Life Memories: Systemic Sexism

So this entire post comes with history. A LOT of history.  There are stories within stories here and I can’t fully explore them in a single post.  So, I’ll skip some bits here and jump straight into the pieces you need (well, I’ll try, it’s hard to unpack all the inter-tangled pieces). All the best stories are complicated.

I started playing tabletop RPGs around end-of-middle-school when my older brother wanted to try this new book GURPS.  Yes, I learned on GURPS.  It has made me a weird gamer ever since because I don’t particularly like D&D or Pathfinder… classes frustrate me.  When I was in high school I started gaming with his guy-friends (most of them in college) with a Wheel of Time game.  When my brother “disappeared” into the military, I kept going.

We met every first Saturday of the month about noon and gamed until 5-7pm, went to dinner and hung out.  So from the time I was 16/17 until about 29, I saw these guys at least once a month for hours. Some of them had known me before gaming. Some of them I ended up working at jobs with. They were family.

Sometime in college we started the weirdest, goofiest, craziest Star Wars campaign (we totally broke West End games yo!).  We probably played that campaign close to 7-8 years.  We had multiple stories and each of us ended up with 2 characters so we could run multiple plots simultaneously (I did use the word broken, right?).  It was so much fun and I was loyal – I made that Saturday my guys’ day.

Then we let a new guys join the group.  He wasn’t new-new.  He’d been on the fringes of my awareness for years  -gamers always tend to circle the same people.  We’ll call him “Ted” for this story.  So Ted had met my friends in college, hadn’t ever really gotten into gaming ’cause you know Georgia Tech is hard and family business and he had a life.  But now he wanted in, so we made room at the “table” and he built up a pair of characters (now a requirement).  Now, Ted was vegetarian (by religion) and this made our after-game dinner choices change.  Whereas BBQ and burger joints had been common – they had to get nix’ed pretty much entirely.  Whatever, I am not actually that picky an eater.

I do however have a food sensitivity.  I can’t eat peppers.  They make me rather violently ill.  Anything stronger than a jalepeano generally makes me vomit.  Much like someone lactos intolerant, you don’t want me around when I try to eat even bell peppers. So places like Mexican restaurants are -at best- risky.

Well Ted thought Mexican was the best choice for the group. Constantly. No matter how many months in a row I reminded the group that this would not work for me. And it hurt. At the time I couldn’t explain entirely why it hurt so much.  I mean, obviously Ted is an asshole who can’t think beyond his OWN needs. That was actually a pretty well acknowledged truth. You combine this with a few other sexist remarks and painful moments and this group I loved & cherished was becoming more and more difficult to convince myself to be around every month.

Then came the catalyst weekend.  It had been a fairly emotionally charged game and I had felt like every time I spoke up, my character’s ideas (ie mine) were being shot down.  I was emotionally tired. The dinner conversation came up and immediately Ted suggested Mexican. I brought up my allergy and suggested Olive Garden (pasta is perfectly safe for a vegetarian). He said he didn’t want pasta or salad. And suggested a different Mexican place.

I wish I could say I had tossed out BBQ and when Ted complained I lashed into him (as I fully believe he deserved) that if he couldn’t respect my allergy I didn’t have to respect his choice.  I didn’t.  I was tired and after a little more round-robin I caved.

I ordered as carefully as I could, but it was a Saturday night. I’m sure the restaurant had pans of pepper-dishes next to pans of non-peppery dishes and cross-contamination is a thing.  I spent half the night in my bathroom wishing I had just skipped dinner entirely.  I spent half the night wishing I never would have to see Ted again. I spent days emotionally recovering from…. I couldn’t even say what.

It took me longer than it should have, but I wrote an email to the defacto “leader” (the GM) of the group.  I explained I was frustrated and hurt.  It wasn’t perfect – hell, I was a bit emotional – but I was blunt and said “I won’t put myself into a situation again where I will be sick. ”

I walked away from the game. I walked away feeling like “the bad guy.”  I walked away feeling guilty because I know I hurt my friend’s feelings when I explained this truth: my friends didn’t stand up to Ted and left me to stand against him alone. Over and over. Their silence; their complicity in his sexism…. hurt.

The food thing was actually a pretty minor confrontation between myself and Ted. We had already had one where he literally had told me to sit down, shut up, and let “the men” play their game.  And I mean that literally as literally not figuratively.  And that time one of the guys did stand up to Ted and tell him he was in the wrong. But they never noticed how many times he talked over me. How many times he dismissed my ideas.  The tiny pricks over and over and again and again. Subtle and constant but each one individually small enough to dismiss.

But this is systemic sexism I wanted to get to in this post:

When I (the sole woman of the group) brought up a medical concern it was treated as equally valid as a life choice (of a man) when it came to food decisions.

Say that to yourself three times.  His choice (albeit religious) was given equality with my getting violently ill.  Granted, my illness isn’t something flashy like peanuts or fish cause. Still… mull this over in your mind.

And the guys didn’t fully understand.  More than one used the word “sensitive” when they asked and I explained that it was “him or me” in the group. Not even my brother (who totally supported my decision – had been listening to me for months complain as we carpooled) entirely understood it. Oh, he understood it in theory and he did/does support it – but he didn’t understand why it hurt as much as it did. I doubt he’s ever experienced it, and never over and over and over.

And yet, every woman I’ve told this to nods and shares her “Ted” experience.  That hashtag about women telling their stories…. yeah, this is one of mine.

This still hurts.  It’s been more than 2 years and I have teared up writing about this.  I have stopped twice, walked away, and came back to writing; because it still is painful to remember this decision to walk away from a group of 15 years.  Friends who I might talk to at a Christmas party or the like now, but I don’t get to see every month.

I have tried to hang out with them once; they planned a random board-game day.  And after about 2 hours of dealing with underhanded barbs from Ted (seriously, the man does not even realize how much he (A) interrupts me and (B) constantly puts down women in general) I was sick of it. Ted makes my skin crawl with the heeby-jeebies and I barely trust him not to cross the line when other men are around to hold him in check. It’s exhausting (and far from “fun”) to be in that kind of tension for very long.

Now, when they plan board game days I just ignore the email chain. Well, I just don’t respond. I always read them.

Manners: NotAllMen

I can’t believe this is still a thing. I can’t believe there are still so damn many men who can’t get why #NotAllMen IS a problem.

Here’s the thing, women know not every man is dangerous. Women know that not every man is a rapist (intentionally or not is different post). Women know that there are some men who are our supporters, friends, advocates, and sometimes – yes we sometimes want this – our defenders.  I know I’ve explained what I call the Goethe spectrum when we meet strangers; but I think it’s really even easier to understand.

So a man sees a woman walking down the street and smiles at her and says hello.

The woman must make an instantaneous decision whether she is safe or not (Seriously, go read the Goethe link if you haven’t yet).  She might get it wrong. She might just be feeling anxious and this poor guy pings higher on the scale than he should.  Here is what the man should consider:

  1. She doesn’t know me. She had to make a split decision based on her own personal Goethe spectrum and I pinged high enough to merit a hasty retreat.
  2. IF I was actually a dangerous rapist/kidnapper/murderer she ignored, she just possibly saved her own life/sanity. Good for her!
  3. IF I am NOT actually a dangerous rapist/kidnapper/murderer what did she do that hurt me.

And really, just to question 3.  She didn’t say “hi” back. She ignored you.  Did she hurt you or your feelings?  If it’s the latter… well guess what, you need to put on your big-boy pants and deal.  I know for a fact that ignoring you did not cause you physical harm. Because here is what she is probably thinking:

Ok, so if I say hi back and he kidnaps me, is there anyone around? Well yeah, but by-stander effect will any of these people do anything? No clue. Ok. so if I don’t say hi, and he’s a perfectly nice guy I’ve missed out on a chance for a new friend.  New Friend or possible murderer? Possible love-of-my-life or possible next-twenty-years-in-his-basement. Possible bliss or possible torture. I’m not going to risk it! Gonna walk a little faster, get that group of people between me and him!

Ok, you’re right, MOST women probably don’t do this consciously. Only weirdos do. But I would lay donuts to dollars down that if you showed it to a woman she would nod and say it feels familiar even if it isn’t the exact wording she would process.

And it happens in an instant. 2-3 seconds. That time that you holding your breath in hope – she is running risk/reward analysis in her brain.

The next time one of your male friends tries to pull the “Not ALL men! Not me!” look at him and said, “Maybe not you. Not me. But someone. They exist and she doesn’t know if you are that one.”  And when he looks shocked and says, “It’s not fair, she’s not giving me a chance to prove i’m not!”  You can look him in the eye and say, “She’s not giving you the chance to prove you ARE.”

THAT is the champion we need.  We need our male friends/relatives to look at their #NotAllMen friends and say, “She’s not giving you the chance to prove you ARE.”

Feminism: Single-Income Households

I’ve been jokingly saying for a few years now that everyone who works 40-hours-a-week needs a wife. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s supposed to ease the frustration that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to work a full time job and take care of a family.

Well, I think I am ready to declare that I think this is true.  Well, mostly true.  It really is a case of “the American dream is to have a single-income household.” Whether that is a stay-at-home Mom or Dad; or both parents working and they can afford in-home help (has anyone else noticed that the mom in Brady Bunch was stay-at-home and they had a housekeeper?!?!?).

We just can’t do it.  There a bazillion articles and discussions about the emotional burden of maintaining a home (cleaning, cooking, shopping for toilet paper) – much less adding in kids. Kids are a full-time job. Period. Do-Not-Pass-Go-Do-Not-Collect-$200.  Pretending that both parents should work and somehow kids magically get raised… well that is a cute fantasy world.

And notice, as much as the Brady Mom is my example, I am not saying that women should be 100% the one to compromise. We need to address that men should be allowed to cut back their hours, compromise their careers if they so choose. We need to address the social stigma that men are “supposed” to be the bread-winners.  If the man doesn’t want to, he should have those options too.

Every full-time employee/person needs a stay-at-home spouse.

Memories: Elevator Experience

I had the best experience in an elevator I can remember.

It started as I approached my work building from the outside. There was someone a bit behind me (I could see the shadow on the sidewalk) and a man walking towards me.  I reached the door first – barely.  So I held the door.

The man walking towards me was a little older and I somewhat expected him to balk.  Nope. He smiled and sailed through.  The young man (probably about 5 years my junior) balked.  Stopped and said “No, I was trying to get here. I can’t.”

“Yes you can.”

“Oh no, it isn’t courteous.”

“I promise, if a woman makes the offer to hold the door it is not rude to go through.”

He went through and all three of us got on the elevator. The doors closed and the young man said, “I just want to say. I did not want to be rude, I would have held the door for you.”

I replied with my biggest grin, “Welcome to the twenty-first century. Women can now show courtesy by holding doors too.”

The older man held out his fist to me with a giant grin (reaching across the young man’s chest) and said, “Hell yes.”

I fist bumped a ~50 year old man in front of a twenty-something man’s nose.

I feel like I won something amazing.

Commentary: Trigger Warnings Debate

I’ve been trying to avoid “reactive” blog posts. There is a lot going on in the news and I was beginning to feel like my blog was just the place I went to react to those things. That said… I need to get this off my chest!

I was incredibly blessed in the college I went to. I had amazing peers and incredible professors.  Of course, my largest class also had like 25 people in it (maybe 30). Small classes meant we knew each other. Sometimes more about each other than we wanted to.

I can’t imagine not being able to go to  even the most boorish of the professors I had and saying, “Hey, you said we are going to talk about [Z], could you give me a head’s up when this is going to be covered so I can sit by the door? That way if the topic just gets to be too much, I’ll slip out for a few minutes and compose myself.”

If they didn’t already know the circumstances that made me uncomfortable with the topic, they were familiar enough with the student (e.g. “me”) to know I wasn’t just asking to skip a class because I’m lazy. Reputation (especially as the years went past) carried quickly from professor-to-professor and grace was given to students who were (a) consistent (if i’m ok with rape jokes at frat parties and then whine in class… that isn’t consistent) and (b) involved in other ways/places (I really stood up on human euthanasia so I’m not just trying to be lazy). And most of the professors would have given a little grace to a freshman, but by senior year – you were a known quantity.  I know this won’t necessarily be true at larger institutions (there are reasons I went to a small school!)

I do think that what (at least Chicago) is intended by the “no trigger warnings” is that the school is not going to make preemptive accommodations for every trigger. It’s good to have your ideas challenged. It’s healthy. It also can be very healthy to feel uncomfortable about a topic. That said, if it is causing someone UNDUE pain or reliving trauma… it is also fair for that person to be allowed to say “I need to extricate myself back to a safe place”

So I guess I’m saying that I think it would be reasonable for a college to say “we don’t guarantee athletes won’t be injured” “we don’t provide trigger warnings” AND to expect students to speak up when it hurts. It also means we might need to helping give coaches professors first aide training in how to appropriately respond. If we are comparing trauma to physical illness some of the same rules apply.  The number of people I had to tell that I had asthma (and no really, I can’t damn well breathe) … that onus was on me to communicate.

Occasionally, it would come up with very little warning: my biology teacher thought it would be “fun” to go into a field to grab flowers and plants to look at under a microscope. “No, no, leave all your bags, I’ll lock the door!” and I had to explain to him I need to carry my purse not because of my wallet/trust issues but because I have an inhaler in there and if you expect me to wade into pollen I’m gonna need it. Fortunately, I had enough practice before that moment that I was able to stand up for myself. Still, hearing some of the stories of “and suddenly the class was talking about [Z] and I wasn’t ok anymore…” I struggle… there is a piece of me that goes yeah… and?

And I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone’s trigger. God knows, I do understand what it’s like to walk through a door and suddenly feel like my throat is constricting itself because some [bleep] is smoking a cigarette. I also can understand that it is damn hard to even figure out mental triggers sometimes.

However, healthy boundaries means I am not responsible for anyone else’s emotional wellness. I am not a slave to carry your emotional labor. Neither is a school/a professor. And it means that schools need to find a way to allow boundaries without necessarily creating them. And it is damn hard to challenge an idea or a belief without stepping on someone’s boundaries. Schools are supposed to be a place of challenge. Being run by humans (classes are taught by humans!) they are probably going to mess up.

I just wish the conversation wasn’t be phrased as either “they MUST…” from/to both sides. That isn’t how boundaries work. Boundaries require both sides being in open, honest communication. I don’t know how a large institution like University of Chicago does that. I do have to say, I respect them for laying out their boundary clearly. Now I want to know how they are going to hear & respect a student’s boundary.

Religion: Learning from Lent

Easter has just passed. Every year, Lent reminds me of the one year I gave something up. I was a sophomore in high school and I gave up wearing pants. Not that I went naked, but I wore skirts and dresses during lent.

I know, weird right? I remember that I knew it was what I was supposed to give up well before lent started, like two or three months. I talked to my parents and arranged with school to allow me to wear skirts in gym class.

It taught me several things. First, it taught me that wearing a skirt doesn’t have to stop me, prevent me, or even slow me down. I could be as feminine as I wanted and still be a feminist. Secondly, it taught me some humility. I only had a handful of skirts and dresses, so I had to repeat my clothes a lot more than I had before. Something I think every consumer-driven-Christian should make sure they do sometime in their walk.  Lastly, it gave me insight into something new I could be, that I could remake myself and become the person I want to be.

God had me give up wearing pants to get me to see that I can be me no matter where I am or what I am wearing. Nothing so silly as pants vs. skirts to make me feel like I am doing it wrong (whatever “it” is!). So when I see my guy friends wear utilikilts, I cheer. When I chose to start wearing pants to church, I knew it was because God doesn’t care what we’re wearing. What he wants is our hearts and our hands.  So I don’t have to wear skirts. Or pants. I can keep walking towards God and following God’s plan no matter what I wear.

Or as Herbrew 6:1 says “[…]let us go on unto perfection[…]”

Feminism: The Goethe Spectrum

This morning on the elevator there was a man who was giving me the total hibbie-jibbies. I can’t tell you why, there was something that made me want to cringe away from him. My stance shifted so I could keep him in the corner of my eye without facing him. He was dressed nice, rolled a briefcase (looked like a sample case really). But there was definitely a piece of my brain running through the reactions I could take if he addressed me/threatened me – because if he addressed me it would be a threat. Even I was wondering what was wrong with me – the level of reaction is pretty unusual to a normal looking dude.  My tension evaporated when the elevator doors closed and he was on the other side of them.

A few years ago, this idea of “Schrödinger’s Rapist” started to circulate the internet. At first I lauded it, it does help to explain when a woman might be nervous around strange men (the first five minutes of meeting someone).  But I feel it is incomplete.  The problem is in the concept of Schrödinger’s cat” – that in an instant both universes exist and thus you must treat them as equally plausible.

This just isn’t true when addressing human interactions. So as the past few years have gone by, I have pondered on how I would adjust the theory. And it’s not really Schrödinger’s rapist as much as it is the Spectrum of Threat. Or the Goethe Spectrum.  Newton was the one credited with breaking apart white light to identify the seven colors “of the rainbow”, but Goethe used the word spectrum – meaning the blending between the colors in between the stark colors Newton identified.

Because that’s the kicker, it’s not a 50/50 sort of thing. There are a million little clues that I filter when assessing threat when I see someone for the first time. Taking a 0-10 scale isn’t a bad start, but it’s really more like a 0-100 when you start considering the nuances.  For the sake of this blog, we’ll simplify this to 0-10:

0: No threat. Dead body or otherwise incapacitated to potentially threaten me in any way.

1: Breathing human. Might be a man? So the possibility of threat still exists in some universe from this person, but not likely this universe. If I haven’t seen a slider’s hole or heard the TARDIS, I’m probably safe.

2: Visibly a man. He’s a man. Probably. Threat so minimal that I can feel safe to continue my normal actions. As long as I’m not 150% stupid, this is a totally manageable interaction.

3: Might be a straight man. So he may or may not be giving indications of interest, but there is nothing to concern me of a threat. This means either a rejection has already been gracefully handled or it is clear he would never pursue action (i.e. he is in a happy relationship he wouldn’t risk even if I hit on him).

4: Definitely straight. This is a guy who might have indicated interest. Or has “that look” (which is almost indescribable in text format) that says he admires what he sees in a female form. There is no sense of danger or threat, but if a lot of cards hit the table in just the wrong way… there is just enough here to keep me wary. It’s unlikely I’m unsafe, but I must be the one making sure the appropriate barriers are retained.

Frankly, this is where most of my male co-workers fall when I meet them the first time. I am infinitely aware that most of them are probably “safe” guys, but if I do not make sure I keep my shit in line – we’ll use the inept phrase “misunderstood signals”…

5: Unknown danger levels. Dead in the middle of the spectrum, this might be someone I can’t get a read on, or getting mixed danger levels (i.e. the guy in the elevator this morning retained a “5” because my gut reaction was more dangerous, but he had all the signs of like a 3 or 4 kind of guy)

6: Small danger. There is something this person is saying, wearing, or doing that makes me edgy. The way their eyes rove. They’ve admitted attraction and when rejected say “Your loss baby.” They are the guy who I have doubts if I was drunk they wouldn’t take advantage… I don’t think they will attack me, but if they got a drunk yes – they would classify it as a yes…

7: Don’t be alone. This is the guy who might have asked more than once – and remember, this is a first meeting, the first time I meet them they can’t take a no. Made advances after rejection. Sometimes there is a space invasion – Probably not actually a threat, just an asshole. Probably.

8: Threat level: high. This is my line for “get me out of here.” because this is when the guy is doing more than talking. He is making it quite clear – if the opportunity presents he believes it’s his right. Sometimes this is not in words, but in body language. This guy holds the door and purposefully stands in so you have to squeeze by and gives a dirty grin. Calls you a bitch if you don’t let him “be a gentleman” and in other ways attempts to assert inappropriate control over me and my body.

9: Danger Zone! This is the guy who is trying to get me to drink from a glass which I did not have control over for a period of time. The guy who called me on my phone when I knew I never gave him my number. There is a physical threat here and it may not be right now but he has made it clear that verbal “no” will not deter him.

10: Rapist: I am being raped right now.

Fortunately, I’ve never had too much exposure above about an 8.5 on this scale and those have been few and far between (and I have gotten damn clear about calling them out). There are still men I will not be alone with because during this initial meeting they pinged as a 7+, and in a group I maintain a discrete three-person-buffer zone. It’s very difficult to come back from a back first impression.

So I don’t even want to talk about Schrödinger’s Rapist anymore with my friends. I get why men might get annoyed by the black-or-white idea. There are a million variables to filter:

  • 40-something man on subway car reading a newspaper, wearing a suit. 3.2
  • 20-something man/boy with his buddies. Possibly drunk. On subway. 9pm Friday night. 7.9
  • Group of any age men talking and staring at me (location matters). 6.8-7.8
  • Man in gay bar flinging a drunk arm over my shoulder. 4.1
  • Car with a male in the driver seat following me home in the dark. Rises from 4.1 to 8.1 when he follows me through a neighborhood that horse-shoed back to the main road.
  • Man I see in the grocery store three times and keeps smiling at me with too much tooth. 7.1

Location, age, appearance, and body language are the major factors. Body language is one I know I rely heavily on with these strangers. How are they choosing to orient to me? (casual, direct, leaning forward or away) What are they doing with their hands? Honestly, I have found the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” to be all too true. Someone with something in their hands (drumsticks, book, phone, hell-cigarette- etc.) is far less threatening than the man doing nothing with his hands.

The scale once I get to know someone becomes far more complicated. It isn’t two dimensional. What are your friends like? How do they influence your behavior? Are you close to your family or estranged? Why? How do you behave to me on a regular basis? How long have I known you? Have I met any significant other(s)? -The factors beyond first meeting are ten times more complex.

As limited as I believe Schrödinger’s Rapist is to defining the initial impression of threat, the scales to define relationships after I start to know someone… it is the difference between a wheelbarrow and the Enterprise.