Even In The Locker Room, Words Matter

posted October 11, 2016

I grew up with a mother who was a Registered Nurse. When I was four she and several nurses from her hospital organized to combat sexual harassment in their workplace. One meeting they held at our house made a lasting impression on me. A woman told a story of walking into a busy staff lounge and not being able to find a seat. A male doctor grabbed her by the waist and pulled her down into his lap saying,

“You can sit right here honey.”

When she objected, he refused to let her up. She had to fight her way out of the chair as he laughed and other men encouraged the behavior. I didn’t understand that at four, but I recognized a roomful of women were pissed off about it. Many of them related similar experiences they’d had with the doctor and other male members of the hospital staff.

Later the meeting broke up. I continued to play with my Legos on the floor in the living room. One of the nurses came over and sat on the couch across from me. She asked me about my toys.

Do you let your sister play with your Legos?

Nah, my sister doesn’t like Legos.

Do you think that’s because she’s a girl?

I don’t think so. She’s got her own toys.

Do you know the difference between boys and girls?

Oh sure. Girls have to sit down to go to the bathroom.

That was the only distinction for me. I don’t remember much about this woman today, but her words have influenced how I see women ever since. I hadn’t met her before that day and don’t think I ever saw her again. She wasn’t one of my mom’s close friends, but she was friendly to me, warm even. I liked her. I was an outgoing kid and if this woman wanted to talk to me about Legos I was happy to do it. It was her warmth that made the next thing she said stick with me for years, despite the fact that none of it made sense at the time.

Well, that’s one difference, but when you grow up you’ll be a man. Your sister will be a woman. You’re going to hear a lot of things from other men. You’re going to see them do things they shouldn’t. Many of them aren’t going to treat women like your sister and your mom the way they want to be treated. Some of them might even hurt women.

Even today this seems like some seriously heavy shit to lay on a 4-year-old, but I’m thankful for that woman. I’m grateful for her sincerity and emotional investment in that moment. She didn’t speak to me like a child. It’s as if she knew she wasn’t talking to a 4-year-old boy. She was leaving a message for the adult I would grow up to be.

She made me feel like it was my choice what kind of adult I became. I didn’t want to become the kind of man groups of women would have to organize to protect themselves against. I’ve failed at times to be the best person I could be, the best man I could be, and it’s always that woman’s words that come back into mind.

It’s not just locker room banter

No one should be calling it that, least of all someone who wants to be the President of The United States. Words are not harmless. In my life this type of attitude in male culture has been too common. I grew up hearing it at school, then later in groups of men who thought we all talked and thought that way. I’m ashamed of every time I was too intimidated to speak up; every uncomfortably forced laugh seems like a betrayal to everything women like my mom fought for. I’m proud of the moments I was able to stand up to it.

I have several male friends today and I love them deeply. They are all wonderful people. I’m proud of the man my dad is. My step-brother is an absolutely amazing single father and has raised an incredibly thoughtful and conscientious son who knows ten times more than I did at his age. I’m grateful as hell for these very good men in my life. They are the singular reason I haven’t given up hope for men everywhere.

But there are too many men who make the rest of us look like animals.

I want to share a few stories, but I have to preface them with a strong warning. The descriptions below are disturbing. I’ve wanted to share these stories for years. They are weights inside me, each keep me from trusting new men I meet. I keep men at the safe distance I imagine women have to, until I’m sure they aren’t wolves in sheep’s clothing. They aren’t going to grope me, but at some point when they feel like we’re “bros” they’re going to say something about women that will horrify me.

These are not my stories to tell, but I will tell them, because as long as Trump has anything more than a 0% chance at being president whatever little thing I can do to fight that I will.

These accounts were told to me over the last several decades by women I grew to love as friends, family, or romantic partners. I’ve kept these secrets and will continue to keep them. No names are assigned to the stories and certain details have been omitted to protect their identities. There is no justice in their having endured these things and in almost every case the man behind them went about his life without ever being held accountable for his actions.

  1. Someone I was dating told me after we’d been together a while that her last boyfriend raped her towards the end of their relationship. She said, “No,” and he didn’t listen. He kept going as she lay there and pleaded with him to stop before he finished up and apologized, as if he’d only been rude and hadn’t just assaulted her.
  2. Facebook regularly suggests in the “people you may know” section a man I went to high school with. I hope one of my high school friends shares this and he reads it. We were never friends, but we had friends in common. This man is married with children today. When I was a senior in high school a friend told me that she got so drunk at a party at a lake she could hardly stand. This man found her in this condition and instead of helping her, he took her to an out of the way place, held her down, and had sex with her against her will. I haven’t blocked him on Facebook because every time I see his face, see photos of his wife and kids, I want to send her a message and tell her about the time her husband raped my friend in high school. I want so much right now to write his name in bold letters just so he knows, even though decades have passed, I remember. She remembers. It happened. You did that.
  3.  I lived in a house with a bunch of artists in my early twenties. One man I lived with said inappropriate things to the women living there. He also touched them inappropriately (he was big on unsolicited back rubs). He had 2 girlfriends at the time. One was a 40-year-old married woman. The other was a 15-year-old girl. At various times he brought them to our house. He freely admitted to and defended his sexual relationship with both of them. This man, now in his 40’s, went to jail a few years ago for raping a different teenager. He has a wife who maintains his innocence. He is a father.
  4. I worked with a woman who confided in me that as a child her father’s male friend regularly molested her. When she tried to tell her father about it he told her she was imagining things.
  5. I worked with a man who for months seemed friendly and suave and fun. After work over drinks one night he told me that he sometimes initiated anal sex with his partners, without their prior consent and against their protestations because, “sometimes you just have to put it in the pooper.”

I’ve got too damn many more of these stories. I wrote a draft of this, for myself, just to get them all out. It was an exorcism. I’ve known 9 women who have been raped. Nine. I’m not talking people on TV. Nine human beings who have become my friends have been physically and sexually assaulted by a man. That is as unacceptable as it is disgusting.

I said in an earlier piece that Trump supporters weren’t my enemies. I still feel that way. They have genuine concerns, but at this point they also have blinders on. I wish they would find at least one woman in their life they would never want to be harmed and ask her: Do you know anyone who has been raped? When they hear the answer can they still say that Trump’s words are just harmless banter?

Words matter because the culture those words create puts women at risk every day.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  • Thank you for sharing your story, and your kind words. I know how hard it is to hear such horrific acts on your friends and not be able to tell someone. I had a young friend when I was growing up and her father raped her over and over again. She couldn’t tell her mother for fear of breaking up the family, that was her fathers words, and he was a minister. I don’t understand how men do this and continue to think it’s their right. I’m saddened each time I hear these stories. Women need to speak up and not be afraid anymore. I can’t imagine the untold stories about Trump.

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