I had a large bag of picnic goodies slung over one shoulder, its bulk causing my arm to bulge up and over it. In the crook of my other arm, I had two bottles of a fine cold dry Riesling. We were prepared for a lovely picnic sitting in the park across the street. As I tried to exit the door of the corner shop where I had just purchased said vino, the very large, very sweaty, tank top and shorts clad owner, stood in the door. I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at him askance. He looked back with a completely calm face and didn’t move a step. I know enough polite words in German that I was able to say, “excuse me.” And he slowly moved barely half a step back and gestured me to pass.
SERIOUSLY? MAN, I am NOT walking past you and brushing myself up against your sweaty body- even if it wasn’t sweaty, just no. In this situation, in a test of wills, you are NOT going to win. Even if you are acting up in front of your beer clutching friends who are sitting around the door watching “the show” and you have your pride to consider. I have mine too. Just No.
I repeated, “Excuse me.” This time with my best “Mother Fucker get the hell out of the way” glare. It worked. (I always works, I just hate to resort to such magical female powers as “The Glare.”) I moved through the finally vacated doorway, my friend Jessica right behind me, her anger a palpable presence behind me, and walked across the street head held high. His friend’s snickers and comments following us like specters into the park.
A week later, I sat across the table from Roland, and recounted this story over an amazing falafel plate and the creamiest hummus in town. He was appalled. “That was sexual harassment!” I quickly agreed with him. “Awful, yes, yes, can’t believe it happened, terrible treatment.” Yet, was I really appalled like he was? Was I really as shocked as he was?
Thank goodness for a good kind man. A man who is aware of a woman’s precarious position in the world. A man who when he saw the dark bruises on my arm from a recent, little too rough playdate, was worried that someone had hurt me maliciously. (In contrast to Stefan who noticed the bruises, gave me a nod, fist bump, and “nice job!” Good to have all types in your life!) Sadly, it took Roland’s comment about the situation to really make me think about it.
It really was sexual harassment. I was upset about it, or I wouldn’t have been telling Roland about it a week later. Jessica and I even boycott this shop now, preferring to walk an extra block to a more expensive Späti, rather than give this man even one more euro. But, sexual harassment? It’s just one more thing that happens to me, not that unusual. Honestly, if the owner didn’t also “magically appear” next to you reaching past you to “stock the fridge” every time you stand there contemplating which Prosecco to drink that evening, I might not have even registered the doorway incident.
Am I so used to this, that I hardly noticed this treatment? Am I so conditioned to a “woman’s place in the world” that I shrug my shoulders and just carry on? Each of these little offenses breaking me down a little more, piece by piece? I never thought of it like this before, and truthfully, I felt a bit shocked.
I remember the first time I noticed that the men in my life had been treating me as “less than.” I was with a guy I had known online for years, and we were spending our first weekend together. We went shopping at an Army/Navy store. He was in the army and needed a new GPS navigator, (or some kind of high-tech gadget- this was years ago so portable GPS was a new thing!) We stood there and contemplated the various models, and he sincerely asked me my opinion. What did I think? How did I see this one or that one working for what he needed it for?
I was thrilled. Despite feeling inadequate that he was asking me about something he would need for his military career, it felt great to be treated as an equal with an opinion that mattered. That night I wondered to myself, why did that feel so good? Why did it feel so different? During that time in my life, some of my closest friends were men. So, besides the romantic experience, why did this feel special?
I realized it was because the men in my life, the fundamental, strict King James Version Christians I was hanging out with, treated me like I was a second-class citizen, without real value, and definitely without an opinion. It wasn’t malicious, or special, it just was. I had learned in the few short years I had been part of this group, (ok let’s be honest, I grew up in this environment, so these years were just reinforcement of everything I had learned my whole life) to keep my opinion to myself, to be mostly quiet about things I didn’t agree with, and I never volunteered my opinion, especially about manly matters. Of course, if they asked me to help out with another woman, then my opinion and my leadership mattered, but if not? Silence please! This despite the fact that of the four of us, I was the only one with a career (job!), I made significantly more money than any of them, and I had travelled and been more places as well.
Despite this revelation, it took years for me to break free and away from this kind of culture and attitude. But really, did I ever break free? Or did I just exchange one kind of poor treatment for another? Just because I may not recognize that I am being harassed or treated like less than a man, does it mean it isn’t happening? Even for a smart, confidence, independent woman like me, these things generally go unnoticed. Or if I notice them, I just shrug my shoulders and move on. It’s just how things are, right?
I didn’t call this guy out when he blocked the door. Yes, I eventually forced him to move, but did I look him in the eye and tell him he was being an asshole and demand he get out of my way? Never! Not ever!
The mixed messages we receive as we grow up can create an almost impossible situation for many of us. It can seem too daunting to break out of the mold, too awkward to move forward.
“You can be anything you want!”
“Go to college, be a CEO!”
“Don’t make your husband mad. He works hard.”
“Women shouldn’t be leaders in the church.”
“Stand strong, you are a beautiful woman!”
“No, you can’t have sex until you are married.”
“That shirt is too low cut, what will the boys think?”
“You are so smart, you will go far!”
“When are you going to get married? Don’t you want children?”
“You don’t need a man.”
“Watch out for her, she’s in leadership, but she’s a jezebel.”
It feels impossible to “rage against the machine.” I realize I tend to ignore the signs, pretend the treatment doesn’t exist. I can be careful to fly below the radar. I can make MYSELF “less than” the man I am with. I keep my opinions to myself. I keep my brains to myself. Unless! Unless I don’t like him. Unless he is a jerk. Then I happily use my brains, my wit, or my sarcasm against him. Defeating him before he knows he’s been to battle.
It’s kind of a mess.
I am definitely not the girl who thinks about this kind of thing a lot. I prefer to think and write about love, sex, and relationships. The fun stuff. But how can I, a woman living in today’s world, finding her way in a culture that elects a president who is proud to have sexually harassed women, not have occasional bouts of wonder at the state of things? Wonder at her own place in the situation? Wonder at her own reactions?
The older I am, the more self-aware I have become, the stronger, the more confident I am in myself, the less willing I am to play “less than” to a man in any relationship. More and more often I am able recognize that it’s happening and stop it before I make poor choices. I now date a few amazing, strong, gorgeous, intelligent men, who don’t need me to play second to their first. They love me exactly because I am smart, sexual, sarcastic, silly, strong, and independent, not in spite of those things. This in turn gives me even more confidence, even more freedom to become fully me, without apology.
Thank goodness for Roland. A man I could tell this story to. A man who recognized instantly that this was not the way for me to be treated and made a strong statement about it. I appreciate that he saw this situation, commented on it, and helped me to see it too. Now that I have seen it, now that I am also, more awake to it (again!) I pledge to myself to be more aware, to be less willing to accept “less than” as an option, and to strive to be truly me in all situations. Strong, independent, smart and sexy! That is not only ok, it’s awesome!