On Anger

I shut this blog down several weeks ago in a fit of insecurity of the kind, ironically, this project is intended to prevent. Something was wrong. I just couldn’t figure out what.

Then, a friend called me out. “When it comes to your work, you have this strong, professional, empowered persona,” she said. “But you have this personal narrative of victimhood that doesn’t make sense.” That second persona is the one that began to come through on this blog. I lost my authentic voice. Instead, I became what I always dreaded: an “angry feminist,” shouting to be heard.

That doesn’t match the mission of this project or my “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy of social change. I meant to inspire, not to criticize; I meant to highlight positive stories, not negative ones. Yet as I looked at the world through a gender lens, I found it impossible to disconnect women’s professional challenges from broader social problems. And the more I looked at those social problems, the more I realized that they had impacted my own life.

For years, I have wanted desperately to talk about my own experience. In fact, the document I wrote after I was raped in 2007 was titled exactly that: “talk about it.” I just wanted somebody to listen, and to know, and to acknowledge that I had been victimized. So before I can move on, I need to get this out of the way.

***

I was sixteen the first time I was assaulted. It was right after lunch, just outside the high school cafeteria. Two guys from the football team said they needed to “talk to me.” One of them, whom I’ll call Dan, had recently started seeing a friend of mine from another school. Dan was considered the hottest guy in our class, and his family lived in a fancy neighborhood near the golf course. I was a nerdy, busty church girl who lived in an old, plain house on the other side of town and had briefly dated his older brother. The previous Friday, when I overheard him saying vulgar things about my friend, I had, well, tattled. I figured the conversation would not be pleasant.

I did not figure this: Dan pushed me up against the white brick wall, next to the vending machines, and put his hand on my crotch. It wasn’t sexual. It felt more like an act of dominance. He called me a bitch and a cock-blocker. He told me I was jealous because I could never get a guy like him. He told me to stay out of his life and threatened me with a vague “or else” that most likely concerned my social life rather than my body.

I was stunned like a cow on a conveyor belt. When Dan and his friend let me go, I walked straight to my AP chemistry class and sat down at my desk in the second row. The bell had already rung. I squirmed in my seat and couldn’t focus. I was deep inside my head, the teacher’s voice a distant drone. I pulled out my bright yellow, school-issued planner and opened the student handbook pages in the front, reading closely the definitions of “threat” and “assault.” My mind was such a jumble that I could not move forward until I saw in print a near-exact description of what had happened to me. Then I ran out of the room and straight to the main office.

As soon as I started telling the counselor–a severe, angry woman all of five feet tall–what happened, I started sobbing. I am sure my words were incoherent. I had the handbook with me and kept pointing to it in the hopes that she would do something. I was a 4.0 student, involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities, and I had never been in trouble for anything–ever–not once.

Instead, she shut me down. She told me that Dan was a good student and a football player. She told me that he would never do something like that unprovoked. Instead of dealing with the issue according to the handbook, she set me up for a peer mediation. “We’re trying to resolve all conflicts this way,” she said. “It’s better for everyone.”

I agreed. Resolution seemed better than retribution. But I would only go through the mediation with Dan, not his sidekick; I did not want to be outnumbered again. Later that week, we went into a small, windowless room and sat down on either end of a long, white table. The mediator, one of Dan’s buddies from the football team, sat between us with an open notebook and led us through a list of questions. Dan explained that he was angry at me because the previous spring, I had confronted some friends of his who made a habit of torturing me for my body. They made vulgar motions toward me with breadsticks while I waited in the lunch line and drew tits under my picture in the yearbook. Eventually, I had asked a trusted teacher to intervene. That I had never filed a formal complaint hardly mattered. According to him, I needed to be put in my place.

In the end, we signed a binding document. It stated that someday, in the future, if I did as I was told, he would apologize to me. For my part, I was to step aside and avert my eyes when he passed me in the hallways. I was never to speak to him or his friends again.

Two years later, Dan and I were both awarded a scholarship for community service from the Rotary Club. The ceremony took place at the golf & country club on a sunny spring day. I gave a rambling speech about how excited I was to go to college; Dan gave a confident two-minute statement of thanks. I remember wondering, as I stood next to him on stage and shook his hand, whether I was violating the terms of our resolution.

That single, relatively minor experience changed my life forever. Maybe I was being a little shit when I told my friend I’d overheard him referring to her as a “ho.” Maybe my older-sister mindset did make me something of a “cock-blocker.” But even in my darkest, most self-hating moments, I could never fully let it go. I was angry. No matter how hard I tried to be a good citizen, I knew I would never be treated like an equal. Not even under the law.

***

Seven years later, I graduated from Georgetown University with my master’s degree in international affairs. I was ridiculously proud of myself. Arrogant, maybe. I never thought I would feel like I belonged at a place like Georgetown, yet there I was, graduating with every available accolade.

My parents flew into town from Seattle. I got my hair done, squeezed into my favorite little black dress, put the finishing touches on the last issue of the journal where I was editor-in-chief, and joined my classmates in Gaston Hall. I felt worthy for the first time. Finally, I was just as valuable to society as a football player–maybe even more.

That night, I went out dancing with my friends. I invited a guy I had just met. Why not? Everything else was going so perfectly. We got drunk and made out on the dance floor. He got drunker and demanded that I walk him back to his hotel. When I left, I told my friends, “I’ll be right back.”

I should never have gone to his hotel room, no matter how much he insisted. I know that. But I did. When we got there, he ripped off my dress, breaking a strap, and pushed me onto the bed. I told him unequivocally to stop. He didn’t. I tried pushing him away with my foot, but he only seemed to find that arousing. My words were as powerless as my body. He seemed to think “no” meant “I want you.” He said, “I don’t have a condom,” as if it were a half-apology. Finally, I gave up.

When it was over, he went to the bathroom and vomited. I turned onto my side, cradled myself, and stared out the window. The hotel room walls were pink; the sky outside was pitch black. It would be hard to find a cab. I watched the night in silence until I heard the toilet flush.

“You have to pack for me,” he said as he walked back into the room. “I can’t do it.” I slipped what was left of my dress back on and modestly, quietly, wandered the room in search of his things. He curled up on the bed, watching me. “In there, too,” he said, pointing toward the closet. I put his clothes in the garment bag.

“I’m so fucked for tomorrow. You really fucked me up.” You? I thought. I went to the bathroom to fill him a glass of water, set it down on the nightstand, and walked to the door.

“I’m a good girl,” I said, inexplicably, and walked out into the night.

***

I wandered the streets until the sun came up, considering my options. I thought about going to the hospital, but what proof did I have that this was rape and not just ill-advised drunken sex? His semen, which presumably would be scraped out of me by a strange man after three hours of waiting in some emergency room, could have got there either way. My torn dress could be evidence of violence or passion, and I wasn’t sure where others demarcated the two. My friends, who’d heard me promise to come back, had also never seen me kiss someone in public like that. Who knows what perfect strangers would think?

I called a friend, just to see how she reacted. I did not use the “r” word. I walked him home, and then he had sex with me, and I didn’t want him to, and he didn’t even use a condom. Rape was something else, something violent, right? This was some milder form of violation, a man just taking whatever he wanted. What’s that called? Maybe when I pushed him away and said no, he thought I was just being playful. How can a drunk guy know the difference? She did not know what word to use, either.

I made the choice to soldier on as if nothing had happened. My parents and I spent the day at Mount Vernon, exploring George Washington’s home and the museum. We learned about Washington’s network of Revolutionary spies and examined his false teeth. My father, a history buff, loved every moment of it. I felt smashed to the ground. My pain was a gravitational force, devouring the delight of our time together like a black hole. Several times, I ran to the bathroom to cry, splashing my face with cold water as if it could wash away the evidence.

I could not muster the courage to tell my parents. I assumed that their first question, to gauge the severity of the offense, would be to ask whether I was a virgin. I would have to confess that I was not. Then, in my imagination, whatever pride in me they had for graduating would be erased. I was afraid. They asked me what was wrong, and I could not answer. I let them fly home confused.

For weeks, I broke down at the most unpredictable intervals. I tried to fix my feelings any way I could–blasting happy-go-lucky Garth Brooks songs, going to church, even seducing someone else in the hope that it would restore the power of my consent. By the time I consulted the great adult student handbook that is the Internet and figured out that what he did really was rape, it was too late.

Besides, I did not think it was entirely his fault. Somehow he believed he was entitled to my body and had no need to seek my consent. I was dealing not with an individual criminal, but with a criminal social attitude. I tried many times to articulate my frustration, but I could never find the words.

Fortunately, someone else could. And he did.

***

In September 2010, Jonathan Franzen came to DC to promote his latest book, Freedom. My roommate convinced me to accompany her to the reading. About half of the nearly 1500 seats at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium were full. We sat near the front, in the thick of the crowd.

Franzen read the excerpt in which his main female character, Patty, is raped at a party. Later, she discusses the incident with her lawyer father, who explains all the reasons why she should not report it. She’ll feel even more violated by the legal process, he tells her. Her attacker has more resources, both financial and social. A trial would ruin her father’s legal practice, her life in that town, and her own future. Here is how Patty responds:

It did seem absurd to imagine Ethan wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting in a jail cell for inflicting a harm that was mostly in her head anyway. She’d done wind sprints that hurt as bad as being raped. […] And yet: the feeling of injustice turned out to be strangely physical. Even realer, in a way, than her hurting, smelling, sweating body.

 

[…] “Look,” her dad said. “Honey. I know it’s tremendously unfair. I feel terrible for you. But sometimes the best thing is to just learn your lesson and make sure you never get in the same position again. To say to yourself, ‘I made a mistake, and I had some bad luck,’ and then let it. Let it, ah. Let it drop.”

 

He turned the ignition halfway, so that the panel lights came on. He kept his hand on the key.

 

“But he committed a crime,” Patty said.

 

“Yes, but better to, uh. Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes.”

When Franzen spoke those words out loud, I felt for the first time that someone understood my situation. On the surface, Patty’s story was different than mine, but underneath, it was exactly the same. I leaned forward in my chair and let my hair hang over my eyes, and I wept. I wept, and I wept, and I wept.

The line for the book signing was long, and I was too overwhelmed to stay, but I wanted, badly, to thank him. I suppose I am thanking him now. In writing Patty’s story, Franzen validated mine.

***

I know dozens of women who have been through what I went through or worse and never spoke up. Often they didn’t know how. Many times they were told not to. Usually they were afraid, with good reason, of suffering further injustice from society. No professional woman wants the words “sexual assault” to appear next to her name in Google’s search bar, especially when she’s looking for her next job. We don’t want to be defined forever as victims or, equally possible and exponentially worse, false accusers.

But if we don’t ever talk about it, we risk letting it define us anyway. In my case, the anger simply worked its way deep inside me, where it lay hidden for a long time, breaching at inconvenient times. It deepened an already dysfunctional relationship with my body and distorted my understanding of sex. Afraid that men only wanted to take advantage of me, I sabotaged a few relationships before they could even start.

Then, when I started this blog, my anger came right up to the surface. I started following all the major voices in the modern feminist space, including critically important projects like Women Under Siege that track sexual assault around the world. Unintentionally, I started to mimic the kind of vulgar, snarky, no-excuses feminist voice that is popular on sites like Jezebel (only I was never as funny). I let every conversation in my life become about gender, and I let every man become my enemy. It’s time to change that for good.

The experience of this project over the last ten months has raised several critical questions for me as an advocate for women’s rights: How can we call attention to the scale of global injustice without falling into the victimhood trap? How can we speak honestly about the past without becoming hostage to it? How can we re-shape the narrative so that advocacy is not synonymous with anger?

I don’t know, but I believe that it is possible. This resuscitation of the In My Binder blog is a start. I want to create space for other women to speak up without compromising their professional image. I want to start a chorus of voices that even the most ambitious women feel comfortable joining. I want women who are prone to think of themselves as victims instead to feel empowered to press on. I want every woman to know that whoever she is and whatever she has been through, there is someone out there who knows exactly how she feels.

I don’t expect my story to change the world, but maybe it will help one other person. Maybe it will allow me to truly hear the other side. And isn’t that, after all, exactly how the world gets changed?

Multimedia Musts: Don’t give up edition

The biggest line from this story on office romances has nothing to do with love and everything to do with the female response to trouble at work:

“And if I had to work harder to prove that my love life wasn’t impacting my work life?” she asked. “Well, so be it. Working harder isn’t the worst thing that can happen.”

Um, ladies? Exactly how much harder do we think we can work?

*

Speaking of people who work for free, I watched this video of Daily Beast/Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown so I could hear her say, “We don’t have respect for content anymore.” But before getting, there, she made an elegant case for letting go of the idea of “having it all.” Worth a listen.

*

The brave team at Women Under Siege has released some new data. I can’t summarize it better than director Lauren Wolfe’s Atlantic headline: “Syria Has a Massive Rape Crisis.” Thank God somebody cares.

*

In more encouraging news, Kate Walsh joins a growing list of actresses (see last month’s NYT Mag profile of Connie Britton) who confess they have been happier and more successful after 35 than before. Sure, they’re actresses. But the barriers they’ve broken are no less real, and I find their continued commitment to their passion incredibly inspiring.

*

If you’re not a member of Levo League, it’s probably time to join. Their mission is spot-on! You might have missed today’s hilarious and encouraging “Office Hours” with Sheryl Sandberg, but you can catch the video at that link. There’s a bonus at the end: a funny, inspiring ad launching their next initiative: www.levoleague.com/ask4more, showing all the ways we currently settle for less.

*

I get asked sometimes what all these issues – rape, civil war, and asking for a raise – really have to do with each other. This story from Tbilisi, Georgia by Tara Isabella Burton unintentionally proves my point. The story of a woman trying to get out from under her husband’s abusive hand is a rich reminder of why economic empowerment is so critical for women’s empowerment in every other sphere. It’s also noisy, evocative, and lyrical, a work of literary art in its own right. Well worth our time.

Moral Crimes, Afghan Justice, and a Small Town in Ohio

I am sure that they will try to kill her again. If her brother did this and they did not put him in jail, why would he have changed? And maybe he will even feel more strongly.
– Hassina Nekzad of Women for Afghan Women

In December, I wrote about Gul Meena, an Afghan girl who ran away from home with a man who was not her husband and survived an attempted honor killing – thanks in large part to the support of villagers and medical personnel in conservative eastern Afghanistan. Finally, we have an update on her story – complete with an incredible photo of her head and face, scarred by ax blows but still held together. Her survival is inspiring. But her story is also a challenge to those of us who believe in putting public pressure on the justice system to do the right thing.

Gul Meena’s story broke at around the same time that the Steubenville, Ohio rape case hit the national media and the whole world learned the horrifying story of a rape in New Delhi. I had just written about a teenage girl who took to Twitter for revenge after the courts let off two boys who sexually assaulted her. In all three cases, thousands of people like me are concerned that the courts will not do their jobs. We contend that these cases are about more than just the individuals at stake; their outcomes will determine whether sexual assault is taken seriously by the courts and therefore by our society. We worry that not punishing these criminals does more than just let dangerous men go free – it endorses a culture that blames victims, not perpetrators, for assault. In other words, our worries are strikingly similar to those of the Pashtun villagers mentioned in the Times’ original article.

While Gul Meena has survived for now, she remains in danger of what an American would call vigilante justice and what many Afghans would call reality. Tribal law and the court of public opinion could yet decide that her “moral crime” merits the punishment her brother tried to inflict, and if she goes home, the justice system can do little to protect her. Her best hope would be a trial of both her and her brother for their separate crimes. While the entire category of “moral crimes” is about as acceptable to women’s rights advocates as blaming a female rape victim for getting drunk, it’s the reality of Afghan law and the reason I was furious over criticism of western Afghanistan’s chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir that was published in the Times last month.

After all, Bashir’s effectiveness as a woman is directly tied to her performance as prosecutor. A respected advocate for Afghan women and winner of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award, Bashir has been a powerful force for fighting corruption and establishing rule of law in Herat Province. In a country where the formal justice system is often trumped by commonly held ideas about sharia and tribal law, Bashir’s prosecution record – including for adultery, which is a crime under Afghan law – is outstanding. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I want to be an enforcer of the law rather than human rights.”

While it may pain Bashir to prosecute these women, she’s taking the long view. It’s the wise one. A functioning justice system that entitles any citizen to a fair trial under existing law is humanity’s best solution to the vexing problem of crime. While some Americans still yearn for the Wild West, I am willing to bet that most women recognize they are safer inside a justice system than outside of it.

That’s why today’s news out of Steubenville is actually heartening. One of the lawyers for the two small-town football players accused of rape has requested a delay, a change of venue, and a closed trial. When I think about this case, a moral crime if ever there was one, I feel angry. I worry that the courts will find some absurd reason to let these boys go, silencing present and future victims of sexual assault who may lose their faith in justice as a result. But the only way to ensure justice in the long run is to give the accused a fair trial.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do as so many Afghans have done for Gul Meena: support victims, even when that means risking our reputations on their behalf; advocate for necessary changes in our laws and our cultures; and hold the justice system accountable – not to our personal consciences, but to the law.

I’m Over It, Too

If you’re following these issues at all, you probably already know three things about rape culture:

  1. Indian women are over it. Don’t even make me put all those hyperlinks in here. It’s not just New Delhi. If you really want a new definition of brutal sexual assault, use your Google machine and type in the words rape or gang rape and Haryana. If you’re not in a place where it will be okay to weep openly, try not to read the stories about prepubescent girls – and be warned, there are lots of them.
  2. The U.S. Congress doesn’t care. (Why are we not surprised?) America may be starting to, as fallout from the Steubenville, Ohio attack is finally hitting the news, or it could just be another case of the somebody-should-do-somethings.
  3. Eve Ensler is over it, and asking us all to be the somebody who does something.

Well, I won’t be reading any of her monologues anytime soon, but I will be joining Ms. Ensler to Occupy Rape on February 14, 2012. One way or another, I’ll be telling my own story.

Why? Because we have allowed shame to silence so many victims and empower so many perpetrators. Because we’ve accepted this culture for so long. Because yes, there is a link between sexual violence and women’s ability to succeed in the workplace.

A culture that passes off sexual harassment as mere “eve teasing” – sorry, in Western parlance, “boys will be boys” – is a culture that will never treat women as equals.

So why do we – nice, polite girls who try to cover up our cleavage and suck it up when the powerful old guys talk to us like we’re trash – let Slut Walk and Eve Ensler do our dirty work?

I joined Ms. Ensler’s campaign, but for me, standing up doesn’t mean reading one of her plays. It means speaking up in my own voice. It means pointing out that rape isn’t just something that happens in Appalachia or at frat parties or in far-off places. A culture that blames women’s bodies for tempting the men around them is reprehensible, whether it’s expressed by covering women in burqas or firing them for their curves or even shunning them from church because their God-given breasts are too big. (And I’m not just talking about Jessica Simpson, here.)

In this kind of culture, the only way to be taken seriously as a woman is to erase your body as much as possible. That can take the form of voluntary breast reduction, something many women I know have done. It can take the form of weight gain or loss. It can take the form of dressing as masculine as possible, as commentators like Ruth Marcus recommend, condemning young, single women to a joyless future with no room for sexuality.

That’s why I’m inspired by other women who refuse to play by those rules, and I don’t mean by wearing skintight dresses in the workplace. I mean by simply being women, their full selves, in whatever context, and refusing to accept any gender-based barriers to success.

Don’t just do it for the rest of us, do it for yourself. It’s a question of honor.

Why Sex Matters

I know I am on a kick recently. Someone politely asked me what all this discussion of sexual assault and lipstick had to do with work/life balance, motherhood, and similar issues concerning women in public life. Another asked, is it prudent for you to write about this when you want professional women to trust you with their life histories? The answer is simple: No, it’s not prudent. And the fact that it’s not prudent is precisely the issue.

On some level, it is possible – and sometimes politically necessary – to isolate issues and to distance ourselves from them. Maternity leave is perhaps the easiest example. Some institutions, such as the Department of State, still require women to take sick leave to have a child. We treat childbirth, upon which our continued existence as a species depends, as an illness. Women who do not have enough sick leave saved up can invoke the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that leave is unpaid. This is an easily understood problem with a clear fix. You don’t have to get emotional to see my point.

But even that simple issue reflects bigger problems with the role of women in public life. One of the women in my binder put it this way: “As a woman, your invitation to the table is conditional.” At work, we are seen as optional, not indispensable. Likewise, institutions assume that our income is not critical to our household finances.

The only way to get around that right now is to style ourselves as men. That can mean following Ruth Marcus’ advice to hide our attractiveness, which is particularly devastating for single women whose only hope of finding a partner is during their nonstop workday. That can mean being the kind of woman who schedules her C-section for the weekend and comes into work early on Monday, earning the praise of her colleagues and superiors (not a theoretical example). For many women, it means paying out-of-pocket for breast reductions so that our bodies don’t automatically compromize our public image (also a true story). When we are harassed or assaulted, we are told to remain silent, lest it harm our own reputation (it happened to me in 2004, in 2006, and in 2007). In essence, to gain acceptance as professionals, we have to prove that we are just like men.

I find that unacceptable. At the end of the day, sex – that loaded term – is what distinguishes men and women. It is the number one method of human reproduction. It is one of the strongest desires expressed by our species, the pursuit of which causes people to seek power and to put it in jeopardy, to earn and to spend money, to win and to lose social status. It is the area in which social attitudes toward men versus women differ most sharply. And it is the topic that lurks under our most powerful emotions. Which issues most deeply divide our nation? Abortion and gay marriage – both of which revolve around sex.

I don’t ask any of the women in my binder to discuss their sexuality unless they choose to, and I do not want to become known as a single-issue advocate. But after years of trying to talk around this issue, I think it’s time to talk about it. Too many of us stay silent about sexual harassment and sexual assault, accepting the argument that it is all women’s fault. We live fearfully in the gray zone, where we want to be found attractive by potential partners but do not want to be blamed for the unwanted attention that also comes our way.

By mainstream logic, men are so weak that a pair of “toned triceps” can threaten our national security. If women want to work alongside men, they must do everything in their power to avoid tempting them. We pretend that the United States is so different from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iran, but our society merely expresses the same prejudices in different ways. I am no more willing to stay silent about our own distorted attitudes than I am to endorse public stonings – especially not when the women of Afghanistan are risking their lives for change. In comparison, my worries about my reputation and possible future employment seem absurd.

I love my country passionately. I believe that we can only fulfill our potential as a nation if women are fully included in public life. I will not betray the trust of the women in my binder or put words in their mouths, nor do I wish to make them uncomfortable by affiliating them directly with my outspoken voice – which is why I repeat that these are my opinions, not theirs.

But I have agreed to remain silent for far too long. No more. If a teenager in Kentucky can stand up for herself,* so can I. Stay tuned.