For months, there has been an avalanche of sexual assault allegations. Every time you turn on the news, there seems to be another name on the list, another shocking story to read. And a lot of the accounts are about Big, Breaking Moments. A lot of the articles circulating lately have been trying to parse out what counts. What qualifies an encounter as a Big Deal and what’s just par for the course?
This isn’t about that. This is about really tiny moments that contribute to our patriarchal and misogynist society but that don’t come anywhere close to being a Big, Breaking Moment. Amid all these sexual assault allegations, it’s important to recognize the parts of rape culture that are ubiquitous and banal and often not talked about.
Allow us to set the stage a little bit.
Scene: A boy and a girl out for a walk on a late Friday evening. Their bodies are close but not quite touching. The girl stops in a doorway, says, “This is me. I had a great time.” Kisses the boy and says goodnight. These are the classic lines, the standard stage directions; this is what the end of a date looks like.
So when you come upon your stoop and you stop and you maybe had an okay time but are okay with not seeing him again—then what? How does the scene end? You make your lists. Did he not listen to you ramble on about your roommates? Didn’t you laugh a little? Didn’t he go out of his way to walk you home? Doesn’t he deserve a goodnight kiss? (Of course, the assumption that he wants it warrants a whole other essay about gender roles and toxic masculinity.) He is not pressuring you at all. That’s what’s so wonderful about him. And then you think: how messed up is it that not pressuring you to do anything is actually something noteworthy enough to put on the pro-con list? You know you don’t have to. But you say: what’s the harm? Why leave this boy empty-handed? If you have the courage and curtness not to kiss him (because, yes, that is what this requires), why do you feel the quiet gnawing of guilt?
Guilt, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as “the fact of having committed a breach of conduct” and “a feeling of deserving blame for offenses.” Guilt: that thing that burrows in your stomach, makes a pit of it. Guilt is heavy, it has weight, and it tips the scale of justice. Guilt is what we find in our criminals. Guilt is associated with wrongdoing.
The wrongdoing, in this case, is deviating from the script. The script with those classic lines and images we’ve been spoon-fed since puberty, one that we’ve seen play out in films and that we’ve replayed over and over for our friends after dates of our own. It’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s what’s expected of us. It’s the thing that makes “Cat Person” so compelling. It’s an uncertainty about what you yourself want, because how can you actually know when the narrative has already been written for you? It is a learned passivity—a letting.
Scene: You are on the subway, reading a book or a blog post or listening to This American Life. You are minding your own business. And you can feel someone staring at you. The heat of his gaze on you.
Then he’s sitting next to you. He asks how you’re doing, and you say something like, “okay” or “good” because you don’t want to be rude. And in the way women are taught to do, you are accommodating to prevent his discomfort. You go along with it. The letting. He asks for your name, for your number. And the first thing out of your mouth is, “Sorry, I have a boyfriend.” Whether or not that’s really true, it just seems easier than having to explain that you’re not interested. It seems easier not to hurt anyone’s feelings. It works more efficiently than anything else most of the time. It’s indicative of the fact that this man would more likely respect another (fictitious) man’s authority than yours.
Scene: You’re standing at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, when a man drives by and shouts from his car, “Nice tits!” or “That ass!” or “Hey, gorgeous!” As feminists, we know how we’re supposed to react. We are disgusted. We are not objects. We condemn catcalling. We abhor the men who whistle our way. We yell, “Fuck you!” after the car, knowing they probably can’t hear us.
But underneath the revulsion and recoiling, do you ever feel a small kind of pride? Are you ever the least bit glad someone noticed you look nice today? This is the part we don’t talk about. Because we feel guilty about this quiet gut reaction. It is a deviation from the feminist script, but feeling flattered doesn’t make us bad feminists. Catcalling is usually the first taste of male attention women ever receive, so of course, it seems special. We are taught to value it. It is a sign and symptom of rape culture. We shouldn’t berate or blame ourselves, nor should we silence the disgust, pride or shame of it.
These moments might seem minuscule and insignificant. The feelings that accompany them might seem too small to talk about. These are the offscreen moments, the quiet interactions that happen backstage, the parts of the movie that no one is watching. But together they form a dangerous and important narrative of internalized misogyny, one that must be brought into the limelight. And by acknowledging and validating not only our experiences but the way we feel about them, we can write a new narrative for ourselves and bid farewell to the old misogynist cliches.
Leemour Pelli is an artist living and working in New York City. She is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts (B.F.A., painting), and Hunter College (Master of Arts degree in Art History). In 2008, Pelli had her first solo exhibition at the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery in New York. Her other recent solo exhibitions include two at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York in 2004 and 2005, and in 2003 at the Art Gallery of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
About the series: Pelli’s work explores the nature of reality and contemporary existence. It reflects on social and psychological aspects of interrelationships, within the context of perception, sensory-based experiences, and the human condition. Pelli focuses on manifesting not only the visible aspects of reality, but what one cannot always see, or what the artist calls “almost sight.” That is, the exploration of a basic collapse and the failure in our limited nature of perception.