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.