family, we are nothing as human beings.

Thus, part of our value as women is based on our ability to attract men. Part of that value is set on how we dress. We are supposed to dress in a way that is seen as attractive to other people, but especially to men.

Now, if we dress in a very modest fashion we are seen as frumpy. We perhaps even seen as being lesbians. There’s very little middle ground in what is allowed for how we dress. It is either too attractive, or not attractive enough.

But the worst part is when we dress “too attractively” and a man attacks.

Part of the mark of a well-trained dog is that you can put a snack or a treat in front of it and it doesn’t lunge for it. Perhaps that is the problem. We have men who are not well-trained. We have men who if they see a woman who is attractively dressed (which she has to be in order to be a woman in our society) they will become like dogs.

They will grope her.
They will catcall her.
They will wolf-whistle to her.
They will attack her.
They will rape her.

The problem is not how women dress. The problem is how men act. The problem is that men are acting like dogs and not like human beings. In this situation, the only thing that makes men and animals different is the training.

Now, not all men act like dogs. But enough do that women have to be mindful of themselves at all times. Enough do that we have to think about what we wear and how we wear it so that we don’t “cause” a man to attack us.

If a man is exercising self-control, a woman can be wearing anything – or nothing – and he won’t attack her.

But – women are told they have to attract a man. We have to dress attractively in order to get a wedding dress. But – if we dress too attractively, it is our fault if we get raped.

All of this is wrong. All of it.

Women are people, first and foremost, and should not be told they have to get married. Women should be supported in becoming a human being first, and a wife second, if at all. Our value as members of society should not hinge on if we can marry or not.

Then, we should be allowed to dress however we want, without fear that we will get unwanted attention because of how we dress.

Let’s look at it this way –

It is not the fault of the homeowner if her house gets robbed. The fact that the door didn’t have fourteen latches on it and a home alarm doesn’t matter. It is the fault of the robber, who went to her home with the intent to break in.

The only problem is that women are encouraged to carefully landscape their yards for “curb appeal” – or “curve appeal” if you will. We are encouraged to make our houses – our bodies – look attractive and appealing. We are taught to be like the bower birds, who build a nest to attract a mate. The one with the most attractive nest gets a mate – and thus gets to pass on his genetics.

But if we are too attractive – we get attacked. So it is our fault. We can’t win.

Time to stop playing the game.

She is someone

There is a billboard campaign going on nationwide, trying to make porn addicts and johns think about who they are using. It uses the line “She’s somebody’s daughter”, with a picture of a woman. In Nashville, the billboard is appropriately over the Hustler store.

somebody

I really liked this campaign to start with. I especially like the idea that it is over a store that sells pornography and “adult” clothing. I liked the idea that it tries to get porn addicts to understand that this woman is part of the community, that she is connected. It tries to generate compassion by subtly reminding them – she could be your daughter, your sister. How would you like it if someone treated your daughter or sister the way you are treating other women?

This kind of thinking has been used to try to deter rapists too. Pornography and rape aren’t far removed. Both need a warped kind of thinking, where the perpetrator objectifies women until they stop being people.

Now I realize something deeper. It is saying that a woman has value only in her relation to someone else. She is someone’s daughter, or sister, or wife. While that is a good start, it isn’t enough. Let’s strip it away to the core.

She is someone.

All to herself, all on her own, she is someone.

She has value on her own as a person. Her relationship to other people, especially other men, does not create her value. She is a human being, not an object, not a thing.

Shame

Why is it that the person who has been attacked feels shame? The person who was abused by a parent wasn’t the person to blame. The person who was raped was the recipient, not the aggressor. The person who is the recipient of violence is most often female, but is sometimes male. Abuse isn’t exclusive. And the abuser or rapist isn’t always male. Physically, emotionally, sexually, abuse is abuse.

For the sake of simplicity I will say “she” for the person who is abused or raped and “he” for the abuser or rapist. I’m concerned I’m perpetuating a stereotype, so I want to be sure that it is understood that anybody can be attacked, and anybody can be the attacker. But our language has no appropriate third person singular, and saying “his or her” all the time is tedious, so I’m doing it this way.

I’m also making a point of not using the term “victim”. That is part of this. I believe that if she identifies herself as “victim” then she is perpetuating the violence that was done against her. More often though, the person who was attacked feels shame. They act as if they did something to deserve this. They feel shame so they don’t go to the police. They feel shame so they don’t go to the hospital or to a counselor.

Shame is another word for guilt. When a person feels shame, she feels as if she caused the problem. She feels that she brought it on herself. She feels responsible.

This is so totally backwards. The abuser, the rapist is the guilty party. The one he attacked is passive.

You do not cause someone to attack you. It has nothing to do with what you wear or what you said. Now, yes, I’ve recently written a post saying that women should dress modestly to protect themselves. I also think it is a good idea to get a handgun carry permit and take self-defense classes. Prevention, you know. But sometimes you can’t get out of the way of a problem, and there are a lot of damaged people out there who are ready to cause a problem with you.

One thing to notice is that the attacker is giving control of his emotions and actions to everyone else. The attacker blames other people for his losing control.

When Dad gets home from one of his many business trips, he has no right to beat his child for breaking something. His child is a child, and it was an accident. He has no right to yell at his child. His short temper is his fault, his failing.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The same is true of anger.

But how is it that the person who is attacked feels shame, feels guilt? Do we teach that in our society? Is that normal? Is it something that is part of being attacked?

It certainly isn’t helpful. It renders the person who was attacked open to more attacks. It opens her up to abuse from not just the original abuser, but new ones. Bullies can spot weakness.

Again – that is not the fault of the person who is bullied. The bullies need to be responsible for their actions. It is not the “weak” kid’s fault that she gets her lunch money stolen from her – that is the fault of the bully. It is important to remember where the blame goes.

The odd part is that bullies themselves were often abused. Instead of feeling shame however, the bully learns that abusing others is normal. The bully patterns his actions on this warped lesson. The way to feel bigger is go make another feel smaller.

Stop bullying. Easy to say. Tell us how to do it.

Stop feeling shame for being abused. Stop thinking you are a victim. Again, easy to say. Hard to do.

I think there is something to teaching everyone that it is important to say no, to establish boundaries. That this is what you are willing to take, and this isn’t. Perhaps there is something to learning how to dialogue, versus debate. It helps if people can express their opinions without having to be “right” or “wrong” – but just be different.

I used to feel guilty for saying no, for telling someone that I wasn’t OK with what I was being asked to do. I’ve spent too much of my life feeling resentful that my life wasn’t my own. Even reading books about how to find my own voice, how to establish boundaries, I felt awkward. How dare I stand up for myself.

It was painful to read those books. It was like having to re-break a badly-healed leg. Emotionally, it was as if my family had broken my legs and because I’d not been allowed to get treatment, they’d healed badly. I was walking with an emotional limp. I just got used to it. It became my “normal”. Reading those books made me have to look at that wound again, and realize how it was affecting my life, and every relationship I had. I had to re-break those bones and let them heal again.

Emotional wounds hurt just as much as physical ones. And they are harder to spot. A broken leg – that sticks out. A broken spirit? That is much harder to spot. The damage runs deep there, and affects every part of your life.

But somewhere in the middle of reading those books, I was standing up for myself, and realizing that I wasn’t a victim, and I wasn’t to blame. By reading those books I was taking control of what had happened.

There is no shame in being abused. There is shame in being an abuser. You aren’t to blame for what happened to you. You are, however, responsible for what you do afterwards. You are responsible for your own actions, not the actions of others.