I’ve been very lucky, but…me too

At first, I was hesitant to re-post “Me Too.”

I wondered if the fact that I’ve never been sexually assaulted might mean that I shouldn’t post. I figured that the small amount of harassment and bullying I’ve experienced, in the grand scheme of things, is not shout-worthy. I thought about all of my friends, both women and men, who have endured much, much worse.

But…the #MeToo movement is about awareness. It’s about defining the spectrum of abuse. It’s about showing people just how widespread a problem can be.

When it comes to my female friends in particular, all of us have gone through it. It’s like some screwed up initiation ritual. A rite of passage into womanhood.

Everyone’s definition of what’s considered wanted vs. unwanted attention is different, so I know it’s hard to pinpoint what is acceptable across the board. However, experiencing that “special” feeling of discomfort and humiliation due to sexual harassment/bullying/sexual assault, is completely unacceptable. It’s important to have an ongoing conversation about it. This is both for the benefit of victims (so they don’t feel alone or as if they are overreacting) and to prevent future perpetration (so that would-be bullies or predators will know what is considered wrong and might even go so far as to stop themselves from partaking in such behavior—if they are capable of self-reflection).

So with that in mind, I wanted to share some details on a few notable run-ins I’ve had with sexual harassment over the years (which includes being bullied about things of a sexual nature).

Fourth grade

One day at lunchtime, when we were all supposed to be in the cafeteria, I realized that my friend (a boy that everyone probably knew I had a crush on) hadn’t left the classroom. He was there by himself, crying about something. So I left the lunchroom and went to our empty classroom to see if he was ok. Within a few minutes, our teacher walked in a got really angry that we were in the room alone together. One kid caught wind of it, and suddenly I had to endure the obscene rumors spreading like wildfire around the school. “Mrs. Durniak caught them having sex!” “She found them with their clothes off!” “Stephanie is a slut!”

I was in fourth grade. I didn’t even know what sex was at the time. The rumors made me so uncomfortable that I became desperate to avoid ever putting myself in that sort of situation again. A year later, when I was afraid that the shaming would start up again, I punched him in front of the class just to convince people that I didn’t like him.

Sixth grade

It was April and it was starting to get warm out. I’d gone through a growth spurt that winter, and so my parents hadn’t bought me new summer clothes yet. I wore a pair of shorts from the year before that still fit, though they were a little tight. That was enough to bother people, apparently.

One girl and one guy were particularly bothered, so they got a bunch of other kids to sing (to the tune of the Nair commercials) “who wears short shorts?” every time I passed in the hallway. It went on long enough to the point that a few other girls in the grade thought this bullying was extremely upsetting and went to the principal about it on my behalf (if any of you are reading this, thank you for that). Unfortunately, the bullying continued, and it wasn’t until I took the high road and sung back, agreeing that “I wear short shorts” that the harassment finally stopped.

Ninth grade

I was at my first ever part-time job, working in the bakery section of a deli. I was the youngest person there, and most of the other employees were junior and senior guys from a neighboring high school. I was pretty shy, and so didn’t go out my way to talk to the guys, even though I thought all of them were pretty cute and I would have welcomed the attention of getting asked out. I did not welcome the type of attention I ended up actually receiving.

One guy decided, for some reason, that he needed to make me feel like the lowest of the low. He started barking at me every time I passed him, which got a few of the other guys to do that too. This guy would also ask me things of a sexual nature like, “Are you a freak?” (as in, freak in the sheets), and would sort of “pretend” to hit on me and then laugh about it with the other guys. When he wasn’t around, the other guys were “normal,” but this one dude-bro’s presence always changed their demeanor from sweet/helpful to rude/predatory.

I started to get paranoid, thinking I must be super unattractive for these guys to go out of their way to be nasty to me. I couldn’t comprehend any other reason why they’d treat me this way, and it made a big dent in my self-esteem that lasted throughout high school.

College

I was in a serious relationship throughout all of college, and so besides flirting with and dancing with guys at parties, everyone pretty much knew I wasn’t available. I was certainly guilty of leading people on at times, but everything was good-natured and people understood. That didn’t necessarily stop this one guy, one night in my senior year, from trying to put his hand up my skirt. I kept swatting it away and saying that, “I have a boyfriend,” but we were also with a group of people and I didn’t want to ruin the fun we were having. After enough times, I moved away from him, and one of my friends who noticed wedged herself in between us so he wouldn’t keep trying to touch me.

Later that night, he text messaged me, talking about how turned on he was, but also apologizing for his behavior. I reiterated that though I was flattered, I wasn’t looking to date him—I had a boyfriend. The next day, we met up in person, and he officially apologized. We hugged, and I thought everything was good. Then he said, “But, you know, if you are ever on the market…hit me up.”

Witnessing harassment in the workplace

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve never felt sexually harassed at work by colleagues or higher-ups. There was only this one time at one of my previous jobs, when a mail guy who had been moved to my floor (for dubious reasons) asked me what my plans were for the long weekend. I said I was going to hang out with my boyfriend, to which he responded, “Oh, so are you guys gonna drink some wine? Make love? Not make love?” And then when I didn’t answer he said, “Come on, we’re all adults here.” I didn’t end up reporting him because he’d already been reported for other behavior and I was pretty sure he was on his way out.

I wanted to include this other anecdote of harassment. This time it’s about behavior I witnessed, behavior that shows men can be victims too. And that women can be perpetrators:

I once witnessed a female colleague at a previous company inappropriately touch one of our clients. We were all drinking together, so at first I didn’t think anything of it, but when she left the room, the guy said he was very uncomfortable. A few other people commented that “she does this all the time.” A few years later, I found out from a male boss at a completely different company that he’d received unwanted physical advances from this same woman (“she put her hand where she wasn’t supposed to”), and that this was a pattern of behavior that many of his male friends had also endured from her.

I’m keeping all of these stories anonymous because I don’t feel comfortable spreading things about these people, even if they’ve wronged me or others. I also know that many of them have already received some form of repercussions over time, in one way or another.

Still, I’m nervous to be sharing these details (there’s a part of me that fears my honesty will somehow be turned around on me). But I think that’s the type of fear this tidal wave of “me too’s” on social media is trying to assuage. No matter how you slice it, our cultural norms won’t improve until our stories are told.

Until then, the response will always be “me too.”

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The Anxiety of Authorship

(Note: I’m not hating on men.)

I hope I’m not the only writer experiencing anxiety. I can’t be. I shouldn’t be. According to the literary critic duo Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and other writers, I’m definitely not the only one.

In college, I read some of Gilbert and Gubar’s criticism from their book The Madwoman in the Attic. In this book, they develop the idea of “the anxiety of authorship,” exploring the different anxieties men and women feel when writing. (This is where I got the name of my blog. Is it obvious?).

The theory might be dated, but I wonder if we all experience the kind of writing anxiety they suggest. Gilbert and Gubar say that men and women have different approaches to writing, and thus different kinds of writing anxiety. Male writers (subconsciously) “revise” the writing of other male writers that came before them. Female writers, on the other hand, must (subconsciously) “create” their own female writing tradition, because there have not been enough female writers for them to revise. Before the 1800s, most poetry and prose was written by men. It was actually quite blasphemous for a woman to write creatively.

Most writers, male or female, experience a degree of anxiety when thinking of their predecessors. There is a feeling of inadequacy, tension, and hostility. John Keats, way back in the late 1700s, named this awful feeling “belatedness.” Belatedness: the fear that everything great has already been done.

Famed literary critic Harold Bloom thinks writerly “belatedness” can be applied to Freudian psychology. He says that writers have an “anxiety of influence”–a fear they’ll never be better than past writers. According to Freud men must battle their fathers in Oedipal struggle (“kill” their father in order to gain influence and authority). Bloom concludes that writers and artists are anxious for their work to be more influential than their forefathers’ work. His theory, however, suggests only a father and son relationship between past and present writers.

Women could look to their foremothers for that mother and daughter relationship, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were hardly any known female writers. Gilbert and Gubar say that instead of having an “anxiety of influence,” women felt anxious just trying to be an author–they felt an “anxiety of authorship.” A woman’s anxiety of authorship is a fear that she isn’t capable of writing at all, that she will never be a predecessor.

Back in the day, a woman was considered monstrous if she did not conform to the passive angel-in-the-house role that society expected, and female authorship was quite taboo. However, the earliest female writing pioneers like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen, somehow overcame this anxiety of authorship and wrote.

It seems that today, women have a number of successful foremothers to rely on. Gilbert and Gubar’s idea of the “anxiety of authorship” came from the feminist movement of the 1970s. Where does the 21st century woman writer, like me, slip into this theory? I guess we now have mothers of the 20th century, grandmothers of the 19th century, great grandmothers of the 18th century, maybe even some great-great grandmothers. Their work may not date back to ancient Rome, but still. Do today’s women have enough material to “revise”? Does that mean we now experience the “anxiety of influence” like the guys do?

I’m not sure. This theory is really just a theory. It can’t be proven. However, I think since the 20th century, women writers seem to have grown in number and strength. It also seems that more and more students in English literature and creative writing programs are women. It appears to me that women are closer to equality in the literary world than ever before. With all of these woman writers out there, maybe I experience an anxiety of influence and an anxiety of authorship. I do feel overwhelmed because there is so much literature out in the world already. I know I will never get to read it all in my lifetime, and who knows if my writing will ever be better most of it? And of course I’m anxious about just writing and actually getting it done.

Really, I think men and women experience both of the above fears: fear of their writing not being good and fear of never finishing their writing. It’s a lot of anxiety for us writers to experience. But it’s also what pushes us toward greatness.

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