Sometimes I Feel Like A Walking Trigger

by Lisa M. O'Neill

A few weeks ago, just after the tapes were released with Trump describing his right to sexual assault, I took my dog on our nightly walk. The clouds lit up with the last bit of light as evening turned from dusk to dark. As we walked, I took in the periphery. As I always do. As we always do. The man I had noticed walking across the street was beginning to cross over to my side so that he would be walking directly behind me. His figure, in silhouette, moved quickly. I picked up my small dog, turned, and began to walk in the opposite direction, watching him from the side of my eye until I saw that he intended to walk on. Then, I turned around and walked towards home.

Some might call that overreacting. I call it survival.

This man was probably a decent human being. He likely had no idea that his close crossing could set off my adrenal system so fast, fight-or-flight hormones coursing through my veins. Maybe he didn’t even notice the woman across the street walking her dog alone. Certainly, he wouldn’t think of what it was like to be her — walking alone in a woman’s body. He wouldn’t think about this because he has never had to — because our entire culture gives permission for him to remain ignorant of what his body means in close proximity to mine.

Before my walk, I got a text message from a friend I hadn’t seen in years. His message began “re: Trump.” He wrote that he couldn’t stop thinking about that time, now years ago, when we were out listening to music and this drunk man kept grabbing my butt — not once, not twice, but three or four times. He was heartbroken, he said, that he couldn’t prevent it after the first time, and he was sorry he didn’t do more. He wrote: “That will never happen again.”

I took a few minutes to respond, stumped about what to say because of one fact: I had no memory of that incident. We had been out and I had ordered a few drinks, but I knew that wasn’t why I didn’t remember. Because once I began to reflect, I started to fill in the details of where I was standing, what I was wearing, what happened, and how pissed off I had been before shrugging it off. This moment that stood out starkly in my friend’s memory was, for me, just one of many times when I was made to feel my body was not my own: through touch, through speech, through inappropriate proximity, catcalls, body-shaming, unwanted dances, unwanted touches to the small of my back, grabs of my breasts and butt, running commentary on my shape, size, or features. A moment that stood out to my male friend as shocking — so much so that he felt compelled to reach out years later — was, even if demoralizing and infuriating, completely and utterly ordinary to me.

All too often, in addition to dealing with sexism (and in many cases, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia) on a daily basis, women are made to bear witness to men waking up.

When I texted back, I told my friend I had probably blocked that moment out. And then, I told him about a few other incidents: When walking down a crowded New Orleans street on Halloween, a man passing by reached out and grabbed my breast; he was gone before I realized what had happened. Another time, while leaning over at a bar to order a drink, I felt a hard slap on my butt that shocked my system. I turned around and yelled, “What the fuck?” And then, “Why did you do that?” The man’s answer: “because it was there.” Mostly recently, my women friends and I were taking a selfie when an older white man offered to take our picture, and upon taking my phone and stepping back, made a gesture as if cupping his own hypothetical breasts and said something to us about putting ours forward; then, as I struggled to process what happened and maintain composure, he told me to smile.

Reliving these moments made me think of how much women must block out just to function. As one woman friend said, “If you remembered that all the time, you’d probably never go to a bar again.” I’d never go to a bar, never go to a coffeeshop, never walk down the street, never ride my bike, never drive my car, never go to work, never write something I care about, never do any of the things that make up my life. While I choose not to be controlled by the fear that some man somewhere will decide that now is the moment my body belongs to him, the threat is always here, a wet whisper underneath. To be women in the world is to walk through life in bodies that some people don't believe belong to us.

But besides those men that would cause us harm, there are also so many good men who do nothing. And I don’t mean that they don’t step in to help when something happens — I mean that they allow misogynistic comments and jokes to be said in their presence without intervening. I mean that they hear women in their lives complain about sexism and make excuses — either to these women or to themselves — about why they are overreacting. There are good men who don’t have difficult conversations with other men. Men who don’t do the work of undoing their learned misogyny. Just as it is white people’s job to figure out ways to dismantle the systemically racist culture we built and benefit from, it is the job of men to educate themselves and one another and to dismantle patriarchy.

All too often, in addition to dealing with sexism (and in many cases, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia) on a daily basis, women are made to bear witness to men waking up. When my friend texted me out of nowhere to share his story with me, I had just returned home from a lovely day at a festival and suddenly, his text forced me into navigating, remembering, and reliving a traumatic moment when a man was touching my body without my permission and refused to stop.

Once I could locate my discomfort with my friend’s text, I wrote him back to tell him that I appreciated him reaching out, but that next time, if he wanted to share something like this with me, I would appreciate him asking first if I was ready to engage with potentially difficult material. He apologized and promised to do better. This simple exchange gave me hope. He was thinking about ways he might have been complicit in perpetuating misogyny by not stepping in or doing more, and he listened to what I had to say about my own experience.

Women are sick of feeling that our lives, health, and wellbeing are in constant danger. We are tired of having to explain rape culture to people who say it doesn’t exist. We are tired of clarifying why consent is necessary. We are tired of being told we are being too serious or that we should lighten up. Women don’t need rescuing, but we do need to be listened to — during this election, and well after.

Images: Pixabay