It was a little after 9pm, barely dark. I was walking across the campus of the hospital where I work. My shift lasts until 1am, and if it gets really late, I will sometimes ask the Public Safety officer for a ride. But it was not late, and it’s only a few blocks’ walk, so I didn’t even think about it. That is until a couple of minutes later, when a man in a car at the stoplight stuck his head out the window to yell, “Whoo, baby! I want some of that!” Since I was not carrying anything, I can only assume the “that” he was referring to was me — or the sexual pleasure he imagined he would get from me. I was sufficiently startled that I changed my route in case he followed me, and made sure to pass by the Public Safety building. It made me angry that I have to think about such things, no matter what time of day it is.
And I was angry when a shirtless man jogged past me, out getting his exercise at just about the only time of day it’s bearable to do so during the Charleston, SC summer. I was angry because I knew that, even half-undressed, he wouldn’t get sexual come-ons yelled at him from passing cars and have to nervously change his route. I was angry that I never dare go out for a run after dark, because I’ve heard all my life that it isn’t safe for a woman to do so alone. I was angry because I remembered the report I had read a few months ago about a sexual assault nearby, during daylight hours, submitted anonymously by the victim because she was too scared to come forward but wanted others to know of the danger.
Part of the reason I know the world needs feminism is because shit like this still happens routinely; I hear stories like this from the women in my life all the time. And I know that I still need feminism because when this happened, my first thought wasn’t, What an ass! or, How dare he talk to me like that?! No, my first thought was, But I’m not even pretty. I looked down at my oversized blouse, my baggy trousers, my sensible shoes, and especially all the extra pounds they cover, and in a split second I deemed myself beneath the notice of a man who saw me as nothing more than a sexual object – a “that.” I wish this were unusual, but it isn’t.
I know the source of that condemning voice in my head, at least. It started in ninth grade, when I overheard two popular guys in my class making a list of all the girls and rating us. They didn’t realize I was behind them when they got to me.
“What about Stacy?”
“Yeah, but would you do her?”
“Nah, man. Maybe if she’d lose 50 pounds!”
They both laughed, and I slipped away, afraid that I would start crying before I could get far enough for them not to hear me. It didn’t matter that what they had said was totally inaccurate — even losing 30 pounds at that point would have made me a skeleton — I internalized it anyway. What I heard was that I was too fat for the most popular guys in my class to want to “do” me, and that was the only criterion on which they were judging girls. It was all that mattered. God, how I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that those 14-year-old boys were idiots, that they had no knowledge of either sex or women, that what they thought of me was completely irrelevant to who I was and why I mattered. But I didn’t hear any of those things. What I heard was that my only purpose was to be an object of sexual desire, and I was failing at that because I didn’t look how the boys wanted me to look.
I spent much of high school and college afraid — afraid that I wouldn’t be pretty enough for a guy to want me. Then I had friends who were sexually assaulted and I had a new fear — that I would be pretty enough to attract attention. I didn’t understand then that it has nothing to do with “pretty;” that the people worthy of being in my life would be attracted to my intelligence and strength and humor and creativity and kindness; that sexual assault is about power and dominance, not attraction. Almost 20 years later, I know better. And still, one asinine comment shouted on a dark street brings it all back in a heartbeat.
It takes a hell of a lot of positive self-talk to compensate. So I remind myself, I am not a “that.” I am a woman. I am a child of God. I am a friend. I am a sister. I am a caregiver. I am an advocate. I am a daughter. I am a preacher. I am a confidant. I am a dog mom. I am a geek. I am an auntie. I am a teacher. I am an author. I am a disciple. I am a badass. I am a scholar. I am a chaplain. I am an ally. I am a feminist. I am a peacemaker. I am brave, I am resilient, and yes, I am sexy — on my own terms. I am no one’s object. I am so much more. I am me.