Yes, all women, all girls, grow up learning ways to avoid attracting the attention of unnerving guys; it’s no doubt built into our DNA, along with an affection for miniatures and the early songs of Patsy Cline.
Simply in order to leave the house in the morning, a girl has to assemble an arsenal of behaviors to “just shut that thing down.” You remember that phrase, right? That’s from former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who argued not very long ago that women don’t get pregnant from criminal acts because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Every girl remembers the first time she was degraded sexually in public. It is not, as the movies would have us believe, a wonderfully cheerful moment of sensual awakening and blossoming womanhood.
It’s the moment when you start carrying your keys in your hand so you’ve got quick access to the door plus some metal between your fingers, and when you should have your phone pre-dialed to 91 so that there’s one more digit to hit. It’s the sense of shame sweeping over you because you looked “pretty” only to be slimed in a drive-by insult, told you look like a hooker. It’s knowing where the well-lighted streets are because you are afraid of the dark, and it’s being wary of the spotlight because if you’re the center of attention, you’re an easy target.
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It’s developing a ninja-like awareness of your surroundings even when you’re supposed to be relaxed and enjoying yourself. It’s recognizing that nowhere is safe. If girls standing on the lawn of the California house where they lived in college weren’t safe from a 22-year-old who wanted to prove he was the “alpha man” by slaughtering them, then nowhere is safe.
So we develop strategies to make ourselves feel, if not safe, then safer. They are talismanic rather than scientific, but some do work.
I discovered around age 12, for example, that one way to dissuade men from leering at me or making sucking-teeth-clicking noises as I passed them on the street was to stick a finger in my ear and start digging. You have to look really determined; you have to appear on a mission.
It can’t look like you’re twirling a strand of your hair or something like that, because that might be seen as cute and then you couldn’t expect anybody’s sympathy even if you were abducted and forced to live on a farm with Todd Akin.
If that didn’t work, and an intimidating presence remained nearby — let’s say on a subway or bus where you couldn’t just sneak away casually but had to stay in your seat for fear of never finding one again — sticking another finger unapologetically and directly into a nostril and keeping it there would, nine times out of 10, work instantly.
That you’d never be able to get a date in that borough with a normal guy would be the downside.
Yes, all women and girls have ways of making ourselves inconspicuous. It isn’t modesty that drives us to do it. It’s fear. It’s self-protection. And don’t tell yourself we’re being forced into the virtue of modesty because we’re not, no more than a man with his hand cut off is being forced into the virtue of patience.
It’s also hard to get ahead in the world if you spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re not being stalked.
Yet, yes, all women want love. But what disguises itself under that name, smuggled in under a fake passport? You know that somewhere there’s a teenage girl feeling really bad for the Santa Barbara murderer because “all he needed was somebody to love him.” She’s writing poems to him right now, romanticizing the violence and turning pathology into romance.
And yes, while all people wish we could shut it all out and pretend it will all go away, we can’t. Hatred, disguised as lust, haunts, corrodes and seeps from one generation to the next.
The system that supports it can’t be ignored; it must be dismantled. It’s work that needs to be done by us — by all of us.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for The Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her website: ginabarreca.com