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When Rape Culture Comes From Inside the House

It’s getting easier to condemn our politicians’ misogyny with each passing day, but what sort of compromises do we make when the misogynistic speech comes from our own?

By Leora Fridman


(Photo Credit: Garrette/Flickr)

I know so many women who “don’t want to be a bitch.” I hear this phrase at least 10 times a week.

My friend M, speaking about a colleague on a committee she has to serve on for the college where she teaches: I wish I could tell him to stop talking over me, but I don’t want to be a bitch.

My friend L, on the man who used to be her friend but now badmouths her to colleagues because she challenged his authority in a meeting: I don’t want to be a bitch, but he’s so defensive.

My friend B, in the lunch line at an artist residency: I don’t want to be a bitch, but that man rubs up against my butt every single time we come in here. She says it in a whisper, just to me, definitely not to the man himself. Because I don’t want to be a bitch.

The stakes of being a bitch are high — B doesn’t want to be a bitch because she doesn’t want to cause a scene, L doesn’t want to be a bitch because she wants to seem polite, M wants to keep her job. We think that if we are not a bitch we can hold this all together.

My Abuelita was masterful at the piano, they tell me — she still plays beautifully despite her arthritis. She can fly along the keys from memory, sonatas and concertos in D and B flat pouring from her arms, her wrists direct and poised, her eyes closed. Her perfectly coiffed waves of hair hover over her forehead in their coating of hairspray. They only quake slightly when she presses the pedal.

When my Abuelita was young she was the concert pianist for the Mexico City Symphony. She is full of pride in the photographs, confident with her straight spine at the piano bench in her 1940s dresses with their sweetheart necklines. When she first met my grandfather he loved her playing, so accomplished and refined. He came from a Jewish Ukrainian peasant immigrant family, and she from a family of refined Polish city-dwellers. At first her family didn’t approve of the match. They said my grandfather was too low-class for her, that his background wasn’t good enough.

“Pero todo mundo lo adoraba,” she tells me in Spanish; “He was so well loved, I knew he would be successful.I imagine them walking together in their good shoes, arm in arm in Mexico City’s Zócalo. I imagine the admiration on his face when she played.

Soon, though, he didn’t want her to play. They were married in 1950 and started raising the first of their four sons, and he didn’t think a good wife should work outside the home or perform on stage. She agreed, said OK. She stopped and never played in public again, though she still keeps three pianos tuned in her living room, took me twice to visit her dear friend the harpsichord maker, and plays for us in private even as her fingers grow creaky and painful.

“¿Por qué tuviste que parar, mami?” My father asks her why she had to stop. She demurs, changes the story. “Pues, era tan orgulloso,” she says. “He was so proud of supporting us.” I watch my Abuelita’s eyes dart to the corners of the room lined with portraits of her husband and sons.

“Era un hombre extraordinario,” she tells me. “He was such an extraordinary man,” his specialness lighting her eyes. I see how masterfully she packages the life they had together, how nice it all looks. My grandfather has been gone more than 30 years, but my Abuelita closes her eyes and smiles, reminds me how lucky she was to raise her sons (“ángeles, cada uno”), how handsome my Abuelo was in his suits. She wants to remember only how easy their life was together, how comfortable.

And today, with Donald Trump as our president-elect, even today, in our shock and grief, we still try to keep it comfortable. We still don’t want to be bitches.

I don’t want to be a bitch, but I feel so scared,” N tells me. A survivor of sexual assault, she can’t scroll through news or scan any screen these days without something about violating women’s genitals.

“At least she doesn’t sound like a bitch,”B reflects on Michelle Obama’s comments about our new president-elect’s sexually predatory behavior. Because god forbid Obama should sound angry about it. God forbid we should make anyone uncomfortable.

“Don’t want to be a bitch,” K tweets, “but white men please do not even talk to me this next month.” Even in our fear, we don’t want to be a bitch.

And: “Locker-room behavior?” C shakes her head. “I hope his wife bitched him out for that.”

My maternal grandfather was known for his lewd comments. One comment still looms large in my family, the time when my mother’s side of the family was gathered at a seafood restaurant we loved in West Palm Beach. I was 10 and sunburnt, and there were lobsters on the walls and on the bibs neatly folded above each plate. When the waitress arrived to take our order, my grandfather looked up at her with a sunken smile and inquired about the clam chowder.

“Do you like the soup, I mean, would you like it if I gave it to you rectally?”

I felt the shock spread hot across the table, my eyes darting to my mother, panicked and looking down into her purse, and then to my grandmother, the only calm one at the table, regal next to my grandfather, nodding slowly. She met my eyes.

“Leora, honey,”she said, “Why don’t you put your bib on for safety’s sake?”She winked at me gently with her perfect pink lipstick smile. I was known to be a sloppy child. My grandmother looked up at the waitress. “We’d also like some bread, please, thank you, dear,” she said, and the waitress took the hint to run.

My grandmother turned to me without losing a beat. “How many laps did you do in the pool today?” she asked. I meekly put my bib on and told her 12 laps.I was already chubby then, and it seemed the whole family was keeping track of how much exercise I was getting. My grandfather smirked in silence himself and we moved on, the slick table cloth bunching under my elbows.

My grandmother always cleaned up after him; she kept the conversation moving when things stalled out. She smoothed things over, took in whatever he did and made it tidy. Even years later, when my grandfather was long passed and my aunt would bring up the clam chowder story, my grandmother insisted we must have misheard. “Be nice, girls,” my grandmother would says. He didn’t mean it that way.” It’s family, he’s gone now, and so we shouldn’t tell these stories, we should remember only the good things. We should take it easy.

Smoothing over and playing nice doesn’t live only in long-ago summertimes in Florida. Just this past summer, former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner got off with just three months in county jail for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman after a campus party. Despite widespread media coverage, nationwide outrage, and a powerful open letter penned by the survivor and published on BuzzFeed, Turner’s sentence was extremely lenient, at best. “Brock has a lot at stake so he’s having a really hard time right now,” the victim was told.

A really hard time. He’s having a really hard time so let’s try to make it easier on him. Implied: Let’s help the poor guy out. He’s the one who needs protection.

“Your life is not over, you have decades of years ahead to rewrite your story,” writes the victim, “Do not talk about the sad way your life was upturned because alcohol made you do bad things. Figure out how to take responsibility for your own conduct.”

And this, precisely, is what Turner never has to do. At no point in the trial did he take responsibility for his own conduct, or for the traumatic effect he had on the victim. He blamed the assault on alcohol and the “confusion” of others. Things are so confusing for this poor guy, we hear, let’s take it easy on him. And the story ends comfortably: Turner was released in September after serving just three months of his six-month sentence.

It’s easy to vilify Turner, to rage against the way he’s been let off the hook. But when it’s my uncle who grabs a woman’s butt, when it’s my grandfather who comments on a news anchor’s breasts — this is when I find more room for understanding. This is when I think, “well, it’s their culture,” or, “they grew up in a different time,” or, “it’s our job to teach them to do better.”

In “The Opposite of Rape Culture Is Nurturance Culture,” Nora Samaran writes, “to completely transform this culture of misogyny, then, men must do more than ‘not assault.’ We must call on masculinity to become whole and nurturing of self and others.” This is the wholeness missing from Trump’s behavior, from Turners’, and from so many others — there is no pattern for how to apologize, no tools to take responsibility.

But we know this story too: Trump doesn’t understand what it would mean to take responsibility, what it would feel like to experience remorse. How would Turner be able to stand in his own skin if he knew how much he had harmed someone?

So they deny it. How can I expect my cousin or my grandfather to take responsibility if they don’t know how, if locker room behavior is an excuse, if our most public sexual assaults are excused on the daily? How do we extend compassion for this lack of knowledge while asking the men in our lives to do better?

Samaran observes that the key missing piece here is conditions for men, “to recognize that attachment needs are healthy and normal and not ‘female,’ and thus to expect of men to heal themselves and others the same way we expect women to ‘be nurturers.’ It is time men recognize and nurture their own healing gifts.”

Without recognizing their own capacities to heal, Samaran writes, men act out their discomfort by laying it in women’s laps as blame and misogyny. But we’re responsible for comfort, and so we look the other way. We love our men, and we chalk it up to their culture. It’s not all their fault, no one taught them to do better, but instead of teaching them we pick our battles.

We want to be loyal. We rant on Twitter about street harassment, but at holidays with our families we keep quiet. It’s a tired loyalty, a need to take a break from battle.

Obama’s famous arms are folded and she regains her composure quickly.

Conceding to a heartbroken audience, Hillary Clinton only lets her voice crack one tiny time.

My cousin reminds me over the Seder plate that women aren’t suited for the hard sciences, and I set my mouth in a tight line and nod.

My grandmother is gone now, but I feel her beside me when I laugh at a man’s awkward joke so he won’t feel bad. When people remark on my poise or how gracefully I deal with creepy men, I feel my grandmother beside me, her perfectly pressed skirts, her neat, manageable heels. I laugh easily and move a conversation in a more comfortable direction. I wince later, the things I allow from the people I love that I would never accept from strangers. The way I let things go, the way I highlight my grandfather’s sweetness with young kids, the way I don’t ask for better. The way I learned it from her.

My grandmother is gone now, but before she died she asked me to help her clear out the liquor cabinet, the dusty closet with my grandfather’s copper commemorative pins, felted clipboard, assorted cocktail glasses engraved with the names of men’s clubs in Massachusetts. I giggle over a plaque recognizing the triumphs of the 1965 Kiwanis Husband of the Year, Best Father 1967 solemnly engraved in the silver. I show it to my aunt and soon we are hysterically laughing, spinning out, needing this laugh in the somber house of my grandmother’s illness. My aunt rolls her eyes, oh God, my ridiculous father, he was so absurd.

My grandmother looks over from her Ensure, her padded chair, her achy everything and her belly full of cancer. Her eyes are ringed red and tired.

“Go easy on him,” she says, her face stern. Even this weak, this close to death, it’s essential to her that we make nice for him. “Girls,” she says, “take it easy.”