In 2001, when I was about 14 years old, my male friends invented a game that went like this: one of them—and it was always the same one—would sneak behind me, slap me—and it was always me—on the ass and run away as I sputtered, angry and humiliated.
It was a game that everyone but me seemed to love. I was a girl who mostly hung around boys because I hadn’t yet learned that female friendships, though infinitely more confusing, were also infinitely more rewarding. I was the self-professed type who loudly preferred spending time with men over spending time with women because they were less dramatic and complicated. And so I surrounded myself with boys who found it funny to grab my body when I least expected it, and were spurred by my discomfort to push me further and more painfully.
The game ended the night that Tom*, the one who always grabbed me, did it to me again while we were walking up a flight of stairs. Familiarly, everyone laughed and I tried to join them, desperate to appear easygoing and in on the joke despite being the literal and figurative butt of it. But suddenly, the effort of it all—the smiling, nervous chuckling, and eye rolls that I had allowed myself over the past several months—sickened me. It felt like I was choking on my own vomit of anger and humiliation. To save myself, I’d have to spew my own bile. And so I turned and punched Tom directly in the groin.
The satisfaction of the moment blazed and died quickly. He collapsed to the ground, gripping himself, hissing, “You are a fucking bitch. You are a fucking bitch,” over and over again. I laughed an awkward bark of a laugh, but no one joined in this time. No one said anything at all until minutes later when we were walking—them in a pack, and me trailing behind—to our local video store. Michael, my best male friend, hung back to keep me company.
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“I get that you’re mad and don’t like it when Tom grabs you like that,” he said and I exhaled a sigh of gratitude. “But what you did...” I sucked my breath in again, “...You just don’t do that to a guy. Ever.”
It’s a small relief that I didn’t feel ashamed of myself. Instead I felt disappointed in Michael, in Tom, in every other boy that now, on our walk, avoided me because I had crossed a line and hit back.
This memory was lost to me for years and only recently returned, though I’m not sure why. I’ve been called a bitch countless times since then (an occupational hazard when you’re a woman writer, a life hazard when you’re kind of a bitch), and the word—though compact and sharp as a fingernail—has mostly stopped hurting me. I’ve developed calluses from a life spent surrounded by men, both the ones who say they are good and the ones I know are bad, and they’re too thick now for a word so small to cut through. But in the past couple weeks, the recollection of Tom’s hatred of me, Michael’s reprimand, and the indifference of everyone else has brutishly shoved its way back into my head, a strong reminder of the first time I realized, to borrow the words of artist Jenny Holzer, whose “Truism” series (which I’ve been thinking of often these days) picks away at the concepts of gender, intimacy, violence, and power with beautiful sentences so stark and simple that they become profound—“men don’t protect you anymore.”
The truth, though, is that while it’s been ingrained in me to chase their acceptance and approval and be “in on the joke,” I was raised from birth to fear men, to never trust or expect them to protect me. Thirty years of being suffocated by their desires, whims, and power has only proven the fear as founded. In the years that followed the last time Tom grabbed me (and he never did it again after I punched him—nor did he ever forgive me), I would see good liberal boys, the ones who had feminist mothers and organized progressive political demonstrations, go completely silent when a high school acquaintance accused one of their own of rape. At 19, I had to hide behind a truck as a man followed me as I walked my dog, filming me out his car window for blocks. This summer, a bearded man at a pool party kept asking my friend and I to do drugs with him, insisting it was safe because we were “unrapeable.” Later that night, after rejecting multiple drinks that he seemed to pull out of nowhere, my friend and I joked that the man was too dumb to even commit sexual assault properly. Because what can a woman do, if she wants to avoid an entire lifetime of terror and bitterness, besides laugh in the face of what seeks to harm her?
And it is funny: The memory of Tom writhing on the floor like a giant baby, the way my high school friends and I laughed at the man who masturbated at us from his SUV as we waited for the bus. But that is my good fortune. The scars other women carry are too disfiguring to laugh at, so traumatic that they scar you, too. You can’t smile when a girl gets a bullet in the head for trying to go to school. There is no comedy in a person getting gang-raped on a bus. It’s hard to laugh as women are forced to eulogize their aborted or miscarried fetal tissue, though it is a very special kind of sick joke.
What we as women are forced to carry—because we’re vulnerable and because we are strong—goes beyond the natural disorder of things. Our suffering is not natural; it’s calculated and insidious—the passing of a bill, the protests of a college football team, the success of an actor, and verdict of a judge.
Or, more glaringly, a man who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women being elected to the highest office in the U.S.—not in spite of his vicious misogyny, but partly because of it.
Since the election of Donald Trump, I have felt like a clairvoyant who, instead of seeing ghosts, sees the specter of male destruction everywhere I look: in the money I spend, in the industry I work, even in the minds of other women—the ones too foolish to realize that men don’t protect them anymore or, somehow more offensive to me, the ones who’ve cynically embraced the concept of female empowerment as a brand or an excuse for selfishness, effectively wringing the term of its power and significance.
For the first time, I don’t know how to move past my boiling anger or laugh it away. Also for the first time, I have no desire to. Preferable, I now think, is to stop laughing, to become as repulsive as I can in an insult to these men—so many men—who hate women and the women who adulate them. Vanity keeps me from throwing away my makeup and sanity keeps me from, as I often feel the repugnant urge, breaking the mirror with the surface of my own face and leaving us both cracked open. But I also can’t deny my current impulse to become as ugly and unlikeable as I can, merely to serve as constant reminder of the ugliness inflicted upon us. We’ve been told time and time again that prettiness and likability will protect us from harm, that to be good women, we must play by these rules, but this is a lie. Nothing will protect us except for ourselves—and what’s more fortifying than a defensive exterior? There are days when all I want is to become a human road sign, a blinking hazard to any man misfortunate enough to cross my path: “I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR SIGHT. I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR EVERYTHING.”
These urges, when they occur, make me feel as mad as a Charlotte Perkins Gilman character, but they also thrill me a little. The woman in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper has been locked away for her own good (how often in history has what’s “good” been decided for us and not by us?), imprisoned in a bedroom to cure the feminine ailment of hysteria, judged aberrant by her husband and male doctor, and only then—through the haze of true insanity brought on by her solitude—can she see that she’s been imprisoned.
It’s strange that until recently, domestic literature is seen as dull and boring compared to tales of male adventure, especially when a woman’s life, beginning to end, is filled with violence. We’re born, we learn to be afraid, learn to be looked at, learn to be quiet, we bleed, we give birth, we age, we’re forgotten, and then we die. So much of what we encounter—marriage, raising children—is meant to hold us painfully still. Those who don’t offer gratitude for this stillness or choose to take control of their own movement—by living openly trans, by loving other women, by seizing autonomy with birth control pills, IUDs, or abortions—are punished, sometimes quietly and other times deafeningly. They’re murdered. They’re jailed for choosing the opposite of motherhood or for being the wrong kind of mother. They’re marked as Bad, as Nasty, and maybe even Wrong or Unnatural.
But it’s the bad women who have always, however grotesquely, provided the limited examples of female resistance: Salome, demanding the head of John the Baptist; Medea punishing her husband’s betrayal with infanticide; Flannery O’Connor’s Hulga, who knew her birth name Joy was all wrong because it was light and airy and she wanted to be dense and ugly, like a swamp; Toni Morrison’s Sula, whose destructive joie de vivre led her to trample on the moral codes of others; the heroines of Ferrante, often cruel and spiteful because they’re too smart for the men who anchor them to the miserable world that they created. All of the women terrible in someway or another—but also strikingly bold in their effrontery.
Women, though not always “good,” have always been nice. And look where it’s gotten us. Stripped of our rights, degraded, and still under the thumb of men. At no point in history has humanity as a whole been nice, so why should I? There’s no longer a place for pleasantness, not publicly anyway. Now is a time for fury and force—a time for guarding the few things we do have (our perseverance, our bodies, each other) because they’re so at risk and so, so precious.
I am not yet disgusting to the right people—the ones with power are blind to me. Any optimism I’ve had in regards to changing the destructive course of history has faded, with most of my idealism, into the past. Send every bloody tampon you create to Mike Pence and he’ll still take away your reproductive rights. Grow out your pubic hair until it hits your knees and Trump will still see your pussy for the taking. Be rough like Rosie O’Donnell, or be polished and “good” like Ivanka Trump—they’ll use you either way, so you might as well be barbed and coarse enough to tear up their hands when they do. Now, all I hope for is to cause my own sort of minor destruction to the men who would otherwise take things away from me. I can never hurt them as much as they’ve hurt us (nor do I have the heart to), but can I hurt them at all?
In my own small world, I hug the men I love, tell them I trust them, and thank them for being good when it’s so easy to be selfish. But I also have to remember that everyone in their secret histories has made some transgression against women, just as I—in my whiteness, my relative economic comfort, my blind spots, and areas of ignorance—have surely offended and impeded someone else. Our assaults can be as insignificant as grabbing an ass at 14 or choosing to ignore what we watch be inflicted on others because intervention is too complicated or we are lazy or scared. And our harm can be profound: Sex with someone who can’t or won’t say “yes,” the limitation of another’s freedom because ours will remain safely intact, and the casting of a ballot as if to say, “Yes, it’s true one person’s rights are worth more than another’s. It’s always been true and will always be true and this doesn’t bother me.”.
I’m writing in a circle that keeps leading me back to the same questions: How do I become ugly to these people? How do I offend their sensibilities with my very existence? But the work provides no answers—just more of the angry bile that I first tasted in the moments before I punched Tom at 14 and has since tinged my mouth again and again. I want to spit it everywhere and I want it to stain.
*Names have been changed.