Under the Skin

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , | Posted on 3:25 PM


This has been on my mind for the last few days, as I've been monitoring the discussion on sexual harassment and had my own experiences with it. It isn't as if I've never had the experience before, and it isn't as if I'm not familiar with the theory and law on the issue.

Several people, on the threads discussing the problem, have essentially remarked on the same thing: they really don't know what it's like to live under the conditions which spawn harassment. They swear off, in many ways, expressing opinions about harassment due to the lack of experience.

This is good, in some ways (specifically to prevent them from preventing the conversations of the people who are familiar with living under those conditions.) I think, however, that it might help them to be exposed to the concept of double consciousness, which I'm shamelessly borrowing from W. E. B. Du Bois.

His work discussed race, and with the concept of intersectionality, is safe to apply to issues of gender as well. I want to make sure everyone knows where I got the idea though, so I'm not 'stealing' a concept.

In my daily practice, the litany of the way others see me plays out as much behind my eyes as in front of them. I don't really have the choice of remaining ignorant of that litany, though I can sometimes temporarily tune it out (typically, this causes me problems because without the litany to govern my behavior, I fuck up acting like a woman.) All day, in the background, runs out a series of corrections:

Don't smile too much. Is that guy looking at me? Does he look creepy? Do I look fat in this? Why is that person staring at my tits again? Don't look at him, he might interpret it as an invitation. Make sure you're grateful to your partner, he may leave you because you make him do housework. Am I pretty? Please don't look at me. Maybe if I walk faster, no one will stop me to ask for directions or try to get my phone number. Maybe if I'm quieter, I won't get groped. Don't make eye contact. Don't show that you know you were just insulted on your face. Don't grip his hand too hard when you shake. Remember to thank him for inviting you to that hacking competition. Bring him a gift so he'll be nicer to you. Make dinner for that lover, in case he's thinking about leaving you. Be grateful. Watch your feet. Sit with your knees together. Don't touch your hair too much, he may think you're trying to flirt. Why didn't I wear makeup today? Don't get angry when you explain that this is your own work. Don't get emotional when you're casually insulted, it'll discredit you. Blouse your shirt up so your boobs are less obvious. I can't stretch here, I'm the only girl in this room. Don't ask questions, you already tried and the teacher told you your questions were stupid. Don't get mad that the guy in front of you made a 96, even though he's been asking you for help all semester long and didn't even turn in his last project until two weeks after the due date: just don't notice it. Would a stranger think I was dressed modestly? Would any of these people defend me if someone started groping me? Is this hallway too dark? Is my door locked?

All day, irrespective of how I feel about myself, I have the litany. All day, I see myself in the reflection provided by the behavior of others, and I have to. Any sort of deviation causes me to be insulted, threatened, my sexuality to be speculated on or my credibility to be challenged.

The bastards expect me to laugh as they insult me, because it's all in good fun, isn't it? They expect me to laugh at myself for trying to get through my day, for trying to be good at something.

They expect me to laugh at myself for being alive, because it's hilarious that I think of myself in any way which could be construed as having self-respect.

Isn't it obvious that I have no right to self-respect?

I actively look for those reflections, because far more important than my self-regulation is the way I am perceived. It's more important for my safety and ability to function that I find and try to manage those reflections.

When I am at work, lecturing to the class, a part of my brain has to manage those reflections. The few times I've bothered to report students for threatening me or for demanding that I 'get into their car because no one can see me,' my peers and the bodies I complained to immediately ask what I was wearing and how I might have led the student on. I've actually been lectured on having slutty hair by a tenured faculty in my previous department, because I decided to have bangs.

When I am playing online, the commentary reminds me of those reflections: last night, one of the players spent the whole night changing his name to things like 'Lesbian Date Raper' and talking about how all women want a good dicking to help them become real women. My user name is ostensibly feminine, and my gun is named 'Pink Fluffy Lady Brainz'.

When I am home, or out with friends, I have to check those reflections. Even though I know managing those reflections will not stop someone I think of as a friend from spending the night pulling me off my chair in a bar so that I'm horizontal in his lap and squeezing my arms tight to my sides, I still have to try because if I do not, the situation gets worse.

And, horribly, part of managing my reflection is downplaying the sick feeling in my stomach because if I'm seen to need intervention, I'm not 'tough enough' for real debate. So I endure.

My entire life is shaped by another person's gaze, with the constant threat of violence and risk management inexorably woven into my daily routine. There is no activity I do, even privately, which does not have some element of risk management plaited into it.

And that, that is what it's like for me to live in this society. Those are the stakes.

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