What It’s Like to Be a Woman in America

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Like so many women right now, this past week has made me feel a full cup’s worth of anxiety and two tablespoons of crushing grief. Then mix that with a blender powered by my rage with the patriarchy, and you have a slight understanding of where I’m at right now.

Today, I shared my first post on Facebook about my feelings regarding the Kavanaugh hearing and how triggering it has been. For most of the week, I simply didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing. But now, it turns out, I have a lot I want to say. So, if you clicked on this post, settle in, cause I’m about to whip up a batch of bitch biscuits.

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When I posted my comment on Facebook, I was immediately flooded by likes and comments from friends and family saying they were sorry I had to go through what I did, that they had my back, and they sent their love and hugs. That’s fine, and thank you to those who did so, I know your intentions were well meant and supportive. But the thing is, I didn’t need that. Because I know, I’m one of the lucky ones.

The attacks against Dr. Blasey Ford have shown exactly how rampant misogyny, toxic masculinity, and capitalistic, white patriarchy are in our country. Somehow, we have failed our women and our men. We have put the pressure and blame to prove innocence on the victims instead of the perpetrator. We ask women to consider the life of the man, while no one is considering her own. We have bullied women using every physical judgement we can think of, and call their successes ladder climbing and power grabs. We’ve called them too emotional and stone cold bitches. We have made it nearly impossible for men to show hurt, anger, or frustration in healthy ways. We blame alcohol and clothing, instead of people. We’ve ignored our (white) privilege and don’t know how to handle guilt. We think giving others equality means we lose something. We have lost the ability to say sorry, and not for the things we’re sad we may not get, but for the grief we caused another.

Well, I take issue with all of that. And if I can do anything with my voice, or my words, my hope would be to help men understand what it’s like to be a woman in America right now.

In my facebook post, I shared for the first time ever that I was sexually assaulted. I never reported the incident, and I did not tell a soul until now. I chose not to share the details of that experience. And here’s why.

When reports like Trump’s pussy-grabbing comments, or cases like the Kavanaugh hearing make the news, it causes survivors to relive their trauma. I remember what happened, how uncomfortable and alone I felt. How angry and violated. When it happens to another woman, we relive our own experience(s) all over again.

Some women chose to share their stories. Some even shared in painful detail. And some have remained silent still. All of these responses are right, justified, and acceptable. We should never force someone to speak out when they’re not ready or unable. Speaking for myself, I felt a lot of pressure to share my survivor story. Ultimately, I’m not ready or willing to talk about the details. And frankly, it’s none of your business.

But like you, I’m guilty of that macabre, nosy interest in wanting to know what happened. Our brains are wired to categorize. We want to know the details so we can decide how bad was it? To some extent, we all ask what was she wearing? had s(he) been drinking? did she explicitly say no? was this at a party? could it have been a misunderstanding? 

And that, right there, is why most women don’t come forward. I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be looked at differently. I don’t want to be ranked on some undefinable tier of bad things that happen to a person. And yet, had so many others before me not spoken up, I may not have had the courage to write what I’m writing right now.

The thing is, I am one of the lucky ones. And I’m also sickened I have to say that. Because I wouldn’t call my experiences lucky. I just personally know so many women who have faced worse.

I said I wanted you to understand how it feels to be a woman in America in right now. I am not going to lay out the gory details of my assault. Instead, I want to illustrate for you the series of events and experiences I’ve had that are benign. The times where I wasn’t physically hurt, but rather simply encountered men who were “doing the same job as me,” “didn’t mean anything by it,” “just trying to get a date,” “just looking.” You know the ones… they’re always “just joking.” 

***

What It Feels Like to be a Woman in America

When I was in high school, I was active in forensics, drama, and show choir. The students all changed in the same green room, and it was not uncommon for the boys to talk openly about all the girls’ breasts, judging and ranking them in size. I was repeatedly told, “Jessi’s breasts are so small, they’re concave!” I was only 15 at the time.

On moving day at my university, there was an apartment building across from the dorm I lived in. They routinely waved a banner that read “She’s been calling you Daddy for 18 years, now it’s our turn.” When I was president of the Women’s Studies Student Association, I hung group flyers around campus that read “I’m a Feminist! Now what?” on them, and someone scribbled “Suck my dick!” One of our biggest campaigns was educating women about date rape and buying drink test kits so women could know whether their drink had been roofied or not.

When I first started my professional career after college, I quickly rose into management. All managers were responsible for coaching their team members, and I repeatedly noticed both my bosses holding myself and fellow female managers to a much higher standard then the men were kept. If one thing went wrong, I was reamed out and expected to make a sales plan or coaching plan to address it. But when my male counterparts regularly lost their coaching binder “somewhere on the floor,” a document with employee names and metrics on it, it became a longstanding joke that the whole office took part in.

Wanting to draw attention to a fundraiser I was doing at work, I posted about a bra fitting event that supported Susan G. Komen for the Cure on my Facebook page. One of my uncles commented that he’d “be available to help bra fit if needed.” 

I was out solo hiking on a popular marsh trail when a man on a bicycle approached me and asked me to go back to his house with him. I said no thank you, and he proceeded to drive around me, continuing to ask me to go with him, becoming more agitated and pushy in his demands, and preventing me from walking down the trail. Thankfully, some other pedestrians distracted him and I took off running into the woods, where he couldn’t get through on his bike, and I hid in the woods and waited for him to leave.

I joined an improv troupe for adults that contained three men and three women. One man in the group repeatedly made all his scenes sexual in nature, berating the woman, and mock beating her at times. Once he physically hurt a female cast member for real in front of an audience. He created scenes where characters set up as siblings were supposed to make out. And before one of our performances, he randomly whispered a detail about a fear I had, but hadn’t ever talked to him about. He’d read it on my blog (which I hadn’t shown him). It sounded like a threat. This man was repeatedly talked to by our director and asked to change his ways. He did not. He was asked to leave the group. Then, I ran into him once more while working, and he spent the entire time leaning over the service counter so far his face was less than a foot from mine.

A few months after starting my new job at the library, I was shelving books and helping a female patron when I noticed a male patron aiming his phone at me. I suspected he had photographed me, and was right, as I saw the camera setting on his phone when he lowered it. He continued to try to snap pictures while I was at the desk. I had emailed security and called, and got confirmation via our security cameras that the man had been taking pictures of me. He had also been doing so at our main location to another staff member and been asked to leave the library. Instead, he just came to our south branch, where I was working. I was instructed to call the police, and they arrested him outside the building. I had to make a statement, wherein I was not warned that my information would be available to the trespasser who was also breaking parole. The police said they could not verify that all the images had been deleted because if they went into the cloud, there was no way to get them out. I spent several hours writing a letter to his parole officer and talking with him on the phone, where he told me “I don’t want to tell you whether to worry or not, but this individual has a very violent history.” 

To continue this latest story, I had to lead a ghost tour that very night after the incident. Normally, that is something I love, but waiting in a park under a lonely street light for strangers to come up to you was unsettling to say the least that evening. When I returned to work, my manager and the security officer gave me the option to have an escort to my car when my shift ended. I told them I would let them know. I never asked for the escort, but the security officer belatedly followed me out after dark on that shift, and I was terrified it was a stranger til I got to my car and my headlights flashed on him.

A male friend was staying at our house and asked about a space heater for the guest room as the one in it wasn’t working. I told him he could take the one from the living room. He said “Ok, I’ll ask Joe.” (my husband) I turned to him and shouted “I live here too!” He said he “didn’t mean it like that” and that I was “being silly.”

Now let’s add in the COUNTLESS times that I’m called honey, sweetie, and darling while I’m working. That I’m told to smile. That men try to stare down my shirt, at my chest, or at my butt NO MATTER WHAT I’m wearing. That they throw sexual innuendos into casual conversation cause I work in customer service and can’t say “Get the fuck out!”

***

Congrats to you if you read this far. You’re probably exhausted. I know I am. Have another biscuit.

I am so fucking exhausted by men. If you read all this, if you really let it sink in, tell me you don’t see now why women don’t report their assaults. Tell me you don’t understand why we’re scared of you, why we feel belittled and undermined in so many places and ways. Why it makes us claw against even one another to get ahead? Why does it have to be your daughter, your sister, or your mother for you to care? What about me? What about your neighbor? What about the women of color in our country that are cooking their biscuits over a goddamn dumpster fire of systemic issues?

Please. Just know that women are hurting right now. Whether they even realize it or not. Don’t start challenging me with “Not All Men” crap. I know it’s not all men. But I bet you can do better. We all can. If you’re asking yourself “how’s a guy supposed to even TALK to a lady now?” I think you need to take a hard look at your place in the system. Don’t tell us we can’t take a joke. Maybe you’re not that funny. And the thing is, we didn’t ask you to be.

How you feeling right now? That’s ok.
Share or don’t share. Take care of yourself. It’s tough out there right now. 

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12 responses

  1. Sigh. Right there with you all the way. Like so many others, I have similar stories and some were downright terrifying. As a woman, that fear that something might happen, that I’m vulnerable and have to be ready for any kind of assault or sexual harassment– it is always there. ALWAYS.

    Why do we feel that way? Because from a young age we’ve been objectified, humiliated, shamed and made to feel like second-class citizens. But as hopeless as things seem, I do see the tide turning. Oh yes, it will. It might take a long time, but if we keep standing up and fighting this stigma that is forced upon us, making our voices heard, things will change. There are men out there who will stand with us, men who treat all women with the respect and dignity she deserves.

    1. Always. Exactly the point. A constant, exhausting mindfulness.

      I agree that things are turning, but mygawd, could we go a little faster?! I’d like some major improvements before I have grandchildren. And it’s a scary climate politically right now for women.

  2. Oh, Jess, you have said all the things I’ve been thinking and feeling. I don’t think I will ever be able to tell any details about my story, not publicly. Only a couple of people even know something happened–well, I guess, now more people do. I’m exhausted, too.

    1. I hit a breaking point. I didn’t want to share details, but my anger and exasperation took over. It opened up some conversations, both good and bad, with the people around me. I’m encouraged by those like you who feel I’ve voiced something real. I know what it’s like to not be able to speak up, so if I can help others I will. I fully respect everyone’s choice to heal in their own way. And no matter what that is, we all deserve respect, support, and changes that stop this from happening to women.

      I got you, friend. We got each other.

  3. […] _____________________________ This post is inspired by fellow blogger, Jess. You can read her post here What it’s Like to be a Woman in America […]

  4. Damn girl… I’m right there in the kitchen making those bitch biscuits with you, all the way from “me too”, to “it’s none of your damn business”, to “i’m exhausted”.

    I’m glad you’ve found the words, because I still haven’t.

    1. Last week I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. At all. We really demand so much from survivors and so little from perpetrators. We need a monumental shift in how we educate, prevent, and investigate sexual assaults. For the health of both women and men.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this, Jess. I saw a female comedian last night who talked about how women always describe their dream guy by starting out with, “I hope he’s funny…,” and then described how you NEVER hear a guy talk to other guys about anything but looks [when it comes to their ‘dream girl’]. “Hey guys, you gotta come to this party, it’s filled with soooo many funny girls droppin’ puns ALL DAY!” It’s another one of those instances where a seemingly ‘light’ joke underscores something so, so gut-wrenching.

    “…cooking their biscuits over a goddamn dumpster fire of systemic issues” – brilliant. I truly believe voices like yours CAN help change the world. Thank you.

    1. Good on that comedian! Not only is she funny, she’s dropping serious knowledge up in that club!

      Yes, I don’t know how we as women haven’t figured out how to work better together. Misogyny runs deep. We’ve got to know our own history, understand our privilege, and move forward with intersectionality. I think we’re making positive strides, especially with our incoming young voters, but the polling numbers are scary.

  6. […] Jess Witkins Happiness Project: What It’s Like to Be a Woman in America. Like so many women right now, this past week has made me feel a full cup’s worth of anxiety and two tablespoons of crushing grief. Then mix that with a blender powered by my rage with the patriarchy, and you have a slight understanding of where I’m at right now. […]

  7. This is important and I’m happy you had the courage to share it. It’s just a shame something like this has to be shared, but that’s a sad reflection on the reality of society, I suppose.

    Also, I’m sorry. It’s tough leaving a comment as a male here because, what do I even say? I’m afraid to say anything. But I stand with you and hope that by sharing this, you are able to affect change in at least some minor way.

    I have certainly missed your writing. Now I remember why.

    1. Thanks Mark. I know you’ve fought your own battles defending your daughter and she’s lucky to have you fighting for her.

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