My housemate today insisted that he, not I, had reason to be afraid.
“She yelled at me first,” he insisted. (In the past year, I have yelled at exactly one person. My housemate has yelled at more individuals than this over this past week.)
“I was afraid she would throw her cup of hot tea at me,” he whined. (The cup was full of cold water. I did not, needless to say, throw it at him.)
“I am afraid she will damage my stuff,” he declared. (The facilitator asks, ‘has she ever damaged your stuff?’ Housemate’s response: no — but she might!)
This too-typical exchange comprises what I have begun to think of as the ‘how was I supposed to know?’ line of misogynistic argument.
It goes something like this: She said she would only fuck me if I was wearing a condom, but I thought she changed her mind — how was I supposed to know she hadn’t? I thought she might like to be raped with a stick — how was I supposed to know she wouldn’t? Some girls like to be strangled during sex — how was I supposed to know she didn’t?
Another way to frame this question is: unless she explicitly says no, and ideally backs it up with some physical violence, men can assume the answer is yes.
Another way to frame this question is: if she has not already said no, then a man can assume the answer is yes, up to the future point at which she says no.
The argument goes the other way, too. If she does get angry, then unless the man can himself empathize with her anger and understand its source, then he need not pay attention. Once he has decided she is no longer worthy of his attention, then if she continues to speak, he can declare this to be a pathological act. In fact, if she speaks once he has decided to stop listening, he can call her a stalker, a crazy, pathological, dangerous.
He can call her whatever he wishes, and most likely, he can get away with it.
When the man I used to know crosses my mind, I think of the song ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ I think about how naivete can be a product of power. I think about how privilege requires a view of this world that is rooted in obliviousness about how the world truly functions.
I think of my housemate, insisting in one breath that ‘this has nothing to do with that man/woman stuff’ and in the next breath, stating that he believes I ought to apologize for asking him to do a chore.
To which request he responded by screaming in my face.
I think of that guy who stuck his hand down my underwear in a hotel hallway because hey, I might have wanted it. You never know. I “seemed” to want it, which means, it seemed as though I might not say no. I might be too drunk or heartbroken or deprived of self-esteem to say no.
Puff the Magic Dragon, lives by the sea. As long as a person lives in that other world, that fairy-story world where virtue is rewarded and evil punished. As long as that person lives in a white man’s world, where people are all kind and supportive and caring and the women nurture his talent and the men all cheer him on. As long as his intelligence is honored and his strengths valued.
Puff the Magic Dragon, and that world belongs to the rare few who are born into it. The rest of us may indeed get ahead, but it is not by ‘virtue,’ which is another word for not questioning the bare bones of this world. Virtue, which is a thing someone is said to have when they make the authorities feel very good about their power, and when they successfully screw over everyone else by not noticing everyone else’ pain.
Puff is very sad, because he lives apart from the world. That is the cost of such a perspective. Puff lives in Plato’s cave, and hopes to be visited by people who will know him and love him. Though he cannot know and love them. Sooner or later, they will reveal their lack of virtue, their despicable state of being tainted by the realities of this sometimes none too friendly world. Sooner or later, they will demonstrate impurity or moral weakness, and he will hate them.
Unlike him, they are not perfect. They are not good. They are not worthy of his love.
Perhaps he will find another like him someday. A girl born into nearly as much privilege as he was. Someone who was able to flit through life unconcerned, to express the requisite sympathies for the popular objects of pity. Someone who does volunteer work because she never has to worry whether her doctor will tell her to lose weight and ignore her cancer. Someone who walks with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face because she knows she looks expensive enough that those men on the subway train will find another girl to grope. Someone who has the resources to sue if her boss gets handsy.
Someone very unlike me.
Wealth does much to bring a smile to a person’s face. Resources do an awful lot to give a girl a cheery attitude.
Those men, the ones who say “well how was I supposed to know she wasn’t into it.” They don’t target girls like her. That is because they target girls like me.
Once upon a time, I was okay with that. With being the victim. So that he could be the hero, in some other girl’s life. Instead of recognizing that there are things that I will never be able to save myself from, things he cannot save me from either.
Puff, the magic dragon, and I do not live by the sea. I flew out to New York to start a new and different life. I spent the past year living in a fantasy.
I change. Because I have been taught that everything is always all my fault. He does not change, will not change, because he has been taught, also, that everything is all my fault. And never ever his.
Puff, the magic dragon, misses his Jackie. That is sad. But Jackie grew up. I have grown up, this past year. I do not want to live in a cave and be apart from the rest of the world. I do not believe any more that a man is a dragon or has a right to act like a dragon, to hoard resources or breathe fire at those who get too close. I do not believe it is fair and just that I be burnt to a crisp because I got too close to his gold or to his wounds.
Puff, the magic dragon. I miss him. I might well always miss him. He was my best friend. He was the love of my life. He was my sacred sexuality.
I do not want to leave him. I want him to wander out of his cave and join me. Here, in the real world. Where he is not a dragon. Where he is just a man. With all the pain and the horror and the delight and the shivery pleasure that entails.
Love and making love are the same, and that is a secret most people do not know. Isn’t it?
It is important for dragons to have their caves and it is important for mermaids to have their caves. I am building up my cave so I have a safe place to get away. Everyone needs a safe place to get away, this poet wrote once a very long time ago. Then I thought I was in love with that poet, briefly, except really I just needed that one idea and I stayed for the rest out of shame.
I am very tired of shame that is not my own.
Caves are important, and it is important to have a safe place to get away. But it is also important to know that outside of the cave, the world goes on. It is also important to know that love can be found in that world, and acceptance, and a kindness that will break your heart.
Puff, and I am so angry. Because he is not a dragon. Because I am not a girl to be rescued. Andromeda is boring. I want to be Medusa.
For that matter? Perseus is boring. I want a monstrous boy with a girl’s soft heart. Not because I want a girl. But because having a heart is a thing boys grow up learning is a phenomenon only to be found in girls. That real boys have oak and absence where their their hearts used to be.
Becoming real after being nothing is difficult. Boys are emotional nothings, torn from the roots of their connection to the community. Girls are public nothings, social ghosts.
I am a girl he brought back to life. For better or worse.
Puff, the magic dragon has two choices. He can give up on his friend, forever. Or he can choose to stop being a dragon, and become a boy.
Puff, the magic dragon whose best friend, Jackie, was also his human counterpart. And our humanness, with all its foolish uncertainty and anxieties, cannot exist apart from the public record, the community story.
My story is, I loved him, and I lost him. And I grieve him still.
I do not want to be Girl who treats him like Boy. Just people. Two people. With two different stories and two different and sometimes opposing languages. Trying to build a bridge through the wilderness of our divergent traumas. Together.
The dragon who is just a boy. Who sweats and shits and presumably has all sorts of experiences and reactions that are inconvenient and awkward and unflattering, perhaps even embarrassing, though not to me.
Who is human, and has never once found that delightful. Boys are meant to be heroes, you see. Or dragons, if they cannot be heroes. Being a monster is better than being nothing at all.
Human is a whole lot more than nothing, however.
Being lovable is really not so bad. Being touchable is really not the end.
It is really just the beginning.
The beginning is sex, and also violence. My knowledge of myself as a woman was born through violence. I learned what being a woman is through watching my mother accept my father’s violent rages. I learned what being a wife is when my mother said ‘he’s just stressed’ after he humiliated and belittled her then cracked jokes about her to me. I learned that I never wanted to grow up. I learned that no self-respecting girl would ever want to become a woman.
And so, I tried not to. I fought back, the only way I could think to do it. I tried to shrink down, I did not want to eat, I did not want to live too visibly, I did not want to stand out from the crowd. I hoped to disappear all objectionable parts of me, which were also all the feminine female parts of me.
The argument “how was I supposed to know” has a corollary. It goes, “maybe she wanted it.”
In 1989, a mentally challenged teenage girl was lured to a basement by members of the town’s high school football team. She had known them all her life. Those boys inserted into her body: a baseball bat, a broom handle, and a stick she had found lying in the park. When caught, they insisted that she had wanted it. That she had responded with passion and arousal. That they believed she was a consenting participant.
After all, she never tried to leave. This teen girl. Surrounded by a dozen male athletes. Who she thought of as her friends. Who she wanted to please.
Why didn’t she leave is a very interesting question from a certain perspective. It seems to explain so much. She must not have left, because she chose to say, which must mean she wanted to stay, this logic goes.
It is very easy to be afraid. It is easy to learn the habits of fear. “Survival mode” is what it’s called sometimes, but that does not do justice. The way your rabbit-heart beats inside your prey-animal chest. The way your eyes dart looking for something tall to hide behind. The way the mammal brain knows it is being hunted.
The way even ‘nice’ guys approach women as prey, likely to startle and run off. The way charisma and seduction techniques, flattery and manipulation, lies and perhaps some measure of coercion, are used to lure female animals into becoming female vessels for masculine power.
The way men are encouraged to view sex as an act of taking something from women. Whether it is something we might give willingly, at least to one specific man, is of no consequence. No one is interested in what we have to say. ‘No one’ meaning ‘no man,’ meaning ‘no real man’ because everyone knows real men do not listen to women, especially not about sex.
The way men look for signs of attraction in women with the same scrutiny with which hunters analyze their prey. The way these analyses often bypass the woman’s thought process and mind, preclude any conversation with her about who she is or what she wants. The way men imagine they know what she wants, which is a man who is a hero, which is a man who has no emotions and who wants nothing from her except an empty hole.
For women who have been raped, sex will always exist alongside the possibility of rape. The memory is in the body. The body cannot be made to see reason, thankfully. My body cannot be made to adopt a man’s perspective, not even for a moment. My body is not interested in being hunted. Not even by a man I love.
Being fucked by a man who must believe he has taken something from me in order to enjoy fucking me, is no less degrading than being raped.
It is men who must change. Women are not wrong to be scared. Men are wrong to be scary.
Men are afraid of other men every day of their lives. Yet when they act like the most powerful men in the room, and women become submissive and acquiescing empty-headed vessels, men ask no questions.
Men are not dragons, but women are not prey.
This is the world we live in. It cannot be escaped. It can only be contended with. Loved, hated, needed, mourned. Jacob wrestles the angel, and wins, because patriarchy insists that an admirable man, a hero, must win every battle. Even against an angel. Even against a woman’s rights over her own body.
Do not be a hero. Be a person. Let the angel win.