On feminism, abuse, everyday sexism, and romance.
WARNING: Contains potentially triggery material.
A week ago, I was fired up with a lengthy diatribe against a holier-than-thou author of literary fiction, one who took to the interwebs to criticize women who read, in particular, Fifty Shades of Grey, and broadly, erotic romance or romance as a whole. My post was rambly and around the 3000 word mark. I opted to let it rest for a day or so before I could go back and piece together the random tangents into something coherent and perhaps relevant, rather than toxic and bitter because some presumptuous blowhole happened to piss me off.
The blog never went up, because over the weekend, Santa Barbara happened.
Now, there have already been a slew of incredibly eloquent and insightful blog posts about the Santa Barbara killings and the larger implication on society. As you might guess, I come down on the side of ‘this was a tragedy fueled by misogyny, and speaks broadly about our cultural attitude toward women’. Some others (mostly men, from what I’ve heard and read) disagree. I’ve spent the past few days ruminating, stirring in my anger, reading blogs and articles by women and men much smarter than me, and trying to sort through my thoughts on the subject.
I posted rather recently about my journey from passive to active feminist, so I won’t go into all of that again. Most of the blog topics I’ve wanted to write recently have involved feminist issues, with one or two writing-process topics thrown in. The discussion being had now regarding Santa Barbara, mostly online if I understand correctly, has been personal and heartbreaking, while at the same time outrageous and infuriating. I’m pissed that women have endured any of the things mentioned in the #YesAllWomen conversation. Words cannot adequately express the level of my fury that many people (again, mostly men) disregard the experiences and downplay the effects of sexism and misogyny in the everyday world. That instead of compassion, we should be told something we already know in response to our stories, that it’s not all men who do these things.
Again, there are so many more eloquent pieces written on this topic, so I don’t feel like I could add to the conversation without borrowing heavily from other authors. But I was thinking about my original topic post from last week, about the aforementioned male author who decided to become the police of things women read, and the belief among many, not to mention the subtle cultural cues, that women owe men sex. That women should service out their bodies as a reward for a job well done. That women are something to be won by the hero, or wooed until no become yes. Because women in the movies and television shows rarely say no and mean it, unless the person they’re turning down is obviously a Very Bad Man. Not the subtle Not So Good Guy most of us are more accustomed to seeing. This results in the perception, at least in much of the media, that women serve to satisfy men’s sexual hunger. At the same time, though, women are given the message that any sexuality displayed by a woman independent of the man who thinks he has a right to it is labeled dangerous, trashy, or otherwise demeaned.
Not every woman is going to meet the obvious Very Bad Man, though tragically, many will. However, the rest of us will encounter the Not So Good Guy, the one whose entitlement bleeds through subtly, perhaps (even more dangerously) without his awareness.
There are things that happened to me that shaped or informed who I’ve become, someone who hid in romance novels for years because I genuinely didn’t believe anyone really good out there existed who would be everything I wanted and also love me as I was. I believed there were good men, but didn’t think I would meet one who would be attracted to me. Granted, this wasn’t a product of sexual abuse, rather a combination of low self-esteem, my dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, body-issues, and a healthy awareness that Life Ain’t The Movies. But there are things that happened that could have been much worse, things I’ve never shared publicly, and things I fear happen every day to girls everywhere.
When I was a child (under the age of 7), our babysitter’s son took me into a closet. I don’t know how old he was, only he seemed quite old. I’ll bet safely and say between 12-14. Therefore, old enough to know his actions were wrong. He exposed himself and made me touch him, and vice versa. Thankfully, it didn’t go any further.
When I wasn’t too much older, I was bullied by my male step-cousins into showing them intimate parts of my body. I doubt they even remember this. It didn’t go any further.
When I was in the eighth grade, I was pursued by a boy who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He called the house repeatedly, to the point where we had to leave the phone off the hook. I was intensely aware of him everywhere at school, and afraid to be near him in the classes we shared.
I ended up leaving my first job because a male employee pursued me, made sexually explicit remarks, and made me uncomfortable.
I stopped going to a Subway restaurant for a while after I went on a date with an employee, who immediately became overly attached and couldn’t take no for an answer.
Each of these encounters came with a sense of intense shame and guilt on my part.
These aren’t things I share lightly. And despite how severe the first one might sound, I don’t consider it particularly scarring. I am lucky. I don’t remember too much of my childhood for any number of reasons, so the incidents with the boy in the closet and my step-cousins are really hazy, but I know they happened. My mother has asked me many times over the years what happened with “Nina’s son”, so she was aware something was happening, though I’m not sure where she was (I assume at work) or how she knew something was wrong. A mother’s intuition, I suppose.
I am lucky. Other girls, way too many other girls, weren’t as fortunate.
What I find particularly frightening about all of these, with the exception of the Subway employee, was they involved male kids. Kids who were at least my age. Boys who pressured a girl into showing them her body or refused to take no for an answer even before the importance of that word was really defined. As children, we were all presumably taught about the dangers of letting adults touch us inappropriately. Who’s teaching the boys not to do this? That these actions are not okay?
These things happen. Often. And others aren’t as lucky as I am. Others don’t get to not think about it every day, or not consider themselves abuse survivors/victims. But as I thought about this tonight, remembering these things, I wondered if my experiences had shaped me more than I had realized.
I didn’t really date until I was in my early twenties. I was too terrified about getting hurt, in the emotional/doesn’t-leave-scars-where-you-can-see sense, rather than the physical sense. But I lived through romances. The men in these books were safe. Gradually, I began to shed the weight of my former shame and embrace my sexuality, but it’s taken me years to get to a point where I can discuss things like this openly without fearing some sort of colossally huge, apocalyptic…something. Because when women want to explore their sexuality, it can be scary for them. For me, it was safer to explore my sexuality through the eye of the heroine of whatever I was reading. I never deluded myself into thinking the romance stories I read could be real, but it was a way for me to explore without putting myself in danger.
Women in society are just now coming to a place where it is socially acceptable to be in charge of their own sexuality in a real way. With books like Fifty Shades—love it or hate it—achieving mainstream success, the cultural norm has taken a different track, though we still have a long, long way to go. And since romance itself is a female-led industry, filled with female-written novels intended for female audiences, that alone makes it a necessity beyond whatever might be considered high-brow literature. Women need outlets to express themselves, explore creativity, love, and relationships in a place they feel safe. That might not be why everyone reads, or why most people read, but it’s why I initially read romance, and one of the reasons I still read it. One of the reasons I feel proud to be in the romance community. I know the men in my books wouldn’t do the things some men in the real world might.
I’m not ashamed of my past or my failures any longer, or of my body or my OCD, or my sexuality, or anything. I was fortunate to find, fall in love with, and marry my own Prince Charming. It took Aaron a long time to break down the walls I had erected around myself. I had no faith he existed until he set out to prove it to me.
Other women haven’t been as lucky as I have. Their stories are those of true abuse, horrific and ugly. They don’t get to not think about it. They don’t get to move on, accept, and have a happy ending. The world out there isn’t kind to women. We’ve made progress, yes, but we have a long way to go.
So I’ll keep writing. And reading. Maybe someone else will feel safe when they read my men. Maybe through writing, some will learn the path to acceptance and empowerment.
As for what happened in Santa Barbara…I highly recommend the following blogs and articles. They really touched me.