Guest post by Fran Stewart
Fran is a dear friend and a great writer I was thrilled when she said she wanted to write a post for MMAS. I hope this will not be her last. ~Rosie
I started my girlhood very late. I’d reached my mid-thirties by the time I realized there’d been a mistake. Up until then I’d muddled through life as the straightest, most translucently white suburban male nerd you’d expect to see. When I came out as a transgender woman, I had a lot of catching up to do.
Fear paralyzed me in the early days: will I lose my friends? My family? My wife? Would people laugh at me in the street? Would someone beat me up for being “a he-she?”
I want to talk about a different fear today, though. I wasn’t used to one of the fundamental assumptions most women make every day: I am now a target—not just for being a T or a lesbian, but simply for being female. Just as my salary automatically went down, my risk of rape, robbery, and general mishandling jumped.
My friends began to point out risks I took without thinking. I’d jog one block down an alley to my parked car instead of walking three on the street. I’d assume the friendly intent of anyone who talked to me. I’d walk whistling through dark parking lots at night. Growing up male in a small, safe town just doesn’t breed much situational awareness.
Some people, though, went deeper. “You talk to panhandlers? I’d never do that,” I heard. “You can’t just walk down a dark street. Stick to the lighted areas. Think of what might happen.” I heard a difference in the warning tone: you’re not afraid enough.
Amidst the dizzying swirl of neoadolescent emotions, something about that message went against my grain. Not afraid enough? I was terrified to walk out of the house! I rehearsed for hours how to answer the phone with proper feminine vocal pitch. I cringed at every checkout line, waiting to hear “sir,” expecting a disapproving eyebrow raise, the look on every face that says I see you and I know what you’re up to. Now I’m not being afraid enough?
I related one story to a therapist: in a crowded public area, an aggressive panhandler stopped my wife and me in a paid parking lot. “It’s after six,” he said. “Street parking’s free! There’s a spot right over there. I’ll even hold it for you. I just ask you give me part of what the pay lot would cost.” I looked. I could see the spot he was pointing out. I agreed.
After moving the car, we gave him several dollars of the ten-dollar parking fee. “That’s it? That’s all I get after all the money I saved you? Come on! Screw you!” We apologized and walked away. My wife was upset at the risk I’d taken and my lack of awareness.
I explained my thinking: the street was busy—a plaza full of people. The man was polite initially and correct about the street parking. I felt I’d weighed the risks.
“You can’t talk to people like that. You can’t know what they’re going to do.”
“I don’t think so,” the therapist replied. “I’d never have done that. You can’t talk to people like that. You can’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t think you’re used to thinking about these things the way women do.” We discussed the event for half an hour; I left perplexed and frustrated at her flat denial of my reasoning.
I straddle a mental crevasse: for thirty-odd years I was reared as a man. I was an Eagle Scout. I had to fend off military recruiters in high school. I had no idea what lessons I should or shouldn’t have learned to be a healthy, normal woman. I looked to role models to learn those lessons. But this one still felt wrong. Was I missing something when I assessed the situation? Was risk assessment just useless for women?
As I asked more people, a divide emerged. Some friends adamantly agreed with the therapist: couldn’t I see how dumb I’d been? Some said I’d done okay, though unusual for a woman. A few said I was spot-on—women shouldn’t take shit from people for being women.
Then an activist friend, a sharp-minded New Yorker whose advice I’ve always prized, told me a story. She was at a subway stop late at night and a creep accosted her.
Without thinking twice she turned on him. “Are you serious?” she yelled. “Get the fuck out of here! What’s wrong with you?”
She chased him out of the station in a cloud of shame. “When I told my boyfriend about it he was really worried about the risks I take,” she said. “But this is me. I didn’t think about it—I just did it.”
This is the most valuable lesson she’s taught me: there are as many ways for women to look and act as there are women who’ve ever lived. Anyone who tells you there’s one right way is selling something you don’t need.
“You’re very lucky, in a way,” she said. “You’re redefining yourself. Choose what kind of woman you want to be—what bits of the old you to keep and what new stuff to bring on. Be your own kind of woman.”
So, years later, what’s the result? A new balance. I’m more aware of my surroundings in public. I’ve taken a great self-defense course. I don’t take my safety for granted. But I also feel strong in public. I consider my risks but then walk confidently. I smile at strangers. I do these things because that’s the kind of woman I am.
I feel sad to say that I’ve lived a charmed life, though I feel I have. I’m living the life everyone should have by right: my own.
Also by Fran Stewart:
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Trigger warning for discussion of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence.
NOTE: This piece goes to some dark places where humor just doesn’t live. I’ll forgive you if you don’t read it, but I think it’s important because it’s about some of the really awful stuff that happens to girls and women in the U.S. and around the world. It’s my personal story of serial abuse and…social conditioning, for lack of a better phrase. This blog is my way of countering misogynistic attitudes and messages, and this story is nearly everything that led me to the place I stand as I begin it.
By the barrage of bullshit coming from every form of media every day. By all the anger and violence toward women. By all the ways the world has told me my entire life that my gender was the lesser of two. Subtle messages, and constant, between the lines, that said I was lucky to be born so late in the century—the 20th century, for heaven’s sake!—that these battles had long ago been fought and soundly won. Suffragettes had suffered, bras had burned by the thousands, armpits and legs had gone unshaven for my freedoms. We are woman, hear us roar.
Subtle messages like some stuff is “for” girls and other stuff is “for” boys. Like boys get into trouble and girls are good and polite. Like girls are supposed bait the proverbial hook to “catch” a boy, and boys are supposed to avoid being “caught.” Like a boy’s job is to “score,” and a girl’s job is to play defense.
And there were less subtle messages, too. These messages, these moments, do not define my life. But they do serve as an outline when I consider what a hostile world this is for girls and women.
- By age 9 I had been molested multiple times by multiple pedophiles. Relatives, family friends, neighbors… It turns out you don’t have to look very far to find a pedophile in this world. I learned too much too soon and I had no idea what to do with the information. I was troubled after the first incident (series of incidents) at age 4, and pretty confused by the second at 5, downright scared by the third at 6. By 9 I wasn’t even surprised anymore, and they somehow knew that I was the perfect victim. A family “friend” was visiting regularly at this point and playing his little games and I hated it but I felt powerless to stop him. I was so terrified of the trouble I’d be in if my mom found out that I worked myself into a state of utter emotional turmoil until one day when she came to yell at me about something completely unrelated I lost it—screamed and shook and sobbed until she finally dragged the truth out of me.
- When I was 10 and on my way to the local shopping center (back in the days when parents let 10-year-olds walk anywhere unattended) on a stretch of empty highway between my housing development and the mall walking against traffic like I’d been taught, an old Ford truck passed me and pulled over a little way up the road. I told myself I was imagining things when I saw the driver watching me in his rearview mirror. And when I came up alongside his truck across the two barren lanes of traffic he opened the truck door. He was completely naked, and flopped one leg lazily out as he masturbated, staring at me. I had been down this road before and I was fucking terrified. I turned and ran as fast as I could past empty houses to my street and stopped at my friend’s house, hysterical. Her mother laughed. I was really starting to get the feeling it was just me.
- As a pre-teen, it wouldn’t be long before the neighborhood boys would introduce me to “pantsing,” or forcible removal of my pants and underwear by multiple boys, each one stronger than me, in front my friends. This is wrong on so many levels, but let’s just cover a few: 1) I knew damned well that I didn’t like it when the boys ganged up and took my pants off. 2) As humiliating as it was, I never cried. I learned very early on that to complain about it was to invite ridicule not just from the boys, but from the girls. There I’d be, the solitary person in the room who thought it was a Big Deal when clearly it wasn’t and what was wrong with me, anyway. 3) As an adult, when I talk to other women about it, we all agree that it was terrifying and humiliating and tantamount to bullying at least and sexual assault at worst, and none of us knows why we didn’t (couldn’t) tell someone and make it stop. (Does this still go on? Google shows me laughing people in their underwear.)
- At 12 I was raped by a 14-year-old neighborhood kid who was known for being a bad boy. I lived in a poor suburb of Sacramento and us kids built forts in our backyards to entertain ourselves in the summertime. Me and two girl friends were in the fort behind my next-door neighbor’s house with the bad boy smoking pot. My girl friends left. I never saw it coming. One moment we were sitting there smoking a joint, the next I was on the ground and he was lying on top of my saying, “Shut up or I’ll hit you in the head with this hammer.” I clenched every muscle in my body until he finished. I don’t think he enjoyed it. He walked with me to my backdoor, and I think it was locked. He said something to me. I don’t remember what. I walked in the front door and through the living room, which was dark. My mom and brothers were watching tv. I put my hand up to my face as I walked through and hoped my mom wouldn’t see me–that I was crying, or had been, or what a mess my makeup was, or something. I don’t remember thinking anything but how can I get through this room. Then she asked if I was ok and just like when I was 9 I lost it and she had to drag the truth out of me one more time. I cringe when I remember the ensuing horror show that was my neighborhood’s reaction, the investigation and lawyer prep, and the trial that I dreaded for months and which ended in a verdict that validated the public defender’s stuttered accusations: “Isn’t it true that you cried rape because you were afraid you were pregnant?”
Even he seemed to understand on some level that the whole thing was a setup. I was only 12 and had never had consensual sex , so they’d have a hard time making me look like a slut, but they could cast doubt on me, question what possible motive I might have to falsely accuse the poor defendant (who admitted to having sex and later served time for statutory rape, meaning his only crime was sex with a minor), the fact that no one heard me scream (because I really wanted that ball-peen hammer to the temple), whether I did or did not seem, to the people they interviewed, to be distraught enough in the days following the incident. What’s amazing to me about writing this is that I don’t remember anyone fighting for me other than my mom and my cousin D who left my house in the dark of that night with a baseball bat as I sat in the kitchen sobbing (he came back frustrated with a clean bat). I know there must have been someone, but I have this sense when I look back that I was the one on trial; that I was the poor sap with the crappy public defender.
- When I was 14 I went to my first kegger. My mom thought I was going to “a little get-together.” I got drunk and passed out. The next day someone told me that two guys had screwed me while I was unconscious. No one thought this was particularly wrong. Everyone was drunk. They were just being guys. I just tried not to think about it. It probably wasn’t the last time. I try not to think about that, either.
- Given all this, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I became a promiscuous teen. You know that girl in high school everyone calls “slut”? That was me. I started out looking for what sex was supposed to be (True Love!), but what it amounted to was giving in to every guy I had a crush on because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. It was what they wanted, so if I did, they’d like me, right? Instead every guy at my school had the idea that I should sleep with him because I’d slept with one or more of his friends.
- By 16 I was “in love” with a guy who barely tolerated me, but now and then he’d be nice to me and I’d fall all over myself to do anything he wanted—including servicing him in front of his friends. I followed him around like a dog, and he treated me like one. Miserable, on the street (a habitual runaway) going from one bad situation to another, one night I sat soaking wet in a convenience store parking lot and a family of Mormons rescued me and took me in for a couple of weeks. It was a bit like hitting a reset button as I saw what life was like in a completely new environment. Soon I was ready to “turn over a new leaf,” as my dad put it when he made arrangements for me to go to Dallas, Texas and live with his stepfather, an elderly judge who had no idea what to do with a teenage girl and whose strategy for dealing with disagreements consisted of sitting there laughing at me as I grew increasingly frustrated with him. Angry and bored out of my mind in the middle of summer I went out looking for interesting people to meet. On one of my first outings, outside a drug store, a man pulled up next to me in his car and stopped, one hand on the wheel and the other massaging his penis. About a week later, when two young black men pulled over and chatted me up, I was flattered, and after a bit of coaxing (with one of them showing me his ID and both promising I’d come to no harm, we were going to have a grand time) I got in their car. And we partied. For a few hours, it was a fascinating experience. They took me home and someone’s sister fawned over me. I met a bunch of little kids. Then we went out to a bar where every single head turned toward me like that scene from Blues Brothers and a man on the way in muttered something about “y’all bringin’ Snow White around here” under his breath as he glanced nervously up and down the road. There was music and alcohol. There were drugs. Then it was back to the apartment where everyone was fast asleep and it was time for me to put up. I begged and pleaded, but I didn’t fight. I cried as quietly as I could (so as not to wake up Sis and the kids) and later when he dropped me off at yet another convenience store, I called home and my drunk uncle was over and answered the phone and called me a fucking cunt. The next thing I remember is several people pulling me off the pay phone as I did my best to beat it to death with the receiver, screaming my rage. And the cops asking me why I didn’t use my knife. Against a man twice my size. Lucky for me, I forgot I even had one. I never got it—or anything—from the cops or the system. Somewhere, probably still in Dallas, a man who once went by the name of Charles Ray “Chuckie Ray” Smith might still be walking around free to rape at will, but is very likely dead and buried at the hands of someone’s loved one avenging something very like the crime he committed against me, for which he never even stood trial.All I can say about this list up to this point is Thank. Fucking. God. AIDS wasn’t a thing yet.
- Soon after that, I got pregnant, and not on accident. My life up to then had been a series of after-school specials from hell, and I wanted a change, but the change the adults in my life were serving up was not working for me. When an acceptable candidate made himself available, I counted the days from my period to maximum fertility and I made damned sure he put a baby in my belly. Then he bought me a ticket home to California and I didn’t see him again until my daughter was 9 (which was ok with me). I moved in with my mom, stepdad, and three younger brothers. One night just after dark I rode my brother’s bike over to my cousin’s house a few blocks away. When I saw a man up ahead that I knew for a FACT I had passed just moments ago, I knew he had come around the block for me. I had almost no time to think about it, and as I neared he reached out for my handlebars. Out of breath and utterly terrified, a sound erupted from my throat that I have never made before or since. The words I tried to say were, “GET AWAY FROM ME!” but I sounded wild, primal, like a crazy person. He jerked his hands back and said, “Okay, gah!” Like he was the victim.
- Life settled down a lot after my daughter was born. I focused on being a mother, and for a little while, that was enough. But I wanted my True Love. And when I was 18, I believed I’d found him. He was amazing. Handsome, successful, smart, funny, and 35 years old. My friends and I saw nothing wrong with that. We all wanted him. But he wanted me. I was the lucky winner. Within a year I’d moved back to Texas with him and was keeping his house and caring for his 12-year-old son along with my daughter, now about 2. I don’t even know anymore how long it took for things to get bad—maybe 6 months—but one night after a party I’d left early because he pissed me off, he came home and started in on me, first with his hands, and then with a paint scraper. All things being relative, he didn’t hurt me badly. Just badly enough that I knew damned well if I could get out of that room I’d never come back. He let me get my daughter from down the hall, and when someone knocked on the front door and he went to answer it, I took her and ran out the back. I ended up in a shelter and within a couple of days I went back to my abuser because I had no local support and no money to go anywhere else, and some well-meaning-but-misguided types advised me that it was his job (my abuser’s) to finance my return home to California. This bought me another month or so before his next blow-up, but this time we escaped without incident and didn’t go back. I showed up in the middle of the night on the front porch of my grandfather’s house in Waco and introduced myself. “Mr. Abney, I’m your granddaughter.” We stayed a few days, and he cashed his Social Security check and put us on a plane. I never saw him again.
- In many ways I feel like I experienced a lot of bad things so my daughter wouldn’t have to. I taught her right away that predators were out there and that she should never hesitate to scream, kick, run, and tell someone if anyone ever did something she didn’t like. And when, inevitably it now seems, she found herself in a situation where someone crossed the line, she knew that the boundary was hers to set and protect and she knew to tell someone.
- Jump ahead to my 30s, when I found myself single after a long period and in a new town. One night out drinking, I overindulged and passed out in someone’s apartment only to wake up with him on top of me doing his thing. All these years later, it was still that easy to wind up with someone’s penis inside me uninvited. Because I got too drunk and passed out. (For those of you still unclear on the concept: No means no. Unconscious and/or unable to form words means no. No matter who you are, you are not entitled to take your sexual pleasure/rage power-trip out on someone else’s body no matter what mistake they make.)
As I write this list—and I have long needed to—more and more incidents occur to me. Some I insert into the timeline. Others I don’t. Some seem trivial, hardly worth mentioning. Some I can’t write about. Some involve people I care about who might be hurt by the content. Even I am amazed seeing all this written down in one place. These events scarred me in a number of ways, I’m sure, and fed into each other, perpetuating a cycle. But they also taught me that my worth was tied up in the fact that I was a sexual object, and that worth wasn’t much. And that the world is a very hostile place, especially for girls and women.
I’m far from alone in these experiences. Get a group of five women together, and if they’re being honest, 3 or 4 of them will tell you they’ve lived through one or more of the above scenarios. Not to mention the one thing nearly every woman has experienced in one way or another (and many encounter all day, every day): unwanted sexual attention. Why do some men think it’s ok to approach women and bother them simply because they find them attractive? What’s with the entitlement? Because make no mistake, women who don’t respond well to this sort of attention often go from “beautiful” or “my future ex-wife” to “bitch” or even “cunt” in about two seconds flat. The fact that men are, by and large, bigger and stronger than women turns this scenario from annoying to terrifying in the same span, which brings me to the third lesson the bullet points above taught me: most men are stronger than I am and if they want something from me, they have the power to take it.
If you’re a woman, chances are you understand on some level what that feels like. If you’re a man, just give it some thought. Imagine that your counterparts on this planet are on average several inches taller and 50-150 pounds heavier than you and comparatively very strong. Now imagine that some of them are predators. And some of them seem harmless enough, but they just won’t leave you alone—and what if they’re not harmless? (I know small guys get bullied by big guys, but this is different. Imagine that fully half the population potentially wants something from you, be it your attention or something more, that they have no right to expect, and yet you’re the asshole if you don’t play along.)
Now. Sometimes I love attention from men. But when it’s respectful and when I clearly indicate that I want it. Guys, here is how you tell if a girl is interested: if she makes direct eye contact with you, smiles, and asks you questions, then she probably wouldn’t mind getting to know you. (If you’re British and you’re in America, you’re pretty much given an automatic green light. This is a half-joke.) If she’s mumbling, looking down, closing off her space to you, and gives short answers, she wants you to leave. She’s just been conditioned to think that she can’t say, “Get the fuck away from me.” There are LOTS OF WOMEN, I KNOW, WHO CAN SAY THAT. And who have every right. But I’m just not one of them. I can’t. I have to to think of myself first. I can’t worry that you, strange man in a bar, is going to flip out when I reject you harshly.
Jokes aside (see, feminists can be funny!), it ought to be a pretty simple concept: No means no.
Anyway, me. Throughout the grim timeline above many other things happened, most of them happier, some even wonderful. I lived my life and raised my daughter into a brilliant young woman and had flawed relationships and finally found my really, really for true love at 41*. But all that time I encountered even more of those subtle messages that seem a lot less subtle when people point them out. Like the very real fact that on average, women in the U.S. still earn a lot less money than men doing the same job; that until recently women in the U.S. paid higher insurance premiums than men; that among many men the word “woman” is an insult, and that boys and girls grow up hearing things like “stop crying like a little girl” so we can keep that cycle chugging along; that men who sleep around brag about it and get high-fives from their friends, but women who do the same are sluts or whores (and women who don’t put out are clearly frigid or just prudish or lesbians, and oh yeah, nothing wrong with a lesbian that a good stiff cock can’t fix); that the same behavior called “assertive” in men is termed “bitchy” in women. I could go on and on. And I will—just you wait.
And in all these years I have never called myself a feminist. Not because I wasn’t in favor of equality, but because I didn’t particularly want to be lumped in with those strident women (often referred to as Angry Feminists) who could never seem to shut up about what was sexist. That’s not to say I didn’t speak out when I saw inequity. I quit one of my first jobs (leaving behind a very angry resignation letter) after watching my manager pass up women who had worked there for years for promotion over and over again in favor of young men hired weeks before. I was outraged, you see. I seriously thought this kind of thing didn’t happen anymore.
Then I watched as the industry I’ve worked in for over two decades spawned a culture of misogyny and abuse that has largely gone unchallenged by the professional community. Online gaming servers are rife with everything from codified rape culture (i.e. game messages that actually say things like “You got raped by BigDog1999” and players being banned from their servers for complaining about it) to sexual harassment of women by male gamers written off by the community as “just the way it is” or “free speech” of all things. Only recently is some of this coming to light, with major influencers like Penny Arcade choosing to take the low road at pretty much every opportunity.
And I watched the Internet birth a subculture of misogynist trolls who seem to feed off a sense that they’re causing their female targets pain, anger, or even fear. Let a woman even announce that she plans, at sometime in the future, to release a video examining the roles of women in video games, and they pour out of the woodwork like cockroaches. Simply having an online presence as a woman can mean enduring a regular routine of insults and threats via Twitter, email, etc. Appear on television like my daughter and her roommates did once a few years ago, and the trolls flock to their keyboards to comment on your weight (fat bitches) your attractiveness (I wouldn’t fuck that with a rented dick) and whatever else their rotted little brains can conceive.
Now, at 47, I’m finally realizing—really realizing—that to be a girl or a woman in this country (and much of the world) is to be a member of a class still fighting for its civil rights, and also to be subject to a lot of really fucking difficult crap that someone who’s not a woman probably can’t understand. And not only do I identify as a feminist, I am becoming an Angry Feminist. I’m completely fed up with the double-standards, the condescension, the dirty politics, the constant barrage of media messages, the way we’ve been taught to be quiet and polite and how that keeps us from speaking up when we have something to say and the way some men take advantage of that fact to bulldoze us. And when we do speak up—when something really matters and we sit in a room full of men to make our cases—heaven forbid we should show any emotion.
Lucky for me, the quiet and polite training didn’t take. I’ve always had a habit of speaking my mind—but that hasn’t stopped some overbearing men from shouting me down (and some of these are men who probably consider themselves progressive if not feminist and certainly not sexist or misogynist). And I’m ready to talk about all this stuff. I don’t intend to take every single person I meet to task for every act or word that might be interpreted as sexist or damaging to girls and women, but if I think it’s important, I’ll write about it. You bet I will.
So, yeah. This is my story, the Bad Parts version, by way of explaining how I got here, to this place, to this website, and also because I think we have to talk about it—the good, the bad, the horrifying—if we want things to change. It took me nearly half a century to wake up, but here I am in my bathrobe, drinking my coffee, working out a plan for the next 50 years. I don’t care what names people call me or what assumptions they make. I don’t hate men. I love men. (Yes, some men have done terrible things to me, but far more have been my friends and family and colleagues and mentors and heroes.) But I have no tolerance for misogynists and misogynistic policies and attitudes which are so commonplace and accepted in these oh-so-superior and socially advanced United States that some men (and women!) engage in them without even realizing it. I want to help change that.
I recently saw a TEDTalk by Courtney Martin of Feministing.com (if you want to see misogyny in action, have a look at the comments) in which she talked about this overwhelm I’m feeling. That sense that there’s just too much wrong for one person to make a difference. Her advice is to “act in the face of overwhelm.” That’s what I’m doing. I will fight this war on as many fronts as I have to so that maybe my granddaughters won’t grow up thinking that the world views them as somehow less. So that media stops treating us as objects and our culture starts treating us like equal members of society. So we can walk down the street without feeling like prey.
NOTE: For those of you tempted to bring up the fact that men have it rough too and there are policies that are unfair to men, rest assured that I am aware. That’s not what this article, this conversation, this blog, is about. There are all kinds of inequities in the world. I know that. But in my country, the United States of America, a lot of rich white men and their corporate sponsors are making decisions about women’s health without involving women in the conversation. Teenage boys think it’s cool to talk about slappin’ bitches and hos. Rape is still a punchline and a sports analogy. That’s the conversation I’m having here, and this is my house. If you want to talk about misandry or the evils of feminism, go start your own blog.
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
Why I Won’t Publish Your Comments About False Rape Accusations (Rethink the Rant)
I Am Jane Doe (MMAS)
10 Things Rape Is Not (MMAS)