There’s this thing that happens whenever I speak about or write about women’s issues. Things like dress codes, rape culture and sexism. I get the comments: Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Is this really that big of a deal? Aren’t you being overly sensitive? Are you sure you’re being rational about this?
We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.
It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.
It’s not something we talk about every day. We don’t tell our boyfriends and husbands and friends every time it happens. Because it is so frequent, so pervasive, that it has become something we just deal with.
So maybe they don’t know.
Maybe they don’t know that at the tender age of 13 we had to brush off adult men staring at our breasts. Maybe they don’t know that men our dad’s age actually came on to us while we were working the cash register. They probably don’t know that the guy in English class who asked us out sent angry messages just because we turned him down. They may not be aware that our supervisor regularly pats us on the ass. And they surely don’t know that most of the time we smile, with gritted teeth. That we look away or pretend not to notice. They likely have no idea how often these things happen. That these things have become routine. So expected that we hardly notice it anymore.
So routine that we go through the motions of ignoring it and minimizing.
Not showing our suppressed anger and fear and frustration. A quick cursory smile or a clipped laugh will allow us to continue with our day. We de-escalate. We minimize it. Both internally and externally, we minimize it. We have to. To not shrug it off would put is in confrontation mode more often than most of us feel like dealing with.
We learn at a young age how to do this. We didn’t put a name or label to it. We didn’t even consider that other girls were doing the same thing. But we were teaching ourselves, mastering the art of de-escalation. Learning by way of observation and quick risk assessment what our reactions should and shouldn’t be.
“It’s the reality of being a woman in our world. It’s laughing off sexism because we felt we had no other option.”
We go through a quick mental checklist. Does he seem volatile, angry? Are there other people around? Does he seem reasonable and is just trying to be funny, albeit clueless? Will saying something impact my school/job/reputation? In a matter of seconds we determine whether we will say something or let it slide. Whether we’ll call him out or turn the other way, smile politely or pretend that we didn’t hear/see/feel it.
It happens all the time. And it’s not always clear if the situation is dangerous or benign.