standing up for women in public


I was at a birthday party for two of my friends. It had already been going on for a few hours– a riotous game of beer pong had been going downhill for a while, a few people were in the middle of a jam session, and then there was the usual scattered groups of people milling about the living room, the porch, the kitchen . . .

I was talking to a woman I’d just met, Lisa*, who was in another graduate program at my university. Without warning, someone I’d also never seen before stumbled into the middle of our conversation, obviously drunk.

“I’m Todd*! What’s your name?” He looked at both of us, but then fixated on Lisa.

“Lisa,” she said, and I gave my name.

“Lisa! Is that how you normally introduce yourself, or do you normally say ‘Hi, I’m Lisa, and I’m exactly the right height?'” As he said this, he made a sloppy hip-thrust and pointed at his crotch.

I stared at him, agape, then turned to Lisa, raising my eyebrows, silently asking if she wanted me to step in. She shook her head, giving me the smile that said “don’t worry, I got this.” She raised one eyebrow, staring him down for a long moment while I stared down into my white Russian and tried not to laugh. Eventually he merely shrank away, completely cowed. We laughed, and I offered my hand for a hi-five.

There’s probably something that you should know for this story to make any sense.

Lisa is a little person.

But, in this story, she was a little person and a woman, and that made her very existence fair game to Todd– nothing more than the butt of incredibly crass joke. Both Lisa and I had to navigate complicated territory in that moment when he opened his mouth; because we were both women, our options as to how we could respond were incredibly limited. The most socially acceptable option is to laugh awkwardly and then earnestly hope that he leaves you alone. Doing anything that strays from that– calling him on his ass-hattery, for one– is usually pretty frowned upon, and would quickly relegate any woman to the label of bitch.


I’ve been working on research for a while, including reading books like Transforming a Rape Culture and The Purity Myth

First, I highly recommend The Purity Myth— for everyone. Everyone.

Anyway, all of this research has been . . . illuminating and infuriating. Handsome joked today that “my default state is angry,” and right now, he’s right. A few weeks ago I spent two days–two days, I tell you— just watching Simon the Cat videos and eating cookies just because I couldn’t handle anything else. But there is . . . so much injustice.  So much.

But, books like The Purity Myth have done a lot to completely rip off any blinders I might have had about violence against women– how pervasive it is, how often it happens, and how people in power rarely seem to bother to notice. And yes, I’m angry. Every once in a while, though, I get hopeful– when I find something I can personally do, I latch on to it. I want to make a difference. I want to fight this darkness. I want to hope that this can change, that violence against women can end.

A moment like that came when I was watching a TEDx talk put on by Mentors in Violence Prevention about the bystander effect.” You should watch the video, but the essence of it was this: when you see violence happening, say something. It sounds so small, but it’s huge. In some social situations, it’s monumentally huge– insurmountably huge. Just speaking up and saying something sometimes mean that you’ll be punished severely by everyone you know.

Watching that video reminded me of the night I met Lisa– not even half an hour after Todd had cracked that horrible joke, he had accosted me again and started telling me how fuckable I was, that obviously he could just tell that I wanted him so badly. I insisted that no, I was most definitely not interested in him at all on any level, but he continued following me around and harassing me for the next hour. I was neck deep in his shit by then, so finally I snapped. I turned to face him, head on, looked him dead in the eye, and told him that he was being disgusting, that it was inappropriate what he had been doing for an hour, and that I was sick of it and if that he came anywhere near me again I’d knee him.

He did, finally, leave me alone, but seconds later one of my friends came up to me. “Why did you do that? Todd didn’t deserve that– I mean, I know he can be kind of an ass sometimes, but you were really bitchy just then.”

I was speechless. Part of me was angry– why weren’t they taking my side? Did they not notice that he’d been harassing me for over an hour? But the biggest part of me– the part of me that took over my mouth and apologized– was ashamed. Ashamed for speaking up for myself. Ashamed for not acquiescing. Ashamed for making a scene.

After I watched the TEDx talk, though, I decided– never again. If I hear sexism, I’m going to say something. If I hear something– no matter how “innocently” the people around me think it was meant– that encourages violence against women, I am not going to be quiet anymore.

I was talking about this epiphany with Handsome– and I specifically gave the example of something that a lot of people in our peer group are quite comfortable with saying: “I’ll make you my bitch” or “you’re my bitch” or “we just got raped” when what happened was they payed too much for tacos. I told him that if I heard someone in our peer group casually use a phrase that has violence against women at its heart, I’m going to say “That is sexist, it is not appropriate, and please don’t ever say something like that in front of me again.”

Handsome disagreed. “No, you shouldn’t do that. That would completely humiliate them. That’s totally not ok– that would be bitchy, Sam.”

I looked at him for a long, drawn-out moment, silent. Finally– “It’s only ‘humiliating’ because violence against women and sexism is normal and accepted behavior, Handsome.”

He stared back.

“Holy shit… you’re right.” He paused. “If we were in a room with black people, and some white dude started using the N-word, and a black person called him on it, we’d all be cheering and clapping.”


That’s why this it is so important to not let any of this slide anymore. We have to make sexism obsolete. We have to make violence against women be something of the ancient past. That can only start when one person at a time stops tolerating all the tiny, supposedly “insignificant” ways we commit violence against women every day.

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  • This on just every level. Especially the way your friend was all, “Why would you tell a guy off for being rude?” Few things are more infuriating for sexist then criticizing a woman for daring to define and defend her own boundaries.

    • Song

      @Chelsea Gray – This! – “Few things are more infuriating or sexist than critisizing a woman for daring to define and define her own boundaries.” A great summation of this wonderful post!

  • YES! Always speak up. Always.

    I’ve gotten a reputation for bitchiness, such as it were, because of doing exactly that. Because I callthat out. I don’t sit by and laugh awkwardly and then whisper after the guy walks away. My husband and I are so good together in large part because he calls it out, too, and once I found a man who not only recognized how harmful that is but was just as willing as I was to loudly embarass the asshole harrassing our friend… that was true love right there.

    The crowd responds way better to men calling it out, which is just its own fancy sexism. If I call something out, I have to be pretty insistent before people stop telling me to “just shrug it off” … but if Jason brings it up or calls it out, it’s immediately considered something serious because *gasp* A MAN said so.

    We’ve got a long way to go.

    I think the Purity Myth should be required reading in the comprehensive sex education classes that kids should be taking.

  • i fully agree with women telling off asshats and speaking up. however i’m curious how you justify threatening sexual assault over it. or is “they asked for it” only unacceptable as an excuse when “they” are female? and i trust you will see the hypocrisy in defending it via “it’s socially acceptable”.

    • He’d been sexually assaulting me for an hour, and every single attempt I made to get him to leave me alone-walking away, telling him to leave me alone, hiding, straight up ignoring him- none of it worked, not even in the slightest. Nothing I did short of that threat got him to stop grabbing me, touching me, pulling at me, trying to get me alone, cursing at me…. I could go on.

      The fact that I had to use a threat of physical force in order to get him to respect my physical boundaries is an excellent example of how fucked up the current situation is. Everyone in that room was obviously aware if the fact that he was being a total ass, but no one stepped in and said anything until *I* fucking stood up for myself. And then, suddenly, it’s MY fault for being “bitchy”?

      No, it’s not cool that I had to threaten him to get him to stop.

      But what’s even more FUCKED UP us that I had to do that at all. He should have never been assaulting me at all, and the first time he laid a finger on me he should have been thrown out of the party.

      Except no one recognized what he was doing as sexual assault. Everyone saw it as “normal” and me standing up for myself was “wrong”– just like you just did, Max.

  • i hadn’t realized he was touching you. i fully agree with “the first time he laid a finger on me he should have been thrown out of the party”. given he was, threat was within bounds.

    • Also, just a tip for future reference:

      Women are very aware I’d how much pressure we are under not to do something “bitchy”. Almost universally, women will tolerate an incredible amount of shit. So, if a woman is speaking out, you’re probably safe to assume she’s got a fantastic reason.

  • and i never said sticking up for yourself was wrong. i said threatening sexual assault is wrong. plenty of threats you can make without resorting to that. like poking him in the eye with your keys, kicking him hard in the shin, filing charges, etc..

    • Amaranth

      I dunno. I get the feeling “I’m gonna poke your eyes out” or “I’m gonna kick you in the shin/stomp on your foot” just wouldn’t have had the desired impact on this guy. The jerk probably would have found such a threat cute, given how little respect he had for her.

    • Yeah, threats like that only work when you actually do them. And doing so generally risks escalating the situation, unless you know you are physically capable of defending yourself (and many women aren’t strong enough, skilled enough, or well trained enough to do this, and shouldn’t have to be just to be respected).

      When did she threaten sexual assault though? She threatened to knee him

    • It’s just hilariously ironic that on a post that was largely dedicated to how women are shamed and judged for standing up for themselves, that’s exactly what you did.

      Not knowing me, not knowing hardly anything about the situation, you decided that the very first thing you were going to say to me and my readers was to shame and judge me for standing up for myself.

    • It’s kind of adorable that you think that filing charges against this guy would have resulted in absolutely anything bad happening to him.

      I agree that threatening violence may not have been a perfect choice, but people do the best they can with what they have, especially when they’re feeling desperate and on the wrong side of a power dynamic. She needed this guy to leave her alone and he was likely bigger/stronger than her. That particular act of violence (knee to the junk) can be executed quickly and accurately and immobilize the guy without the girl having to be particularly strong or agile. Sounds like a reasonable enough self-defense tactic to me.

  • I had an America Eskimo for fourteen years, they are great dogs.
    I was in a class at university when we were discussing bullying. I mention in 7th grade being Anglo in a predominately Hispanic school that the ‘Chukes would wait for me off the school grounds to beat me up and the school would do nothing about it. Keep in mind back then Pachuco or it’s diminutive was the slang everyone used. The women in the group roundly said the were offended. Little did they care I was the one getting beaten up the Hispanics because I was Anglo (a term Hispanics in New Mexico consider acceptable to apply to all Caucasians most of whom do not come from other European backgrounds and could equally be found offensive.) I didn’t appreciate being lectured to or called on the carpet for sharing what I considered to be non-offensive speech.
    A few points:
    You were right in threatening the ass, and you’re right that the others considered being an ass okay and a bitch as not okay.
    Interesting that I’ve found women will stand up for others but are taught not to stand up for themselves. (point of the reference above)
    There’s another way to correct your peers than saying “I’m offended” that puts them on the defensive and they then justify their words or actions in a protective mode. Instead, ask them how they can logically equate being overcharged on a bill to being physically violated. Sure they’re using hyperbole, but letting them know women don’t find anything funny about Rape might make them reconsider their words in non-threatening way.
    As a man I can attest that my wife is much more effective changing my mind with her vulnerability in letting me know how much what I said hurt her than being judgmental and disapproving.

    • Koko

      Your wife can choose to be vulnerable with you because she trusts you. You obviously have her best interests at heart, so hearing how your words or actions were hurtful and how you can change is important to you and your relationship.

      A random jerk at a party is going to take that vulnerability and exploit it. If a woman speaks up by saying, “That’s hurtful and sexist because __________.” she is basically asking for mockery and an increase of abuse.

      There are different responses for different scenarios. Sam did exactly the right thing in letting loose on the creepster who was sexually harassing her. The only thing she could’ve done differently was to chew him out sooner and save herself some grief. However, as was mentioned, the pressure society puts on women to “be nice” is unreal (even more so for women brought up in conservative Christianity), so it often takes someone being incredibly obnoxious for an extended period before a woman will speak up.

  • Thank you so much for writing this! I had almost a mirror situation last weekend and was evening thinking about writing my own blog post about it. After helping a girl being harassed, I was harassed and my when I called my bf crying about it he told me I had to suck it up, it was life and the world. But that’s not the point. It SHOULDN’T be. He told me I was baby for not being able to handle it when in fact I handled it, I was crying because I shouldn’t have to.

    Thank you so much for your post.

  • This kind of stuff is tough, because nobody wants to be a social outcast. That being said, I made the decision a couple of years ago that I was going to stop being quiet about all of the micro-interactions that reinforce the subjugation of women in particular and victims of violence in general. If I tell someone that they said something fucked up and that makes them angry, I don’t really care, because I’m at least twice as angry at them. If they don’t like me, good, because I don’t want to be the kind of person that they like. I am NOT going to plead with some asshole to grant me some dignity like I’m a pathetic wilting flower who needs some kindness. If someone tells me a rape joke, the only one of my “feelings” that they’re going to hear about is fury.

    This shit is too important to take a soft stance. The final goal isn’t just to change that person’s mind – it’s to make sure that no one in that room watching thinks that you’re okay with that kind of behavior. We need to normalize the image of women who don’t put up with bullshit. I want to make sure that every person I know is aware that they know a woman who isn’t ashamed to be a bitch.

    I’m glad that you’re taking these issues seriously enough to resist the urge to dilute your message.

  • I know there are a myriad of abuses that go on in the world. And as a white, hetero, wife it seems sometimes that I shouldn’t complain about this compared to what other people go through. But the reality is, no one, ever, anywhere should be experiencing abuse. So we should stand up in the face of any and all abuses. Thank you for sharing this. I’m so glad you stood up for yourself. No one deserves to be spoken to as an item just used for someone else’s sexual pleasure.

  • Snow

    Samantha, I just discovered a blog I think you and your readers will love. Check out http://cratesandribbons.com/2012/09/30/the-kissing-sailor-or-the-selective-blindness-of-rape-culture-vj-day-times-square/