You’ve probably walked past it a million times. That sign in your neighborhood that says in big letters, “You are beautiful.” When I first saw it, I thought huh….thanks, I guess? But lately when I see it, I think, fuck you, I fucking know. To me, the sign feels like just another dude telling me something similar as I walk past him.
I don’t know the origin of the signs. I’m sure the intentions were good and pure and were meant to bring confidence to the people of that neighborhood. And perhaps it has. Perhaps I am one of three curmudgeons who is like NOPE. But hear me out.
I was recently on the phone with my parents. I had just seen Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, and I was in a rage. The movie took me back to the Summer and Fall I spent interacting with police, lawyers, judges, and HR Reps because I had a stalker ex-boyfriend. For four months, I was in and out of rooms and buildings being a tough-as-nails-raging-bitch (at least, as much as I can be those things) in order to assert that I should be able to feel safe in my home, in my classroom, going to and leaving work. That I shouldn’t have to tolerate being slandered or followed. I asserted that I, a human being, deserve to live a life free from harassment.
Sometimes I was laughed at. Sometimes I was condescended to. One time I was told “breakups aren’t illegal.” Rarely, I was listened to. I walked out of each of those rooms and sobbed. I sobbed in courthouse parking lots, under overpasses, in bathrooms, on buses, in parking garages. Sometimes I did it alone. Sometimes I would call one of my people: my dad, my mom, my sister, Becky, Eva, Ida, and cry to them. I resent my stalker ex-boyfriend for making me lean so heavily on my persons. I resent the system for making me exert so much effort — so much time, money, angst — to get something I should have had to begin with.
I am enraged that society tells us that we must protect our women, and yet, society finds it so much easier to rush to the aid of a man whose stakes are far lower. I am enraged that we read accounts like the one about Aziz Ansari, and worry more about the consequences to his career, rather than the shadow of guilt and shame following this woman because of his shitty behavior. I am enraged that when women demand the protection that any human deserves, we are so often dismissed. We are so often demeaned to a slut, a hag, a cunt, a maneater out for revenge.
I tried to explain to my parents how the movie brought this rage out in me. I tried to tell my parents, “I love being a woman but I am exhausted by it.” I tried to quantify for them how often a dude on the street or on the train tells me something I don’t want to hear: from “smile, pretty lady” to the guy pretending to need directions so that I’ll get closer to him so he can say “I want to fuck your brains out” into my ear. I estimated once a week. But honestly, it probably happens every single day. It’s just part of my soundscape. It is as regular as blasting Beyonce through my headphones, which barely drowns out some unshowered dude who thinks it’s his god given right to share his perspective on my physical appearance and what I should do with it.
I think about all the things I don’t share with my parents. Because how can you tell your parents that the first time you had sex with your ex-boyfriend you told him you didn’t want to have sex but he proceeded anyway? How do you tell your parents about the time you told a dude you didn’t want to have sex without a condom and had to literally block your vagina with your hand when he tried to stick his unprotected dick in you anyway? How do you tell your parents about the guy you were sleeping with who responded with anger when you told him you had your period? Or how do you tell your parents about the “good guys” who make you feel cheap as hell when they assume sex is over just because they finished, as if your role is to make them orgasm, with no regard for your own sexual needs and desires.
I don’t tell my parents because I am afraid that they are going to ask me the dreaded questions: “why did you stay?” “why didn’t you leave?” “why don’t you have enough self-respect to remove yourself immediately from situations that give you no respect?” I know that if they were to ask me that, it would be out of love and protection. It would be so that I might think about these things and protect myself from men who don’t see my human needs and desires as important. But I also know that those questions are devastating. They are exhausting. They imply that the bad behavior of men is solely my responsibility. Because I’m pretty sure that the dude on the other end of these interactions isn’t talking to his parents about how he might have made a woman feel cheap the other night. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t ask his friends if they’ve ever felt like they coerced a woman into sleeping with them. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think much about the desires of the woman he interacted with, because men are taught that it doesn’t matter.
And women are taught that if you want to have sex with men, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of bullshit. If you want to have sex with men, you will always have to be on the defensive. You will always have to be ready to scream “NO” in his face and run away the moment you start to wonder if you’re being violated. Otherwise, you can’t expect him to pick up on your lack of enthusiasm, or the fact that you’re frozen, or your requests to slow down, or even saying no if you say it too gently.
But here’s a thought: maybe consent isn’t just about legality. Maybe it’s also about pleasure. Maybe consent isn’t about what we can and can’t get away with. Maybe it’s about acknowledging that there’s a whole human being, with her own set of desires and insecurities and experiences in your presence. Maybe consent is simply about respecting the other person enough to check in to make sure that sex — this thing that we do for fun and pleasure — is in fact fun and pleasurable for all parties involved.
When I was 13, a high school guy came up to me at the mall, got real close to my face and said, “hey lil mama, can’t wait to see you tonight shaking that ass.” He and his friend laughed. I ran away and locked myself in the bathroom for 30 minutes, my heart racing, because I thought he was going to try to rape me. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened because I was humiliated by the interaction. I still remember exactly what I was wearing: low-rise jeans with a tie belt (very trendy at the time) and a purple t-shirt. I had just gotten a haircut, and for maybe the first time in my adolescence, I thought, I look pretty. And then that happened. It felt like punishment for feeling good about myself.
If someone did that to me now, I would barely flinch. I might offer a “fuck you” and I’d be on with my day. That sort of behavior is normal to me. But my instincts at 13-years-old were correct. That behavior is rapey. That dude violated my personal space to tell me something ridiculous for whatever small joy it brought him to demonstrate to his friend how little he respected my personhood.
He probably never thinks about that moment. But I think about it all the time. And I’m tired of living in a world where that behavior is normal.
The power of the #metoo movement is that we are finally validated to feel angry about moments like that. The fatigue of the #metoo movement is feeling all the anger we never allowed ourselves to feel in moments like that.
If I were a man, I would be terrified of the #metoo movement. I would be wracking my brain to see if there were any moments when I violated someone. And men, I hear you. It is scary. But tough shit. Women have always lived with this fear. This fear that our lives could be ruined by one terrible sexual encounter. And most of us, if not all of us, live with the memories of complete dehumanization at the hands of a man. So yeah, welcome to the club. Put on your big boy pants and sift through the emotional turmoil with us.
I don’t need another man or sign to tell me that I’m beautiful. I need men to shut up, listen, and I need them to do the work to figure out how to respect us.