Yesterday I was at Fruitvale BART, as I often am, riding down the escalator in the midst of the evening commute. It was really crowded, and I was over to the right of the narrow stairway, since I wasn’t in a hurry. (Typically people rushing to make a train or bus or get to work on time move at a faster pace and stay to the left.) The crowd started shifting around to make way for a group coming quickly down the left side. From behind I felt someone pressing against me so I tried to lean forward, but it was so crowded I couldn’t move much. In that second or two that I was somewhat trapped, the man behind me leaned into me, grabbed my ass with his whole hand and squeezed it, digging his fingers into my flesh; he laughed in my left ear, his breath and spit hitting my neck. He stepped to the left and hurried down the steps before I could even recover or respond and I watched him scurry off laughing and smiling back at me. A smallish black man in his 30s, in a baseball cap. When my own feet finally touched the unmoving floor I felt unsteady, as if I might fall over, or collapse in some humiliating way.
It’s not the first time something similar to this has happened to me and I’m sure most women would say the same. I think now that I am older I become even more enraged when something like this occurs. Maybe because I am coming at it from a place of more understanding about how women are valued, or more accurately: the twisted ways in which women are valued and devalued at the same time.
Women are shooting shit into their asses and their lips, slicing open their breasts to shove packets of crap into them, and paying lots of money to have their skin scraped, pulled, or otherwise manipulated. Our value seems to be found in the level of desirability we can achieve—at least the level and shape that the media touts before all of us as desirable—and women are doing terrible things to their bodies in their desperation.
When we walk down the street our bodies are vulnerable to leering and comments and even aggressive and unwanted groping. In that recent moment on the escalator I felt inexplicably and maddeningly embarrassed, as if I had done something shameful, and that infuriates me; I am still angry at not only the grinning man in the baseball cap, but at myself for my vulnerability, and my inability to stop or prevent this—my failure to retaliate or protect or punish.
It’s time to evolve. Time to raise our daughters to believe that their bodies are their own and not created for the pleasure of men’s eyes or hands or fantasies. Time to raise our sons to value women as more than flesh designed to gratify them. And—perhaps most difficult of all—time to look at ourselves and our own behaviors to determine how much a part of the problem we are. In countless subtle and powerful ways we tell ourselves and those around us what we think of women. Our words, actions, behaviors, and expectations scream out our true thoughts, and often they do damage that does not undo itself for generations, if ever.
One afternoon I sat at a sidewalk café in San Francisco with my son, Nate, and a young woman wearing a short skirt walked by. Nate and I witnessed a whole lineup of men either outwardly leering or trying to sneak looks without being detected. Nate turned to me and told me about something he’d read that was sticking in his mind.
“Say you’re a young girl,” he said, “and you’re out to lunch with your dad, and you’re telling him something about school, or your sports team, or whatever. You’re telling your dad, but the thing is, while you’re telling him his eyes are following a woman who just walked by. You know what that says to the young girl?” my son asked me. “It says: ‘your dreams and accomplishments aren’t as important as this woman’s ass.’ Now she’s probably going to spend more time in her life improving her ass than herself as a person, because she’s figured out that’s what matters to the most important man in her life.”
Ogling a woman passing by is a small and subtle thing, I suppose. But the message it sends is powerful and pervasive. And what of a son in that situation? Pretend the girl’s brother is at the table. What is he learning from his primary male role model? That the accomplishments, dreams, words, thoughts, ideas of a woman are not as important as her ass (I’m using “ass” to stand in for body, breasts, legs—whatever is being leered at). Insert ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’ into this story, and think about how that might affect the ability to feel appreciated, understood, equal, desirable.
Now that we have diminished women to body parts and flesh existing for men to enjoy, it seems some of those men feel perfectly entitled to grab and stare and otherwise use our bodies to get them off in some way—with or without our consent. #YesAllWomen is a movement that seeks to expose the treatment that all women endure. On the daily, tweets pop up in my feed with women relating stories like my escalator one; most of them are worse. I like that the emphasis is on all women, as I’m hoping and imagining that this helps dispel the idea that this sort of thing only happens to certain women who dress a certain way. Have I mentioned that I am 58 years old, and at the time this happened was wearing a t-shirt (with a high collar—not a V neck), jeans, and red chucks. Not exactly the attire of a woman who is trying to attract unwanted (or any kind of) male attention. Yes. All women. Even your daughter, your sister, wife, friend. Your mother.
I started to apologize, just now, for this rant, and to thank you for sticking with it. But then I thought better of it. I don’t apologize for this rant. I apologize to my daughters, my son, and my grandson, for the ways in which the world will (and has) hurt them, and for the ways I have hurt them in my own ignorance. For that time I didn’t say anything to the man who was so familiar with me in the grocery store that it made my six year old son feel angry and protective. For the times I valued my daughters’ beauty too much, or failed to teach them how to function in the world as a pretty girl and still know who you really are—I couldn’t do it for them; I couldn’t do it for myself.
To the man on the escalator, and to all of you with your leering eyes, your shouts and whispers, your laughter in our ears, and your spit on our necks: I think you are losing more than you are gaining. You are losing your ability to see women as they are: complex and brilliant, capable of deep love and intellect that goes beyond the bounce of our breasts or the meat on our thighs. You are pushing us away with your meager understanding, and with your foolish lack of control in the presence of our flesh. You are more than all of this, and so are we.