When I Learned Sexism Touched My Life

SEXISM 1. discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of the opposite sex
I was 26 and independent, sitting on a curb outside Whole Foods on a cool summer night, chatting on my cell, sipping an iced cappuccino.
Shaun was talking about the moments of awakening participants experienced at a conference he’d recently attended, “The Equality of Men and Women.” He told about honest dialogue between men and women in the main room, how grown men cried, apologizing for their mistake of thoughtlessly seeing women were less important and treating them accordingly. I stopped listening for a second. Next came tears, then for the first time, I realized sexism was real and had touched my life. Before this night, I was convinced I had out maneuvered the brand of evil that marked me as an object, as a lesser human being, soley based on showing up in the world female.
At the corner store below our apartment I was the only customer again. The new owner, and Indian man, came around from behind the counter into the aisle behind where I stood deciding which soft drink to spend my allowance on. He reached both hands up and started rubbing my shoulders. I shook him off. He smiled, gave a slight grunting laugh and walked away. Any time I was alone in the store he did this, for months, so I gave it no thought. He walked away after all. Until the day he didn’t. That day he bent low and kissed my neck. I am strong and have always been praised for it. He had crossed the line and I knew it. I reached back with a sideways fist and hit him where my hand landed, as hard as I could. With injured pride he raised his voice angrily asking why did I do that! Did I answer? He walked back behind the counter. I walked to the cash register, paid for my snack and left. He no longer come around from behind the counter though I continued to shop there for 3 more years. He never spoke to me again. Was this to punish me or wisdom on his part? I was 12.
Shaun told me how women were pouring out stories of discrimination and abuse to their haunted but loving audience of men they knew intimately, as friends or as acquaintances. How had I missed the elephant? I heard myself telling Shaun I was unaware of what most women experience as I have so few female friends. “Women are…annoying.” As the words fell off my lips I trembled in shame and recognition.
Until 5th grade when one boy shot up a head above everyone else and confidently challenged me to a match he knew he could win, I was arm wrestling champion of my school class and of my neighborhood. Kids lined up on a metal train at the park hoping to beat my record. At camp summer before 8th grade, I rode that 48 bike trail coming in ahead of everyone at each rest area, which wasn’t easy since a pack of threatened, though good-natured, boys determined to beat me to each “finish” after I “won” coming in to our first stop.
Shaun laughed slightly in recognition at my verbal fumble (he faced his own shame at the conference), at my sad realization that I thought I was better than most women, that I chose to judge a group of people based on one factor and so avoid most of them.
My best friend Mary was gang raped by two 21 year old men that hung around fountain square hoping to buy young women alcohol (I didn’t realize their intention until years later). We knew them as familiar and weren’t threatened. They came around for months before that disgusting helpless afternoon. Then they disappeared. I get sick in my throat as I bring them to mind enough to write a simple description. They both had strained speech, smiled to one side revealing teeth yellow from smoke. I walked to my friends house the way I did most afternoons and found our mutual friend Jenny hysterical, pacing in the front yard. She told me what was going on in the north bedroom. Sadly, neither of us, both latch key children, had been prepared to see this as an emergency, or we might have called the police. Truthfully we were stuck, since our friend was drunk, having stolen the alcohol from her parents and now too drunk to say yes or no for herself. We had no idea how to navigate the next right move without stepping on one land mine or another. My memory of that day goes blank after a desperate expression crosses Jenny’s face. We were 15.
Shaun continued to paint a beautiful picture of lives renewed, couples grown closer, friendships mended and forged. I listened quietly letting tears drop off my face. I was still on the curb. People walked by as if they hadn’t noticed the earth shift.
Images of friends I had not talked to or seen in years flooded my mind. Like a terrible dance I witnessed what I previously missed. Women, girls, making themselves less to catch a man if only for a night, if only so he would stay in the conversation and not think her intimidating. I replayed the day I decided not to try out for cheer leading. I was at the home of a girl I only knew by sight at school, practicing for tryouts. Every other word from her mouth insulted a friend who wasn’t there to defend herself. Do men do this?? I have no idea. Our crowd wasn’t perfect, but we did respect each other most of the time and if we did have a problem it was usually laid out somewhat thoughtfully with hope for solutions.
I waited tables at a diner on State Street. I often went out back to have a cigarette and look at small patches of sky between gray sky scrapers. Occasionally, too often, the night busboy would come up behind me, push my braid over and try to rub my back. Every time I said no and shook him off. Since he’d always stop I never reported it to the owner who was like a father to me. After months of this stubborn failure to be respectful he may have figured he should move faster, that maybe I wouldn’t brush him off if he could get me close enough for me to enjoy his touch. One evening, outside the back door, he pulled my braid aside, pressed close to my body and kissed my back. I am strong and have always been praised for it. He had crossed the line and I knew it. I reached back with a sideways fist and hit him where my hand landed, as hard as I could. With injured pride but otherwise intact, he raised his voice angrily asking why did I do that! Did I answer? We walked back to the dining room. I went back to quietly filling salt shakers. He pulled the white towel from the side of his apron and cleaned a table the night’s last customers had just left. He never spoke to me again. Was this to punish me or wisdom on his part? I was 22.
Even in a family that focuses on gender equality, sexism can live. How can one stay dry in the ocean? When I was first married, I noticed my dad ask my husband to do things he used to ask me to do, things typically thought of as man’s work. I wish I could remember specific examples. At the time I was amused. My husband noticed too. We both knew it on purpose or because my dad thought I was weak. I could say my father was simply pleased to have another man around, interested in helping David feel a part of things. Maybe this is all it was. But I think it was an automatic reaction to years of societal training that taught him a woman should be called on to assist in certain matters only when a man can not be found.
Like that classic song, “I Was Gonna Be an Engineer.”

I changed some names for obvious reasons.
I only chose a few examples that came to mind as I wrote this. Unfortunately, I could have added several paragraphs.
This is a revision of one of my first posts on OS.

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