Originally, I was asked to write this piece about a time I felt empowered as a woman. All day I sat with the prompt, but nothing came to me. How sad is that?
Over the next couple of days, I asked a few of my female friends if they could think of a time they felt empowered. They couldn’t think of a specific time, either. I felt sad for them. I felt sad for myself.
Of course, all these other thoughts came flooding into my mind — about all the times I felt like my power was threatened as a woman (e.g. most of the time). All the times I’ve been in situations that made me feel like a piece of meat — something to look at and touch, but not a human to be communicated with, respected or honored.
The first time it happened, I was a college freshman. An NYU guy asked me to come over and play GameCube. I love GameCube, so you better believe I went. A couple rounds of Super Smash Brothers in, he threw the controllers to the floor and started kissing me. Uncomfortably, I told him, “I thought you wanted to play video games and hang out…” He laughed and asked me, “Wow, you thought I actually wanted to play video games?”
I kept kissing him simply because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want him to think I was a “bitch.” I didn’t want him to spread rumors about me. He tried to do more, and literally begged me to touch him and do more. I said no. He assured me he’d return the favor, as if that’s the reason I was holding back. When I told him I wasn’t going to do that, the response I received from him was something I never saw coming.
“You’re giving me blue balls. Leave.” Because we were in a high-security Manhattan dorm, guests had to be checked in and out. So I couldn’t just leave — I had to be escorted by this guy down to the lobby. We stood in the elevator in silence, avoiding one another’s gaze. He signed me out, the security guard gave me back my ID, and I left. I walked 20 blocks back to my dorm, trying to process what had just happened. How’s that for a walk of shame?
Was it my fault for going to his dorm? Should I have stopped him as soon as he started kissing me? I did what I could at the time, deleting his number and blocking him on every social media platform. I never wanted to see his face again, but six years later, I still remember it vividly.
Even more vividly, I remember how I felt on that walk home, ashamed, angry at myself, and in a rage toward that guy. As you can probably guess, that situation was only the beginning of what I’ve faced in this past years and to this day — situations which are sadly the norm for me, my female friends, and women everywhere. We commiserate over wine with these stories and tell each other how unsurprising it all is, each and every time, as yet another new horror story materializes. So much for women’s empowerment.
Before that incident, I was naïve enough to think things like this only happened in teen dramas. My friends have been raped, almost beaten by their partners, had nude photos leaked, been sexually assaulted at work, and stealthed (that’s the term for when a guy takes his condom off during sex without consent — and yes there’s a term for it because it’s so common now).
Compared to them, I’m lucky. I wonder if any of my friends haven’t experienced anything like this. Are any of them asking for it? Absolutely not. No matter what they’re wearing, no matter if they kiss someone, no matter if they go to their apartment or dorm, no matter if they send a nude photo.
I could write thousands of words about various crappy situations I’ve been in. In fact, I’m sure most of us could write a story of sexual assault. Why is my kiss or my kindness constantly mistaken as an invitation for sex? Why am I terrified to stand up for myself in the face of cat-callers? Why am I expected to smile and be pleasant to protect a man’s ego? Why is the closest thing I’ve felt to being empowered as a woman the times when I’ve had to push a guy off of me and tell him to stop touching me? And when will I — and my friends, and every other woman — feel unafraid to say “no”?
Maybe now, reaching a point where I am brave enough to put this all out into the world, I’m finally experiencing my moment of empowerment.