A Tricoastal Woman: Everywoman


We women all have stories. Whether we tell them or minimize them or pretend they don’t exist, whether we apologize for the man or say nothing or file a lawsuit, we all have had someone say or do something that reduces us to our fuckability.

I am told I am intimidating. This is an acquired skill, born of many years in the martial arts coupled with lawyering. It’s largely unconscious – I rarely try to intimidate people – but it provides some protection.

So when I read the latest in scandalous behavior (at the time I write this, which story of scandalous behavior will be obvious, though it really doesn’t matter), I first thought, “Well, I haven’t experienced too much of that.”

And then I started to think about it. Surprising how many examples of sexual harassment you can remember if you put your mind to it.

The first one was based solely on my name. When my parents got around to getting a phone after we moved to the country, they put it in my name, ostensibly as a birthday treat for me, but actually to avoid getting too many calls.

So I got my first obscene phone call when I was about eleven. The caller asked if I wanted to fuck and I didn’t know what that meant. So he told me.

I still remember how freaked out I was.

Like everyone else, I’ve had my share of catcalls while walking down the street. Then there was the fellow lawyer at a meeting who kept trying to stare down my blouse. And I still wish I’d caught the teenager on the bicycle who hit me on the butt when he rode past me while I was out jogging. Believe me that I chased him at full-out speed until I finally had to recognize that I couldn’t run as fast as he could ride. Believe me also that I was mad enough to have hurt him if I’d caught him.

Some of the ones that bugged me the most involved no physical contact. A physics professor – who didn’t even know my name – once called me “anti-intellectual” because I refused to sleep with him. After all, he’d gone to MIT and I was merely a student at the University of Texas. I never did figure out how having sex with him would improve my mind.

Amazing how much rage I channel when I think about these incidents. And that’s even when I was able to tell the professor to go to hell (I wasn’t in his class) or to complain about the lawyer to other co-workers. It pissed me off, and it still pisses me off.

In contrast, the time I defended myself from a rape attack – which I’ve written about before and discussed in the video in this post – stays with me as a source of pride. Being able to act effectively takes care of the rage, or at least it does for me.

The experience that haunts me, though, is one that I didn’t realize was sexual harassment when it happened.

While I was in law school, I went off one summer to do an internship at a legal services office that served Native Americans. It was located in the middle of nowhere, so the day I got there, I met my boss – a white guy a few years older than me – at his house.

He explained that he’d found me a house to rent nearby, and that he’d take me over to talk to the landlord the next day. Then we sat around his house and he talked about all the Texas musicians he knew, either to impress me or show me how hip he was. It wasn’t all that successful, because, being from Austin, I knew a few musicians myself and anyway I’m fairly immune to name-dropping.

He gave me a mattress on the floor in his spare room and I got ready for bed. As I was about to go to sleep, he came in, stark naked. I must have given him a look, because he quickly assured me that he wasn’t making a pass – oh, dear, no. He just thought that I would be cool enough that it wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, he had no reason to come in at all.

Well, I used to go skinny-dipping at Hippie Hollow back in the day. I once lived in a group house with six people and one bathroom. I had no problem with a little nudity among friends. But he wasn’t my friend; he was my boss.

Still, I let him convince me that it was just a coolness test. He left the room and never tried anything again. He also gave me no support or guidance in the job. Fortunately, there was another lawyer in the office who helped me some, but he hated the boss and was leaving for a new job at the end of the summer, so he wasn’t a lot of help, either.

From the perspective of a large number of years, I have the feeling that the boss figured he was getting something extra with a female intern and was annoyed when I didn’t play along. At the time, though, that didn’t even cross my mind. I figured I’d flunked the coolness test and that he didn’t like me. As the summer progressed, I also got the feeling that he didn’t think I was any good at my job.

I knew I didn’t like him, but I wasn’t quite sure why things had gone so wrong.

That happened a long time ago, before I took up martial arts, before my feminism had advanced beyond the simple act of doing things – like going to law school – that girls weren’t supposed to do. But I remember it very well.

I haven’t told this story very often. These days, I wonder how much it affected my confidence as a lawyer. It’s hard enough to keep up good lawyerly swagger, and it’s even harder if you have the sneaking suspicion that you’re not any good at the job. Imposter syndrome on steroids.

I’ve never been raped, never been physically hurt. That internship is the only example I have of harassment that affected my job, and even then I had work all summer and got paid – important, since I was working my way through school – though I never used that boss as a reference. My experiences are minor, as these things go.

But the rage remains.

If someone grabbed my private parts, I’d take him down. It would be a good antidote to my anger if I had the chance to throw someone who goes around grabbing women.

It’s not going to happen, more’s the pity: I’m way too old for most of the grabbers, not to mention way too intimidating. But I could.

I like knowing I could.



A Tricoastal Woman: Everywoman — 24 Comments

  1. This is a great post. Thanks! I’ve also thought about the ways in which simply being tall seems to provide some protection from harassment, and at the same time how absurd, arbitrary, and limited that protection feels.

  2. When I was in my twenties, I was sitting on a bus bench at dusk and the asswipe sitting next to me (who I had been edging away from) suddenly wrenched my head around and tried to kiss me. Without even thinking, I walloped him upside the head so hard that my hand hurt for five minutes after he ran off. It occurred to me afterward that he must have thought I was a prime victim because I had just moved away without saying anything, but I like remembering that, when pushed, I would take action to defend myself without even thinking about it. Agency is everything.

  3. You are the greatest.
    I have had my share of ogling and furtive pats in crowded places, but no one has ever dared accost me to my face. I can’t think why; I usually progress in a fog of mental preoccupation.

      • I had a kid jump from his bike and try to pull me down. I get the weird ones. I decided that if any of my niece or nephew’s children want to take martial arts, I will help pay for it.

        Because I have never known how to defend myself, except with words. Which has worked many times. But it was useless for discrimination and harassment at work.

  4. When I went to Glasgow for WorldCon in 2005, my hotel was a 15 min walk from the convention center through a borderline neighborhood. I frequently saw teens hovering in shadowy doorways. Over the course of the 5 days of the con, several women reported harassment from random youths in that neighborhood, even when walking in groups. I walked alone.

    BUT I was a trained fencer–a form of martial arts–and I carried a cane being only 4 months out of back surgery. I considered my cane a weapon. Not once did anyone approach me on that lonely walk.

    Attitude seems to be a big deterrent to the casual harasser. Of course if I’d been 15 years younger and hadn’t yet grown an attitude, I don’t know what I’d have done. Now, don’t underestimate the frumpy middle-aged grandmother.

  5. Thanks for posting. Sometimes it takes a reminder to stop and count all the times you’ve been sexually harassed. The answer is way too many. I’ve thought about taking up martial arts, but I’m still struggling to get on top of urgent issues. Gym issues will have to wait.

    • Sad, isn’t it, that we can remember those incidents.

      I highly recommend martial arts. For me they were the perfect fit as a guiding path for my life, which takes them far beyond this issue. (And I sympathize with getting on top of urgent issues, given the current state of my things to do list.)

      • Nancy, is it possible with arthritis issues? I am not sure my hands can do it. Although with current healing I’m about to start Tai Chi Chih again for energy work.

        • Yes, it’s possible to train with arthritis. I do it.

          You shouldn’t have much problem with regular Tai Chi taught as a martial art, because most of the moves do not affect your hands. I never go very low because I have arthritis in my knees. Most push hands practice should be fine as well.

          I trained Aikido recently with a woman who has tendon problems in her hand that keep her from making a complete fist or grabbing hard. She had learned to grab with her center, not just her hand, making her very powerful indeed.

          It’s been my general experience that if you pay attention to creating good workarounds for the injured parts of your body, you often become much better at a martial art.

          The key is not to train in any dojo that isn’t willing to accommodate the things you can’t do.

    • Knowing a few simple moves helps, because it increases your confidence and awareness. The paradox is that the more you know about fighting, the less you actually need to fight!

  6. Oh yeah. I figured I could use my fencing knowledge when I carried a switchblade (and had to use it to save my own life and a friend’s, in Europe). Alas, they are illegal here. But what you said about agency. Until I got it taken away at one of the first airport security searches, I carried it, and just knowing I had it made me move more confidently while I lived in Hollywood, a very dangerous area at the time.

    • Weapons can be very useful — if you know how and when to use them. I like Phyl’s strategy of using a cane. Most security will let you take them with you, especially if you really are using it as a walking aid, and they make excellent weapons.

      • I nearly always carry my knitting when I travel. Long steel straights tend to kick off the metal detectors, but plastic circulars always pass through. I would undertake to pin a man to his airline seat like a butterfly onto a board, with a pair of 16 inch steel nickel-plated Addi Turbos. But long circulars make a fine garotte. The only sticking point is that I would have to drop =all= the stitches to use the needle as a weapon.

        • Ardath Mayhar filed down some steel knitting needles into about 4″ lengths that she used to hold up her bun. I don’t know if she ever tried to get them through airport security–she didn’t travel a lot in her later years. I did contemplate a bun but my hair is like silk, and everything slides out of it.

          • I have a – a hair THING – I don’t even know what to call it – it’s got a silvery shell-like arch that’s visible when you stick it in to hold your bun but the business end is some 3-4 inches of five sharp plastic spikes which go through the hair and pin it to the back of your head. It didn’t even occur to me that this was “weaponzable” and it didn’t trigger the metal detectors when I walked through them and nobody paid the blindest bit of attention to it – but on the plane when I took it out to readjust the bun which was coming loose the woman in the seat next to me did a double take and asked how on earth they had ever let me bring that on the plane. Because seriously this could take someone’s eye out if chose to use it that way. WHich just goes to show, anything can be turned into a weapon. And not everything HAS to be one.

            As for harassment stories et al… the closest I ever came to being actually physically interfered with came when when I was a pubescent 14 and I was doing badly in math so my parents set up some tutoring for me with the maths teacher in my school. THose were innocent days and it was considered unesceptional for me to just go over to his place (he lived on the school campus, like many of the staff) after school for a tutoring session. And it all went swimmingly for the first few times until one day as I was picking up my crap to leave I found him standing quietly but firmly between me and the door, and then he said that what he would like to do if I didn’t mind (if I didn’t MIND…? I still remember that phrase) was to kiss me. I didn’t know what to do, I just froze, I remember standing there holding my tennis racquet in front of my face like a sort of a shield, staring at him. And he appeared to decide against pursuing his objectives because after a moment he simply stepped aside and I fled. I told my parents, and I never went back there – but he remained as a teacher, and as far as I know no consequences ever accrued to him over that incident. I suppose I was lucky it didn’t end worse. But it could have been messy…