Here's what my therapist said to me as I sat on his couch about an hour ago: "I couldn't help but notice you're wearing a short skirt today."
I knew where he was going. This particular therapy is, after all, outpatient therapy for sexual trauma and compulsion. A skirt is not always just a skirt for a sex addict -- showing up in an extremely provocative outfit to sexual treatment would be the equivalent to wearing your marijuana leaf shirt to AA. In co-ed treatment situations (for instance, when I attended group therapy), it would be suggested that we be mindful of our clothing, lest we trigger others. When I first came into treatment, this same therapist made me wear pants and flats for a fucking month and I wanted to kill myself the whole time, which is probably indicative of an unhealthy attachment to my sexuality as expressed through clothing.
He wanted to know if I was in my addict, if I was acting out.
I still got a little defensive. Because, first of all, FASHION. I love clothes, I work at an online women's magazine, photographs of what I'm wearing are often posted on the Internet, and people know me for dresses and heels. I like being stylish. I like dressing up. I like high heels and makeup and fake hair. And while I know my gender expression is linked to my sex addiction in some real ways, I also don't know that my dude therapist really gets the realities of a job in New York women's media. I mean, women dress like this, you know?
Secondly, I have built up enough righteous feminist rage from a lifetime of reading morally reprehensible Internet comments blaming the victim to be pretty hair-trigger sensitive when it comes to any suggestion that a woman's clothing invites harassment. You might just want to tread pretty carefully in that whole general direction with me.
"I think the bigger issue is that I have to present myself in this really specific way in order to feel attractive and worthwhile," I said. "It's an insecurity thing."
"And what happens when you present yourself that way?" he asked.
"Well, I get sexually harassed a lot. But that happens to me when I am wearing jeans and my glasses, too," I responded.
"But if you dress provocatively, it's going to evoke a specific kind of reaction," he said. "It's like how you can't fiddle around with your iPhone on the tracks these days, or someone will snatch it --"
"I'M VERY UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THIS LINE OF REASONING," I blurted over him. I then proceeded to go all Feminism 101 on him, explaining that street harassment is on a spectrum that eventually leads to rape and I should be able to walk down the street wearing whatever I want without being catcalled and, "You're a man and you don't understand!" I finished, before bursting into tears.
And the thing is, I trust this particular man pretty completely. He fully saved my life at a time when I was tangibly, immediately hurtling myself toward death. He's a recovering addict himself, and he wants only to help me. So this whole exchange was not only OK, it was helpful. Because it allowed me to set a boundary in a safe space, to express my feelings and have a healthy conflict with someone who has my best interests at heart. And ultimately, it allowed me to realize that what his line of reasoning was poking at was a feeling of little-girl fear that everything that had happened to her was all her fault.
And you know what? When I talk about street harassment, even when I talk about it on this site, somebody always goes, "You seem to have this happen to you a lot...," as if this is unusual to me. I have to wonder what they think I could possibly be doing to court said attention -- walking down the street spanking my own ass lasciviously in between making that waggling tongue between two fingers gesture at every man I see? But they're right. It does happen to me a lot, and I can't recognize that fact without then starting to wonder why me, what I did, a.k.a. how is this my fault?
It took me a full decade to realize I had been raped. It took me that long because it never even occurred to me that it might not have been my fault. I was there, I was provocative, I said no but didn't bite kick and scream; of course what happened was my fault. Even now that I have intellectually overcome those assumptions, the feeling that it was my fault still simmers pretty strongly in my breastbone. And the public response to rape in the media, and my own rape when I have written and spoken about it, retraumatizes that little girl over and over and over again. Because it says to her, "You're right. It was your fault."
So it's good to cry. It's good to let that little girl have her voice.
And I calmed down, and then I stepped back out into the world, where I had walked approximately two blocks before a man rolled up close to me on his bicycle and quietly said, "I'd love to eat your pussy."
And I got fucking pissed. And for the first time in my life, probably because the subject was so completely top of my mind, I responded. "WOW. That's incredibly fucked up," I yelled at him, as he smiled back at me smugly. And then I walked another two blocks. And a man walking past me muttered, "....You're so sexy." And I yelled again: "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?" And a couple of other people on the sidewalk looked at me nervously, gave me a wide berth like a crazy person.
So you know, maybe my therapist was right after all, and I'm the one trying to live in a world that doesn't exist. Maybe I have to walk around in a fucking burlap bag or just pay the consequences. Maybe my skirt really was too short. All I know is that some days it's really hard to be a woman. And that my therapist really will never understand.
Emily is live-tweeting her own street harassment at @msemilymccombs.