There is a poem by the writer Nayyirah Waheed that has lived at the back of my mind for the last two years:
“all the women
On Thursday I watched in short intervals and between work emails the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her accused assaulter slash current Supreme Court candidate, Brett Kavanaugh, and, like everyone else, I’m now left waiting to find out if credible character testimony will successfully repudiate the SCOTUS nomination of a man who may very well be the tipping point to reverse decades of social and legal progress in our country. On social media my feed filled with side-by-side photos of Dr. Blasey and Anita Hill, who testified against Clarence Thomas 27 years ago when he was nominated for this same court. In 27 years, three quarters of my life to date, there are many ways we can say that the landscape has somewhat improved for women, thanks to the steady and continuous pressure of so many trailblazers. However, after 27 years, we find ourselves in the exact same position, a nation full of women being triggered by a situation that feels all-too-familiar for too many of us, and, even worse, we are still not certain this testimony will prevent Kavanaugh’s nomination.
This week, my newsfeed was also filled with images containing the plea: “Believe Her”. I saw it in hashtags and I saw it written on signs. I saw it in personal testimonials from my friends coming forward for the first time about their personal experiences with assault, and I even wrote and said it a few times myself as the news cycle sped along. Because I do believe her, I have no reason not to. Then, on Thursday evening, in the wake of discovering that the messy, embarrassing, entitled personal testimony of a man nominated for one of the highest offices in the land had left the Senate Judiciary Committee unwavered in their support of his nomination, we were all left to reckon with a new revelation. It suddenly became very clear that the plaintive cry “Believe Her” is as useful at these hearings as it would be if it were yelled into a black hole. They don’t not believe her. They just do not care.
I am not a survivor of assault, and so this week was not as triggering to me as to many, many women I know. I also know that my exclusion from this populous club full of members indoctrinated without choice is not, as some say, because I was raised “strong and independent”, or because I dress “modestly enough”. Strength and independence, I have found, save no one from the actions of a man who feels entitled to what he wants at any given moment. Some of my strongest, most independent friends are survivors of great trauma at the hands of men who simply did not care.
When I was a young girl, made mostly of gangly legs and low self-esteem, my father had a favorite expression to yell at me if I ever got dressed up, which was: “LOCK UP YOUR SONS!” He invariably meant it as a thinly veiled warning to keep myself out of trouble, but expressions like this perpetuate in our everyday language the lack of responsibility we place on men for their own actions. The idea that boys and men should be kept in locked rooms to restrain themselves from their inevitable attack of any woman they cross on the street is irresponsible, and releases generation on generation from responsibility for their own actions. This thinking knows no gender divide, made apparent by one particularly infuriating Op-ed in the New York Times last Fall by Mayim Bialik claiming that she had escaped assault in the film & television industry by “dressing modestly”. As someone who earned a black belt in martial arts as a child and learn how to punch an assailant in an eyes with my house keys as a teenager, I can tell you confidently that the only thing that spared me from sexual assault was that no one chose to assault me. Not my “strength”, to “independence”, nor anything else under my control could have saved me. An assault is not a situation where the victim has any control.
Proposing that the solution to this issue is to somehow “fortify our girls” implies that the two women most mentioned in this week’s news, Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, are somehow less than strong. Their achievements, their lives, and their resolute and very public stands against their assaulters would prove otherwise.
And because this week I have heard so much said about the importance of raising Strong Girls, there is something I would like to say: it should not be the responsibility of girls in this country to have to be strong. Being strong means many different things to many different people, and if we sacrifice the strengths of compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence in order to prioritize raising girls that are simply able to defend themselves from men, we are perpetuating the same tired system that has kept us this repressed for this long. These are traits that should be nurtured in boys and men as well, because they are responsible for so much of what makes the world good. Men love to say “having a daughter made me realize…” What about your mother? The woman who birthed and raised you? Is she not worthy of you developing compassion for other human beings and holding yourself accountable to your actions?
Women have been doing the work to move toward equity for quite some time now, and it is almost never perfect and one should also note it is rarely ever truly inclusive, but at a certain point, the men need to step up. That time is now.
Men, start conversations with your sons about consent well before puberty, still as small children. This doesn’t mean just speaking with your son about how righteous you yourself are in your actions past and present. Speak to them about times you fucked up. Speak to them about times you may have hurt someone or times you may carry around guilt from from long ago. Be honest with them. Being a “good person” is not a unilateral path in this world. Show them that they can start being a good person by making the right choices and considering others, but also that when they make a bad decision, they still have a route to move forward. That they, invariably, can own up to their own actions, improve themselves along the way, and recognize that they can have an effect on the injustices of this world by undoing their own privilege. So can you. Take a personal inventory of the times you may have hurt someone, and sit and marinate in the discomfort of that inventory. Teach your sons to consider the feelings and thoughts of others both before and after events.
I am tired of training girls to protect themselves from boys while boys continue to exist with impunity in their privilege. For centuries, women have been groomed into contorting their bodies and minds and actions around the presence of men to make them more comfortable, to keep themselves safe, to be able to survive. Survival is of no use while the Brett Kavanaughs and Brock Turners of the world are in positions of power, effectively or metaphorically. I will still teach my daughter to be strong, but I will also teach her that one of her biggest strengths, one that she will never have to weaponize, is her compassion. And God willing, if I do it right, she’ll teach that one day to her sons.
And today, CALL YOUR SENATORS.