On Women and The Right to Say No

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles about women and harassment this week following the shootings in California. It’s as if Elliot Rodger’s murder spree knocked the scabs off a long festering wound in the lives of women. The back and forth of women and men talking about sexual harassment, violence, social mores has been both fascinating and alarming.

Growing up in a single parent household with two other women, I had the antithesis of the Cleaver household. My dad beat my mother, cheated on her, left us destitute, and generally gave almost all men a bad name. Another man sexually abused me as a child, so my view of men was of fear and vulnerability. I both wanted a Cleaver type dad who’d protect us, and also the right to live without men in our lives. I embraced Feminism because it empowered women to claim their own bodies and minds, not needing a man to fulfill our needs or lives.
Flash forward to college, summer internships, and dating. I remember being told that I should be in Home Economics instead of architecture, something that would get a male professor in hot water, if not fired now. I spent an entire summer being sexually harassed by men in a Louisiana state media center, in a situation so repugnant that even now it makes me nauseous. Sexual harassment was a new term then, and I remember stumbling to explain my interpretation of it to a Baton Rouge news agency head when it came up in conversation.
More than once when asked I was shaken to even try to explain my interpretation of it because of my past, and worries about my future. This was in the 1970’s and early 80’s when people still joked about a woman going to college to get her “Mrs.”. Get it?  Yeah, it wasn’t funny then. I wanted to have a career, didn’t want children after having a crappy childhood, didn’t want to marry and be tied down and vulnerable. Men were turned off by my need to be independent and truthful, so most of my time in college was spent dateless until I met my first husband.
Girls who’ve been sexually abused have had their self protecting barriers torn down, dissolved, until life rushes at them like a tornado. One just can’t stand up and lean into the wind of life until something happens, or we learn to cope.
One night over 20 years ago I was single again, starting to date a guy who didn’t want to go public with our relationship yet. We’d gone to a trendy bar to meet people we knew through a volunteer agency, and sat next to each other, but not with each other. It was a table of mostly men in their twenties and thirties, and a sprinkling of women like me in their late twenties and early thirties. Off to one side was a dance floor, and music was pounding making conversation difficult.
A Marine Corps officer appeared at my side, and began to insist that I dance with him. He stood between me and my supposed boyfriend, ignoring all my polite words of refusal. The people around the table, including my boyfriend watched this conversation with interest, but no one made a joke or intervened. This went on for a few minutes, and I finally accepted just to be polite. This is something that many women are socialized to do: be polite if it kills us. As soon as the music stopped, I went and hid in the bathroom, trying to not cry and  stop my shaking. When I was calmer, I stepped out of the bathroom right into the Marine who was waiting, demanding to know if I was okay. I finally managed to get him to back off, and went back to my table, avoiding eye contact with my boyfriend as if I’d done something unfaithful. We left early and pretty much separate, and he never brought up the confrontation. Ever.
I wasn’t angry at my jerky boyfriend that he’d not stepped in and claimed me, even though he was ex-Air Force and as big as the Marine, but at myself for capitulation with someone harassing me. Yes, it was harassing me to not stop when I’d politely refused a dance several times. It was harassment to wait for me outside the women’s bathroom and not take a hint.
Guy friends would later tell me “You should have just told him no.” But I did. Several times. Politely. If women get angry and reactive, we’re called bitches or the c word. Not assertive or brave. We’re bitches because we won’t accept unwanted advances or comments. It frustrated my guy friends because it seemed so cut and dry.
So for the guys who have bad people skills or mental health issues, it’s not our fault you can’t find a woman who’ll put up with you. It’s our right to tell you to go away without fear that you’ll come back and kill us, or call us a horrible name. It’s about sex and not about sex, living without fear in a world where women can still be stolen from their schools by religious fundamentalists, stoned to death by family members when one marries whom they want, or being able to walk the street safely.

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Ramona DeFelice Long

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