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Misogyny Disguised as Attraction Should Be Labeled HAZMAT

Every girl remembers the first time she was degraded sexually in public.

Key points

  • You turn to self-hatred because it's easier than hating everybody else; If you're at fault, you can improve.
  • Girls realize if they are the center of attention, they can become easy targets. Some withdraw; others hide.
  • Misogyny disguised as "natural instinct" is as toxic as any other hazardous material and should be labeled.
  • Girls and women develop strategies to make ourselves feel, if not safe, then safer. A few might actually help.

Every girl remembers the first time she was degraded sexually in public.

It is not, as the movies would have us believe, a lovely moment of sensual awakening and blossoming womanhood: You're not delighted to get a whistle from a cheerful admirer you’ve known since elementary school who suddenly realizes you are the sole object of his attractions because you just got your braces removed.

You are going to get called a word that sears you like a piece of meat because it refers to you as a piece of meat. You hate yourself for drawing this kind of negative attention. You turn to self-hatred because it's easier than hating everybody else, and maybe if you hate yourself, you have the power to change what can happen. If it's something that "just happens," the emotional chaos can seem overwhelming.

It’s that moment when you start carrying your keys in your hand so you’ve got quick access to the door plus some metal between your fingers and when you should have your phone pre-dialed to 91 so that there is one more digit to hit. You think you should be behaving

It’s the sense of shame sweeping over you because maybe you tried to look “pretty,” only to be demoralized by having drive-by insult flung in your direction. You thought you looked cute but they are saying you look like a hooker.

Your mother, or your aunt, or a teacher, or a family friend tries to comfort you (you don’t tell your father or brothers about this because they would only get mad and you’re already as mad at the world as you ever want to be). Your comforters tell you it has nothing to do with you, that this kind of thing “just happens”—which is exactly what you do not want to hear. Maybe they try to laugh about it and (quoting W.C. Fields) say, “It’s ain’t what they call you; it’s what you answer to” that matters. "This is not about you. It's what every one of us goes through."

But after this first sense of unsafely, you always know where the well-lighted streets are, because you become afraid to head down shadowed streets. But you become also wary of being in the spotlight, because if you are the center of attention, you have become an easy target. Maybe you withdraw, or hide, or shut down.

Maybe you develop a ninja-like awareness of your surroundings even when you’re supposed to be relaxing and enjoying yourself.

You start recognizing that nowhere is safe. If somebody sees you or hears you, then you're somehow fair game.

Girls and women, like other groups who are vulnerable, develop strategies to make ourselves feel, if not safe, then safer. These strategies are talismanic rather than scientific, but some do work.

I discovered around age 12, for example, that one way to dissuade men from leering at me or making sucking-teeth-clicking noises as I passed them on the street was to stick a finger in my ear and start digging. You have to look really determined; you have to appear on a mission.

If that didn’t work and an intimidating presence remained nearby — let’s say on a subway or bus where you couldn’t just sneak away casually but had to stay in your seat for fear of never finding one again—sticking another finger unapologetically and directly into a nostril and keeping it there would, nine times out of 10 work instantly.

That you’d never be able to get a date with a nice, normal guy riding the same train would be the downside.

Yes, women and girls have ways of making ourselves inconspicuous.

It isn’t modesty that drives women and girls to be meek: It’s fear. It’s self-protection.

Do not tell yourself that women are being forced into the virtue of modesty because we’re not, no more than a man with his hand cut off is being forced into the virtue of patience.

It’s also hard to get ahead in the world if you spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re not being stalked.

Yet, yes, all women—all humans—want love. And so we must distinguish between those gestures, declarations, and actions that disguise themselves as “attraction” when they are derived from fear and informed by contempt—as if being smuggled under a fake passport—stamped “romance” when more accurately they should be labeled “HAZMAT”

And yes, while we might wish we could shut it all out and pretend it will go away, we can’t.

Hatred and misogyny camouflaged under the cloak of “natural instinct,” “the laws of attraction,” or “the way it is meant to be” haunts, corrodes, and seeps from one generation to the next.

The system that supports instilling fear in women and girls can’t be ignored; it must be dismantled.

Note: This post is adapted from an article that first appeared in 2014 (and I wish I could say that things have changed for the better, but they have not).

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