I sat at the bar with a man I’ll call Ian sipping whiskey as he explained me to me.
“You are a woman of passion,” Ian said. “I get you.” And then, as if maybe I hadn’t gotten it fully, he repeated himself, “I get you.”
I was of two minds: laugh in his face or ask him for more. I couldn’t decide which impulse to follow so I picked up my drink instead.
“You’re a lover,” he continued. “I can see what you want. To surrender, be ravished.”
I met Ian on the dance floor at my cousin’s wedding. After the music stopped, he threw around phrases like “divine connection” and “deep gentleness.” I come from the Bay Area. This kind of language “spoke to me.”
When Ian informed me of my desire to surrender and be ravished, surrender was an active verb. The subject in a sentence with an active verb does something. “She” runs/jumps/wins/fights/speaks. In my case, she surrenders. Ian had put ravish in the passive mode. She does not ravish; she is ravished.
I reminded Ian he’d met me three hours ago and that his metaphors were stock, but I didn’t slide off the bar stool and walk away with my drink either.
After the bartender yelled last call, Ian asked me to go for a walk. Even though I hadn’t been particularly nice to him all night, Ian was putting on a good show of being in love-struck awe of me. And so, we walked.
As we wandered, I let Ian drape his arm around me. Sometime around 3 am, I let him kiss me. A little later, I let him touch me. When he directed my hand to his erection, I said, “Nope,” and pulled away.
The next time Ian leaned in for a kiss, I stopped him and said I felt like, all night, he’d been trying to spit game. Which is to say, use charm, wit, and honeyed words to flatter me, hopefully ending in my consent to sex. All that hustle, compressed in one phrase.
In response Ian kissed me, and guided my hand towards his crotch.
“I already told you I don’t want to do that,” I said, my voice hard as his erection. I started to say “I’m sorr—” and caught myself.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Ian cooed.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
Citizens of the Midwestern city where I live spent last April recovering from a vicious winter. The undergraduates at the large state university where I study and teach were particularly elated by the ebb of the cold. Warm weather meant nightly porch parties on the roofs overhanging the rundown houses in the student ghetto where I park my car.
On the first semi-balmy evening in months, I was walking through this neighborhood when I heard someone yell. I looked up at the house in front of me. A swarm of 19-21 year old men were up on the roof. Six held beers, one held a sign: SHOW US YOUR TITS!!!
“DO YOU ACTUALLY EXPECT THAT TO WORK?” I yelled.
The Two Chainz throbbing from the stereo drowned out my voice. Then, two young women walked by. The men on the roof yelled SHOW US YOUR TITS!!! and the women giggled.
I considered walking in to the house, climbing the stairs, crawling onto the roof, and demanding they explain what they’d been thinking when they made that sign. But I didn’t. I dislike confrontation. Instead I got in my car and I left, regretting my passivity for days until one of my colleagues offered his thoughts on the situation.
“They wouldn’t have been able to hear you,” he said.
“Well, no,” I agreed, “the Two Chainz was too loud. But if I had gone up there—”
He interrupted, “No. That’s not what I mean. It’s a bunch of guys drinking. Even if some of them did see it your way, do you think they’d admit it?”
He had a point. He even suggested arguing with them might have gotten physically dangerous for me. I told him that it all made me feel depressingly powerless.
He nodded. “When stuff like this happens, I bring it up in a place where I have influence—my classroom.”
When I reach the door of the room where I teach, two of my students, let’s call them Alexa and Marguerite, rush me.
Alexa says, “We need to talk.”
“Now,” Marguerite says.
I know what they want to talk about. A personal essay written by their classmate “Ben,” which they’re about to workshop. The two young women are furious, and their reactions are valid. The version of himself Ben creates on the page is vile. His persona says things like
I like my glasses how I like my women: sitting on my face.
I JUST WANT TO FUCK YOU AND KICK YOU OUT OF MY BED BECAUSE THERE’S NOT ENOUGH SPACE FOR BOTH OF US.
I have a choice to make: fuck her raw or be a bitch.
To fuck raw is slang for unprotected sex. Though the line’s content was base, it stood off the page. The fricative f ricocheted off the hard c of “fuck” and clanged against spare, single-syllabled “raw.” “Be a bitch” alliterated, and the whole thing scanned, perfect iambic pentameter minus one beat. It was a line, which, as a writer, I envied.
In the essay Ben has unprotected sex. The young woman texts him the next day to say what we say when we’re still finding the words to express our feelings and immediate needs: I hope it won’t be awkward between us. The young woman’s boyfriend had broken up with her the night before, the night she and Ben had later had sex. In response to her text, Ben wrote, “If you’re not a slut I don’t know what is.”
This is how words awe me: arranged just so, they alter the fabric of existence. Slowly and subtly, instantly and spectacularly, words become weapons or shields.
This is how words incense me: too often, men who want something from women mix words to make incantations. Permuting them until Open Sesame! an order is found that convinces, charms, or commands a woman to shrink, doubt, or unbolt.
The morning after the wedding, my family was gathered around a table in the hotel dining room. I walked over and sat down next to my newly wed cousin.
“So, Ian,” I said. “Quite the Don Juan.”
My cousin reached for a piece of toast and buttered it slowly. “He likes to think so.”
If he had a slogan it would be “Never More Words Than You Need.”
My cousin took a contemplative bite and added, “But he has made some money off of it.”
Which is how I learned about the dating system Ian had developed and sells.
Ian’s system is designed to give users linguistic techniques to “persuade” the user’s ex-partner to restart a relationship. To learn more, you have to purchase the system. I would like to learn more. But there are roughly a thousand reasons why I’m not going to buy it.
When I learned about Ian’s system, the night snapped into focus. Clearly he had been using the same principles in conversation with me. It had been a game, all along and after all. I had known it, had felt it, but still, I had played.
When the DJ played the last song of the night, Ian pressed his body to mine. I pulled back. “I’m not dancing like that with you in front of my family,” I said.
“It looked like you had no problem dancing ‘like that’ on your own in front of your family,” he said.
What he meant was only slightly more sinister than what he implied.
You already expressed sexuality without me. You can’t refuse to express it with me.
The problem lies in the logic. Ben’s problem was logical too, he saw room for no more than two options. Have unprotected sex or be a bitch.
Sometimes related events cascade in a weirdly neat way. Ben turned in his essay three days after I met Ian. Ideas about language and power surged through my mind and I had to say something. I logged on to Facebook.
Today’s challenge: mediating reactions to a wildly misogynistic personal essay, which included lines such as “I like my glasses how I like my women–sitting on my face” and “I have a choice to make: fuck her raw or be a bitch.”
Two young women called the writer out. I bow to these two for not dialing down.
In any classroom, away from the booze-soaked influence of fratlandia, it’s possible to reach young men, where feedback on their words can penetrate the defenses of bro culture and violent sexual bravado. Defenses that, it turns out, are paper-thin.
#FeministPedagogy #TeachableFeministMoments #emPOWERmentOfLanguage
The next day, a man I barely remember from college, Eric for our purposes, wrote a response that began “I obviously haven’t read the piece in question, but…” Eric then explained why the parts of Ben’s essay I’d quoted were not misogynistic, but “just expressions of male sexuality.” He scolded me for sending the message to Ben that “his most deep-seated, instinctive, emotional feelings are unacceptable to women and society and he should feel guilty for feeling them.”
I restrained myself for five whole hours before responding. During the time, I contemplated misogyny. Had I really meant misogynist? Was I confident in my understanding of what the word signifies?
I looked it up. In The Oxford English Dictionary Misogyny is simply “hatred or dislike of women and girls,” a definition simultaneously so vague and so narrow that the ease with which it can be slipped out of is laughable.
It’s not impossible to find men who openly claim to despise women and act accordingly. In my understanding of the formal definition, it would be entirely sound to label the actions or speech of these men as misogynistic. But for the rest—men who don’t hate women, who actively seek women’s company to social or sexual ends, and still say things to and about women that make their nervous systems sing with rage—does it follow that this language cannot, unless it explicitly expresses hatred of women and girls, be called misogynist?
“If you’re not a slut I don’t know what is.” In this moment, the pen may as well be the sword. The problem is that only when the intent to harm is so clearly present and the insult so overt, that it’s accurate to apply the label “misogyny.”
Let the record reflect I don’t consider Ben a misogynist. If I only had his essay to go on, I’d probably say I that I did. But his eyes changed my mind. Actually, not his eyes but the skin underneath. As Alexa and Marguerite called Ben out on his words, I watched this delicate skin tremble. If I had been sitting even one foot farther away, I’d have missed it. But I was close enough to see it, and because I saw it I also saw that Ben wasn’t walled off for good. A few sharp words for his peers and his puffed chest caved.
Ian had not been misogynist that night at the wedding, and he wasn’t being misogynist in the Facebook comment he wrote responding to Ben’s essay. In his comment, Ian condemned gynophobia (his word, not mine) and called for boys and men to divorce their self-worth from the acceptance or rejection of women. Despite the woman-positive message, I was not pleased. Ian was still manipulating words—testing to see if a “feminist” language like gynophobia would result in an Open Sesame! moment. It wasn’t misogyny, not by the book, but maybe that just points back to the narrowness of this word’s definition and shows yet another way misogyny can be maddening to pin down.
Occupying a position of power in relation to language creates magnanimity. I was Ben’s teacher. In that role I had the power to police his language. With Ian and the men on the roof, I had no such influence. It is why it feels easy to excuse Ben but condemn Ian, and the young men with the sign. Despite the power dynamics of each situation, they all raise the same the question: when you find yourself in a situation where language is power, how will you use it?
While I’m here I’ll say this: these words are for Alexa and Marguerite, who said their piece and didn’t apologize. They are for the young woman in Ben’s story, in the hopes that she can erase the label of slut from hers. And they are for Ben, who is learning that power comes not only from words that are hard but from those that are vulnerable, those that are raw.
Alessandra Wollner is an MFA candidate at Ohio State University studying and teaching creative nonfiction. She's been writing since before she correctly learned how to spell the word “adolescent” (2nd grade). Currently, Alessandra is working on a collection of essays and a poem suite from the years she spent teaching at San Quentin State Prison.