How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
A few days ago, I found myself in the bathroom at work, gnawing my lip and trying not to cry over a dude being creepy on the Internet.
He hadn't been creepy at me directly, and the skeeviness had mostly manifested in reportedly giving women unwanted attention over the Internet. But it had happened to people I know, and people I don't know, and it had come from a dude I'd grown to trust, for no better reason except that he'd used his status as a public figure to interrogate the rampant sexism in the industry. And I felt sick about it -- literally, breathe-deep-so-you-don't-puke sick about it.
Part of it was because, judging by the screenshots of direct messages and accounts I was getting from friends and acquaintances, this had been going on for months. I'm not being very specific here, because these are their stories, not mine, but it was enough to make me want to curl protectively around them like a furious, bristling wolf.
The Internet should, in theory, be a place where women can exist (if they want to) as women without being reminded that no matter how funny or smart or kind they are, all of that will be subsumed in an instant by their relative attraction. Hell, the world should be like that, too. But it isn't.
Instead -- and this is the part I'm gutted about, too -- we're barraged so many times with blatant, poisonous hatred that we jump at the barest hint of someone treating us as a person like water on a hot day. For so many of these dudes, though, being a feminist in public seems to be a pass for refusing to respect women's boundaries, discounting women's voices and generally being a tool in private. Every time it happens, I am still surprised.
That's the thing. I'm surprised. When I talked about last week's incident with friends, they were bummed, but most of them said, "Well, what do you expect? Straight dudes." But I don't enjoy entering into situations with new people waiting for them to disappoint me. I trust people easily and I meet randoms with empathy and if I like having a conversation with you and you're not an obvious bigot, chances are I'll probably think you're pretty cool.
After years of standing by and listening to guys discuss women's bodies like pieces of farming equipment or spouting antiquated shit that even "Family Guy" would find too basic, I've been so conditioned to expect the very worst right off the bat from straight men that just a smidge of empathy is enough for me to consider you a friend, or at least a chill bro.
Time and time again, though, straight dudes let me down.
It's starting to wear on me, I think. A year and a half ago, I remember being skeptical when a woman in my writing group said, "Well, I support Occupy, but I have a policy against sharing space with that many straight cis guys."
Man, I thought. I like a lot of straight cis guys. What a bummer for this person, that she's discounting an entire chunk of the population for something they can't control.
It's true. I still like a lot of straight cis guys. But now, if someone told me that they couldn't psychically or emotionally handle sharing a social space with a lot of stranger dudebros, I'd think, Meh, seems legit.
The thing is, though, that I keep falling for it. I keep having meaningful conversations with dudes about totally platonic things -- our love of wombat trivia, "Orange Is the New Black," you name it -- only to have them assume that our next interaction is going to end in banging. I seem to be incapable of differentiating "I'm listening to you because I like what you're saying" and "I'm listening to you in the vague hopes that eventually, I'll get to stick my cock in your mouth." Way, way too often, it seems to be the latter. If guys don't find me attractive, meanwhile, often they won't bother talking to me at all for the same reason -- because my worth as a conversation partner or even as a human is bound up in the parts of me below my neck.
This isn't to say that I'm not flirting sometimes, too, or that I won't strike up talk about Pluto-as-a-planet or Pokémon just to have an excuse to introduce myself to a babe. I like it when people tell me I'm pretty. Shit, sometimes I'll make friends with a guy and we'll end up banging. But I do not enter every non-professional interaction with a human eventually hoping to touch their genitalia.
Even if straight guys aren't single, that attitude -- of reducing women to little but their sexuality -- is freaking pervasive. It seeps into men's behavior in subtle, toxic ways, and that's what really starts to scare me. I have known dudes for years, years, and still be completely bowled over by their willingness to buy into the same sexist narratives that give them power while taking mine away. It's gotten to the point where I catch myself dreading the moment in which guys I've grown to genuinely like and love and trust will demonstrate how capable they are of regarding women as lampshades with tits.
The other night, I sent a Snapchat to a few of my friends, saying "Nothing brings women together like bonding over the ways men have wronged them." I wasn't joking. I wish I were.
I don't relish feeling like this. I want to be able to have a conversation with a guy without being tense the entire time about his "angle." I want to trust that a dude on the Internet (or in real life) who claims to be a feminist will actually behave in ways that protect and support women. I want to be able to challenge men for their problematic actions and for them to acknowledge them and refuse to repeat them in the future.
In the meantime, I keep half-accidentally holding every straight guy I meet socially to an almost unrealistic standard -- like the minute they don't adhere to ideals I myself have spent years learning, I'll decide not to let them get any closer. It's easier that way in the long run, rather than opening up my heart to get it broken from the inside out.
It's telling, I think, that many of my closest male friendships over the last few years have sprouted from men publicly calling out other men on their bullshit. I know, I know it's #notallstraightdudes. But it's a lot of them. It's too many of them. And until that changes, I don't know what else to do except keep the majority of them at arm's length.
Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters