“You can’t hate someone whose story you know,” wrote a Duke sophomore woman writing of her experience with being exposed to recent immigrants during an Alternative Fall Break experience she had last semester. What she meant was that what she learned about these families who originated in countries other than the USA was that once you know their stories, you connect and you can longer live in the comfort of ignorance.
Hearing stories, gathering stories, sorting stories and assisting people in making sense of their stories is what I do at Duke essentially. Stories of violence, yes, sexism, patriarchy, bullshit and triumph, always triumph of the human spirit, of the resiliency of women to thrive through oppression that comes in the form of sexual and physical violence from, predominantly, the men in their lives. Not strangers, rarely even mild acquaintances, no….the “good guy” on their hall, in the band with them, in their selective living group, sitting next to them in political theory.
I am going to write something here that many of you reading will be offended by and immediately try to argue with me, but I ask that you ponder and consider the possibility that it might have some merit.
We don’t like adolescent girls and young women in our culture. We don't. We say we do. But we don’t. Here’s how I know this. I was one. And despite the fact that when I was younger, I was a LOT more socially acceptable, pleasant and conservative in presentation than I am now, I get MUCH more respect, am more believable and have much more control over my body than I did when I was 20.
Stop talking. I challenge each of you to close your mouth and open your ears and ask a 18-22 year old female in your life this question: “what’s it like for you when you go dancing in a club?” “What’s it like for you when you are walking out in public, from your car, to a store, for example.” I can almost guarantee you that she will be confused and not be sure how to answer, much as the fish would not be sure how to describe water. It is so much a part of young women’s experience to be harassed that they don’t even see it. So, here’s what I do.
I say to the women, if I went this Friday night with you and your friends to shooters and some guy came up to me and rubbed his penis on my ass, our touched my crotch with his hand or put his hands on my breasts, would that upset you?
First there’s a stunned look and I know what they are thinking….that would never happen to you because you are a middle aged woman.
So, I gently inform them that I look better now than I did when I was their age, my body is in better shape than it was then, given that I have had a good decade of yoga behind me (pun intended) and I say, remember, he is coming up from behind….he cannot see the wisdom in my face. He assumes I am 20.
Okay, now they suspend their disbelief and become outraged. “Yes, I would be very upset and probably tell him to get his fucking hands off you.”
And I say “and if I went to the owner of the bar and told them what happened, do you think I would be believed and what do you think would happen to the boy?”
And I say “and when I reported it to the police, do you think they would believe me?”
Yes, they always say yes!
And I say “Why do I deserve more respect and am more valued and more credible than you?”
Age and race, that’s why.
I am a middle age white lady. And sexual predators know that I am waaaaaaaaaay less vulnerable than my daughter and my nieces and the women at Duke. They also think (and they are right) that I am much more likely than my younger sisters and daughters to use my loud middle aged voice and publicly hold them accountable because at 48 I am crystal fucking clear that I do not deserve to be treated like that. That I do not in fact sign a piece of paper when I walk into a bar stating that I am public property and people may grope me at their will.
And people, this is how I know that public sexual assaults such as I am describing above are about power and not about desire.
Invite these beautiful women in your lives to notice the water and describe it to you. Be quiet and listen. For when we listen to their stories, as my friend Jackie says, you cannot hate them.