There once was a rich and powerful man who frequently attended the country club I worked at. He was tall and loud and whether it was the massive amounts of alcohol he drank or the sunburn his skin would acquire from countless rounds of golf, his face always seemed to be the bright red of cooked lobster.
Upon entering the restaurant, he would hand $100 bills out to the young girls who served him his cocktails or those who he found particularly pretty that day. I was sometimes the recipient of one of those $100 bills and, though it left me a little wary, I often tucked the bill away to help pay for the college tuition that weighed on my mother and I.
The other girls and I heard rumors about his rampant infidelities as we looked piteously on his good-mannered wife who sat like Baby, sullenly in the corner. We heard how he could get a little “handsy” with the bartenders and service staff when he had had too much to drink. We rolled our eyes as he blatantly stared at our chests through white, male tuxedo shirts and vests and pocketed the extra $100 he passed us as he left, too drunk to remember he had already done so.
One day, as I was cleaning up from a party, I found myself alone with him in the restaurant, the other servers bustling away in the kitchen or generally out of sight. He lumbered over me, sweat streaking down his bald head, his eyes bulging slightly with drink.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Seventeen,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said, a little disgruntled. “You’re the reason men get in trouble for statutory rape.”
I was stunned into silence and, later, found myself locked in the upstairs employee bathroom, sobbing to my boyfriend over my Nokia cell phone.
When I told the manager of the club what had happened and how it had upset me, he told me that the man had just donated an expensive cappuccino maker to the club and would not be punished.
The $100 bills stopped coming.
A short while later, a new female bartender was serving the Men’s Club Room. In front of several other men, he groped her breasts and stuck a golf club between her legs, raising it so high that he painfully hit her vagina with the head of the club.
He was still not asked to leave, nor did any of the men in the room defend her. She had to continue serving them drinks until the club closed that night.
Twelve-and-a-half years later, I am watching video of a man running for president of the United States of America, bragging that he could “grab them [women] by the pussy” and get away with it. Yes, Rational Brain, you wrote that sentence correctly. A man who could potentially be the leader of the free world, gloating that he could commit sexual assault and not be punished. And, to make matters even more Neanderthal-ic, there is a man in the video who laughs at this blustering of sexual aggression and others who defend this type of criminality as “locker room talk.”
By explaining away his lewd and disgusting remarks, the message is this: this is how boys and men talk and act. It’s fine to sexually assault a woman; to boast about groping her without her consent. This is completely acceptable behavior and the law, ethics, or moral code does not apply.
And perhaps it doesn’t, despite the fact that it should. Somewhere along the line, both men and women are taught that it is acceptable to attack women, to insult their intelligence, to shame them for the bodies they cannot control until they feel they need to control them in any way they can fashion. We encourage men to belittle and berate women, even equating young boys’ physical aggression towards young girls as excusable because that is how they “show affection.” If boys refuse, they’re labeled as weak, gay, pussies, girls, thereby enforcing the belief that to be a woman and to possess a vagina is, in fact, the worst insult one could muster.
When I was in the fifth grade, there was an award ceremony at school. My mother was standing in the back of the gymnasium, watching me accept my awards when a woman she had never met approached her.
“Your daughter is going to be president someday.”
My mother, baffled as to who this woman was and how she would know me so intimately, smiled and nodded.
When she told me the story later, I remember that glorious glow of pride wash over me. Oh, wow, maybe I could be president… My granddad was really into politics – he would vote for me! I could stay in the White House. I could make a difference.
When I told my friends the next day, they told me that women couldn’t be president because they would go to war every month when they got their periods. They laughed and I never thought about being president again.
This is taught behavior. It is not some predestined genetic code like having blue eyes and a double-jointed wrist. It is a message that is taught to us when we are young and consistently and systematically reinforced through the media, home life, work, and school.
While there are men and women being raised to respect one another and accept those with differences, the gender norms of Boy and Girl are also being reinforced with alarming vigor. From gender reveal parties that ask whether your fetus will wear ruffles or play with rifles to the transgender bathroom bans, from sending girls home from school who reveal their shoulders to defending Olympians committing misdemeanors as “boys being boys,” we are choosing to make this locker room talk acceptable.
And talk, though not a proof of guilt, lends itself so easily to action. Action that looks and sounds a lot like rape.
However, in this culture, it isn’t acceptable for women and men who are victims of rape to speak out about what has happened to them.
1 in 6 women will be a victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. Approximately, 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male. Every 2 minutes, an American is sexually assaulted. And, yet, out of every 1,000 rapes that are reported to authorities, 994 perpetrators walk free. (www.rainn.org)
We tell women to stop drinking alcohol at parties, we ask them to watch what they wear, to walk in groups. We protect the futures of convicted rapists over the futures of their victims, because for some reason it seems easier to blame women for having bodies than to hold accountable the actions of a man.
And this, too is a learned behavior, one I found is taught at an startling young age.
I spend my Tuesdays at an inner-city school, telling the classic fairy tales to 3rd graders and encouraging them to discuss the themes that are embedded within.
Two Tuesdays ago, we read the original story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” In this version, unlike the glossy and Disneyfied “Little Red” of the present, Neighbor Wolf succeeds at eating the grandma and, after getting Red in bed with him, eating her too.
When we asked the students who was to blame for the actions of the story, their answers astounded me.
“The grandmother – she shouldn’t have let the wolf in. She could have asked him a series of questions to find out whether it was Little Red or not.”
“The mother. Why would she send her kid out alone in the woods?”
“Red – she should have known better than to talk to strangers.”
“The woodsmen.” (Yes, I know.) “They should have seen the little girl talking to the wolf and protected her.”
Not one of the students blamed the wolf for his actions. When asked why the wolf was not to blame, one student replied, “He was just doing what wolves do.”
My heart sank, seemingly shrinking inside of me. I wanted to scream at them, to shake them, to force it into their heads that we need to hold the wolves of the world accountable for their actions. We couldn’t just let them get away with it. We had to stop blaming and shaming the victims and placing the responsibility on the “locker room” behavior, the “boys being boys” mentality that lends itself so dangerously and at the peril of so many American men and women.
I didn’t scream, didn’t tell them it was wrong, but as I was collecting their notebooks, I felt as though a chunk of my soul was cut out of my body.
“Write this in your notebooks,” said the lead teaching artist. “And when you get time answer it.”
What if Little Red was a boy?
One of the girls, a sweet thing with a dark, shiny braid and eager eyes, motioned for me to come over. I bent down to retrieve her notebook when she stopped me.
“I answered the question!” she said proudly.
In a penciled scrawl, beneath the question, I read:
He’d be smarter.