A guy walks up to a girl in a bar. She’s laughing with her friends, engrossed in conversation. He slides in next to her to introduce himself. Offers her a drink. “I’m just here to hang with my friends,” she says more than once. He proceeds to ask her “get to know you” questions, ignores her icy stare. Oblivious to her friends rolling their eyes. He appears immune to her not-interesteds and her no-thank-yous. Finally, she sighs, “I have a boyfriend.” He backs away grudgingly, defensively, hands in the air — “It’s cool, it’s cool. I got it.”
Her rebuffs weren’t enough. Her refusals were dismissed. It was clear that what she wanted wasn’t of much concern to him. But another man’s woman? That’s a record scratch. A stop sign. A no trespassing sign.
This story isn’t unusual. It’s not even rare. Most women at some point have played the boyfriend card to fend off an aggressive guy.
Not all men have to hear the boyfriend excuse to accept a “No.” Many men approach women humbly and respectfully. But the reality is that far too many men are the aggressive guy with the selective hearing. It’s disheartening, frustrating, and at times…scary.
And it all comes down to ownership.
We watch in horror as it plays out in the most grotesque ways. A man kills a woman on a train for refusing his advances. A man shoots his wife and her two students because she left him. A man shoots an innocent stranger and says his girlfriend made him do it. It’s a man going on a murderous shooting spree after posting a video blaming all of the women who refused to see how “nice” he was.
It’s not always violent or abusive. Most often it is vague and hard to put your finger on. But our society is constantly telling men they have rights to us. That they own us. This message isn’t shouted or barked. No, like most effective messages it’s subtle. Implied. It’s in our everyday interactions. But it’s there, coloring our language and our attitudes and our traditions. It’s the pervasive, implied entitlement in casual words and actions that we accept and absorb because we are so accustomed to it we don’t even recognize it.
Ownership. Women are property. Men are entitled to us. Society is unconcerned with our agency and autonomy.
It’s tradition, and it’s doctrine. It’s history, and it’s gospel.
It’s the marrying off of daughters as a transaction. A young girl whittled down to the equivalent of a goat and an acre of land.
It’s women being the spoils of war.
It’s women being categorized as either the virgin or the whore.
Most men don’t walk around looking at women as property. That’s not how this works. But it’s there, implied. It’s woven into our culture. Passed down like a defective gene.
It’s not just the persistent guy in the bar. It’s the guy who tells us to smile. As if our expression is there for him to dictate. Our mood, his to determine.
It’s the man who thinks he has the right to catcall a woman because she is walking down the street. And then thinks he has the right to get angry if she doesn’t respond in the way he thinks she should.
It’s the shock and disdain for a woman who curses. It’s not ladylike. It’s unbecoming. It’s trashy. No. Admonishing a grown woman as if she’s a child is unbecoming.
It’s the “friend-zone.” The place where hard-up guys and their precocious desires go to die. Angry that they are denied access to someone they were friendly with. I was so nice to her. Why wouldn’t she have sex with me? As if being cool means they should automatically have rights to us.
It’s the seething hate directed at every woman who has a large online presence. A platform, a big following, a blue checkmark next to her name — all are cause for threats. It’s the armies of men who troll, looking for powerful women to go after. Who have rabid anger for women they’ve never even met. Why? For moving into their space. For taking up their oxygen. For getting attention and followers and likes. They are threatened by it. They feel less powerful when they see a powerful woman. So they try to control her, bully her, intimidate her. They try to drive her off social media and sometimes out of a job.
It’s the looks of disgust or the comments when a woman is breastfeeding in public. Her breasts should be used to sell Carl’s Jr. burgers or to entice or to entertain. But using them for their intended purpose is disgusting. It’s utilitarian and not serving the greater male population in anyway, so put those things away, you exhibitionist whore.
We are here to accentuate. Complement. To be arm candy or stay quietly in the background. We should be easygoing, but not easy. We should laugh easily, but not too loudly.
We should be soft and sweet and curved in all the right places. But not too curvy. Unless that’s what is desired by the men we meet. The goalpost of what is desirable is constantly moving, so we must read magazines and scour pop culture to see what’s what. You see, we are complicit in our own servitude. It’s part of our DNA as well.
We should speak demurely. Speaking loudly, projecting our voice is an affront. We should calibrate our voice to precisely the tone that is pleasing to male ears. And for the love of all things nasty, please don’t laugh too loud.
Our bodies are commodities. Our sexuality is for other’s to copulate to. Our pureness to be held up as saintly. Our reproduction legislated by old white men who couldn’t find an ovary or a female orgasm if they had a GPS.
It’s male journalists frothing every time Chelsea Clinton speaks or wins an award. Their condescending laments laced with the fear of another ambitious woman coming dangerously close to that glass ceiling. Their words dripping with contempt. How dare she be visible or audible when they had other ideas. Stay in your lane, Chelsea.
It’s the pat on the head, the unsolicited advice, the “Let me tell you how you really feel because my male perspective is more valid and more right, okay, sweetheart?”
It’s telling a woman to calm down because her outburst or her fire or her anger makes it so much harder to rein her in.
It’s the stealthing that turns consensual sex into sexual assault, and the online chat rooms that instruct bros how to do it, and the judges who will laugh it off or brush it off or dole out a slap on the wrist with a wink, and now we have one more fucking thing to warn our daughters about.
It’s the men who help themselves to parts of our bodies as we make our way through a crowd or through the office or across campus.
It’s our lovers, the men we trust and love. They think nothing of laying down a guilt trip if we refuse sex. After all, what right do we have to consider our own mood/desires/feelings? Our bodies should be open for business when he needs it, the moment he needs it. After all, we love him, right? C’mon baby, you say you love me but you aren’t acting like it right now. And they don’t understand or see that their pressure and guilt is added to the pile of male needs and desires we’ve spent a lifetime collecting and being held responsible for.
We watch young girls, on the brink of womanhood who are ogled and leered at. Men, with their shirts straining against their dad-bods, scanning every inch of her. Oblivious to her discomfort. Unconcerned that she is still just a child. They act like they don’t see how their hot gaze makes her squirm. Making her feel equal parts dirty and self conscious and guilty. You see, she learned long ago in school that how she dresses is responsible for how men and boys act. But they’re oblivious to her tugging uncomfortably at her clothes because they don’t see her as a person and they’ve been taught that it’s harmless to do these things and it’s not big deal — it’s just guys being guys and geez, stop overreacting, would ya?
We’ve heard the song, the one that has been in the background our whole lives. The one that tells us we’re the temptress, the siren of the sea. We’re Eve, licking the apple from our wet lips wearing nothing but a wicked grin. That we’re the built-in excuse for male aggression and anger and frustration and missteps. A convenient scapegoat for society’s ills.
We’re supposed to be “a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed.” Unless he’s not into that kind of thing, in which case we better figure that shit out and accommodate before he decides to dispose of us and tells his friends that we’re just a dirty whore.
We are not your property.
You don’t own us. You are not entitled to our bodies or our minds or our emotional labor.
It’s ownership when men get angry at the fat girl and call her names. How dare she go out in the world in a way that’s not pleasing to his eye?
It’s ownership when they scream at the transgender woman who doesn’t fit their idea of what a woman should be. And they’re going to make damn sure she knows it by their voice or their sneer or their laughter or their fist.
It’s ownership when dudes ask a lesbian if they can “get in on that action,” or when they wink and say, “Give me a chance to change your mind.” Because it’s really not about her identity and being who she is, it’s about them getting off.
We are not your participation trophies. We are not your conquest or your ego boost.
We are not here for you to decide how we should act/talk/smile/laugh/look/live.
Our role in the home or the boardroom or online is not yours to define.
Our daughters are not your son’s distractions.
Our wholeness is not a threat to your existence.
Our minds and bodies are tired of this game, so if you could wake up and see that we’re not asking you to feel guilty or to drag you down, that would be great. We’re asking you to listen and to believe us and to help us make it stop.
Help us make it stop with the young girl getting dress-coded because her body is a distraction to the boys.
Help us make it stop so that when she tells her teacher about a boy making a rape joke, she doesn’t get the “Boys will be boys” retort that tells her that her fears and safety are secondary to boys having fun and blowing off steam.
Help us make it stop because she will learn before she’s even out of puberty that grown men will take from her, whether it’s the lingering stares or the hand that rests on her shoulder for too long or some other innocuous gesture that she can’t put her finger on, but she knows it’s not right. Help us before she goes off to college and tells herself “boys will be boys” when a drinking game goes too far and she finds herself going from laughing and playing along to being victimized but feeling like she deserved it because she is just repeating what she’s seen and heard her whole life: Boys can’t control themselves. Their actions are just a response to you. You should have known better/done better.
Help us. Recognize when you see ownership, in all its forms. Tell your sons and your daughters and your co-workers and your bosses and your bros.
Help us because it’s this subtle sense of ownership that feeds the violence. It’s the little moments that add up and build up and give permission to a man to touch, to hit, to rape, to kill. It’s systemic and institutionalized ownership that allows lawmakers and judges and police officers to question a rape victim’s level of sobriety or her past sexual history or how much the rapist might suffer in prison so we really should give him a slap on the wrist because he is a preppy white rapist with a bright future.
Help us amplify this message. Help us stop the cycle of entitlement.
We are not your bitch, your slut, your problem. We are not your excuse, your reason, your burden.
We are not your anything.