Opinion: We're not witches, we're just angry

If everything seems topsy-turvy right now, remember that women didn’t suddenly get angry. They just got tired of being told that they shouldn’t be.

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Back at Winters High School, I was working with a group of girls on some long forgotten assignment when a male classmate walked behind us. After he passed, one of the girls gave a wry smile and commented that he was, “one of those guys” who would put his hand around your waist to move past you. “You know what I mean?” she asked. He would come up behind a girl in the classroom or hallway and place his hand at the small of her back, wrapping his fingers towards her waist. He would excuse himself as he guided her out of his way. This looks polite, the hand on our waists said. If you got angry, you would seem like the crazy one. Yes, we smirked and rolled our eyes, we knew what she meant. I remember feeling so adult chatting with those girls. We know how the world works, we were telling each other, and we can be snarky about it. The boy who found excuses to move past girls in tight spaces wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t groping, threatening or physically hurting us, and because of that we couldn’t make a complaint about it. Any way we explained it would make us sound overly sensitive, even paranoid. He had found a way to touch girls that seemed appropriate and even polite. He knew what he was doing, we knew what he was doing, but what would we say? Looking back I don’t think the boy knew that we could see through him. He probably thought he had found a clever loophole that let him feel his classmates’ bodies without them noticing what he was doing. He couldn’t have known we had been playing by the rules of that game for years. We had learned it when adults started telling us which shirts we couldn’t wear anymore, and other adults looked at us for too long for reasons we didn’t want to have to understand. Nowadays, after all of the unwanted gropes, hugs, kisses and body parts pressed against me, those hands on my teenaged body seem almost banal. As I sat with these memories, I realized that I wasn’t really processing the offense. I was disturbed by our reaction. On a summer morning a few years ago I was running along a jogging path when  a man moved out from behind some bushes. Startled to find someone watching me, it took me a moment to realize that his pants were open and he was touching himself. He smirked at me. Taken by surprise, I kept going. For the rest of the morning I was the female joggers’ Paul Revere. I would flag down single women and running clubs to tell them where the man was standing in wait for them. The women all met the news with the same resignation. They were repulsed without being surprised. We rolled our eyes and cracked jokes. We knew how the world worked, we were reminding each other, why not be snarky about it? I know why those grown women were so resigned, but why were we as teenagers? We should have been reacting with that teenaged fury that feels like it can burn down all the old ways and replace them with new ones. How did we come to be tired before we had even turned 20? One evening, still a teenager, I waited at a crosswalk with a boyfriend in a strange city. A man came up to ask for directions. He joked with us, then snuck his hand past my armpit, and, with his fingers against my breast, stroked my arm. I was startled, but in an instant he had let go and begun walking briskly down the sidewalk. The light changed and we crossed. Did you see what he did? I asked my boyfriend. He hadn’t. I told him. It was probably an accident, he said. He just doesn’t get it, I thought to myself, instead of being angry. He got to live in a world where grown men momentarily forget where on her body a teenager keeps her breasts, and strangers only touch you for handshakes. I had already learned what those girls at the table and I hadn’t been able to articulate. The harassment was only the first offense. The second offense came when we told someone and they didn’t listen to us. We learned it the first time we told an adult that a boy had teased or hurt us, and that adult said, “That means he likes you.” We came to expect it after the thousand little ways we were taught that “boys will be boys.” None of those women on the jogging path minimized what I told them, or asked me for more proof. They didn’t ask if it was possible that I had actually seen a man out for a walk with his pet naked mole rat, or maybe I had somehow misinterpreted his presumably friendly intentions. I keep hearing that, with all the women coming forward with accusations of sexual harassment and assault, men are now afraid of being falsely accused. The message is that the system overcorrected, and now the witches are running the trials. The truth is they want to go back to a time when they could dismiss these accusations out of hand without an uproar. If everything seems topsy-turvy right now, remember that women didn’t suddenly get angry. They just got tired of being told that they shouldn’t be. ]]>

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