Since my day began with yet another vet visit and yet another staggering vet bill, there’s really no sense in not going ahead and writing about one of the not-so-great parts of my Chicago trip, since I’m in a pissy mood already.
(Just so no one worries overmuch, Sofia isn’t on her deathbed or anything. The current diagnosis is that due to being exposed to fleas and now-verified mange, she had to both deal with the parasites — and now my cat has to be treated, too — AND the allergic reaction she had to them, and now also, apparently, that allergic reaction has stirred up her food allergies, so she has to have a food switch as well. At the moment, rather than itching herself into a frenzy as she has been, she’s sacked out on the sofa looking very comforted by a huge dose of antihistimines, which I really hope keep working, because the vet says if not, it’s on to cortisone injections. All this with the dog who has never had a single health issue. When it rains…)
I want to open this up by noting that both the book events I had in Chicago, even though one had some serious badness, were easily the best book events I have had so far. Both were apparently record-attendance events for both shops, which made me feel tremendously good. Both had incredible people at both of them who were a joy to meet, and who I felt very lucky to count as supporters and readers of mine.
At the Women and Children First event, we had a wonderful event coordinator and a very nicely diverse turnout. They’d told me that they never did so well with teen-specific events, and so we’d jointly decided to bill the event as a sort of remedial Sex Ed 101 for people of all ages, as well as a signing. In opening the event, I briefly explained what I do when it comes to Scarleteen, what S.E.X. covers, and also gave a relatively short list of what sorts of topics I could answer questions on. My list was essentially this: puberty, all-gender anatomy, sexual orientation, gender identity, birth control, safer sex, sexual response and function, masturbation, partnered sex, general relationships, body image, sexually transmitted diseases, all aspects of human reproduction, reproductive options and other related topics. Overall, I feel like I gave a very clear impression that I was addressing practical, tangible issues rather than theoretical or academic issues.
Most of the audience seemed to grasp that easily, including the handful of young adults that were there, the wonderful older male gay sexual health advisor, my parents and my mother’s girlfriend, the couple friends I had in the audience, a couple grad students and…well, almost everyone.
The only two people who either could NOT grasp that or who perhaps simply did not WANT to grasp that were two middle-aged, white, hetero men in attendance.
Now. For all I know, one or both of these men read me here. If you are one of these men and are reading, and feel I am somehow misrepresenting you…well, that’s kind of too bad, since what I’m about to say here was the impression everyone else there seemed to be left with, too, especially since I could see all of their faces throughout. If I hurt your feelings in any way, know that is not my intent, even though I do intended to be rather direct, and don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be.
I also want to say that one of these men announced publicly about 2/3rds of the way through the event that he had a social disorder. While I still think it was possible for him to behave differently than he did in many respects — or if he absolutely could not, to exempt himself from situations where he cannot control his behaviour — you have to give someone credit for not only being aware of that sort of disability, but for being somewhat accountable for it. Especially since the other man in the audience clearly ALSO had a social disorder — one profoundly worse than Man One did — but I don’t imagine that for a minute he would have even considered that he did, nor that if he knew he did, he would have chosen to behave any differently if behaving differently was an option for him.
Both men seemed to show up with an agenda, to the degree that one even came with prepared notes. Both men didn’t seem to care, at all, that a) they were in a women’s space, and b) there were younger people and younger women in attendance for whom the way each spoke most of the time was seriously disrespectful, purposefully intimidating and big-time inappropriate. And you know, when someone who thinks it is appropriate to sit in a group and talk easily and shamelessly about lubing up for anal sex, fisting or get in-depth about what an HPV wart looks like thinks you’re talking inappropriately, you know you’ve pushed one hell of an envelope.
Both men clearly didn’t want to talk about ANY of the subjects listed, nor let anyone else talk about them, myself included. Both men repeatedly and relentlessly spoke over any and every other audience member.
Man One, with the social disorder, basically was entirely focused on pornography and seemingly on having sex with every woman in the room that evening. I knew it was bad as it was, having watched almost every young woman in there try to get away from him, and having moved away from him as he followed me around the store before the event myself, but only in seeing that a young woman who attended the event who had briefly blogged on it note that she was asked for a lock of her armpit hair by this guy did I realize how bad it really was with him in that respect.
My father is one of those guys who, when introduced as my Dad to who anyone who meets and likes me, people seem to imprint on as surrogate Pop almost immediately. I was pretty well-adjusted about this in my youth, but I confess that there was more than one time in high school when I’d get all happy that a friend stopped by, then feel resentful when they made clear they had come because they needed to talk to my Dad. Harumph. Anyway, at some point, one of the staff there had apparently given my Dad a big bear hug and a kiss on the cheek, after which Man One came up to him, pointed at the woman, and asked my Dad how he could get “one of those,” for himself. I’m not sure what exactly my Dad said to him in response, but the look of disgust on his face was pretty palpable.
Man One would not stop talking about porn throughout the event: in fact, that is all he talked about, ad nauseum, both before the event to me, and during the event, to everyone. At one point, he sat listing all of his favorite porn sites (stating the .com at the end of each very oddly) to a totally unreceptive audience, and when I made clear after a few that I was sure we all got the picture, he kept racing to try and get to the end of the whole list, which he had written down on notecards. I was this close to asking if he got some sort of commission. It was my mother, this time, who asked him to please, for the love of gawd, freaking stop already. I watched a row of teenage girls in the front get more and more uncomfortable the more he went on: it was agonizing, and I did all I could to give them an “I’m terribly sorry” look.
Later on, he also asked if it wasn’t simply inaccurate to say that women didn’t like spending loads of time looking at naked men in print and online porn to the exact same degree men do at women. I informed him that first of all, there were plenty of men who didn’t like looking at women sexually at ALL, plenty of women for whom the inverse also was without appeal (and have I mentioned lately how tired I am of feeling like in nearly every conversation to be had about sex, I must step up and be the Heterosexism police?) as well as people of all stripes who aren’t regular porn users, period. I also let him know that most of the information and statistics we have on this — he seemed to imply that it was some sort of women’s conspiracy that stats always show the primary users of porn as being male — come from the porn industry itself, who tend to be pretty exacting with their statistics, since they’re in the business of making money, so knowing who their primary clientele is is no small matter, nor are they likely to misrepresent the marketing stats, since there’d be no benefit to them in doing so. Unfortunately, letting that question — I should have known better — in started the list of porn sites again, as well as him telling us he was going to share a personal anecdote. Seeing the faces of every single person in there still green from the existing oversharing, I tried to move on to someone else. Very, very quickly.
But alas. Up steps Man Two.
Actually, he was already standing. The event had several long rows of chairs, which everyone there had been sitting in from the start. I too, was sitting rather than standing (something I prefer at events, period, especially events about sex where I’m billed as an expert: I feel like someone in that position standing makes it feel intimidating and power-lordy). But not Man Two. He had been standing in the aisle between all the rows from the minute one, moving closer and closer to me the whole time with a silent scowl on his face while I answered some anatomy of the clitoris stuff, some basic safer sex procedure stuff, some developmental puberty stuff, some how-to-address-how-virginity-makes-some-people-feel-lousy stuff and some issues about HPV and age-matters with the vaccine. I’d asked him twice to please sit down, as had the staff. No dice.
Once he began talking, he kept moving closer, getting louder, and as time went on, I watched spittle form in the corners of his mouth, and his fists clench and unclench. He first started talking by cutting off a male college student, no less — who was a hero of the revolution for bringing his two younger sisters to the event, knowing they had zero sex ed in their family — who just wasn’t clear on what STIs he may or may not have been immunized for, and who also was interested in the status of HPV vaccination for men. I can’t say whether it was ironic, blind and careless, or just plain mean-spirited, but he interrupted that guy, who was visibly Asian, by barking out at me:
“Why does everyone blame the white man for racism?!?”
Umm, okay. We weren’t talking about racism. At all. All night. And, I’m thinking that at that moment, it was a pretty obvious answer since he’d just silenced a person of color right there in that room with his own white, male mouth. Of course, I almost wanted to ask whose fault exactly he thought racism WAS if not the fault of white people, and the whites with the most power, because I was really dying to know this fascinating theory he had, but suffice it to say, I was not about the humour this guy in any way. So, instead, I just calmly said that that wasn’t a topic we were discussing, nor one I felt was relevant to the book and the event.
My response didn’t result in much. He kept moving forward, spittly-mouthed, forehead-sweaty and clenchy-fisted, going on about this. Then there was some intermediary diatribe about how — and put in exactly this language, knowing he had teen girls sitting right in front of him — everyone just wanted to fuck 15-year-old girls and his 15-year-old daughter, but not him. I actually didn’t hear the bit about a daughter in there, my family only mentioned that later. I’m glad, because I don’t think I would have been able to not look beyond horrified at the notion of this poor kid who got stuck with this jerk as a father.
Again, the louder he got, the more I continued to ask him to sit down. And still, he’s not sitting, and still, he’s spitting. Then he starts in on why does everyone blame the white man for everything bad.
I was thisclose to telling him that if right now, anyone WERE blaming the white man for the badness, and the white man they were blaming was him, that would be BECAUSE IT WAS HIS FAULT. I considered telling him that while he couldn’t change his race, nor his sex (well, he could, but I don’t see this guy even remotely wishing he were female), what he COULD change, and what was most likely his biggest problem, was the fact that he was a giant horse’s ass. And that people who may have blamed him for being said ass were likely putting the blame where it belonged, and if he did not like it, not only could he choose NOT to be a giant horse’s ass, we’d all give him a freaking medal for making a different choice at that point.
But you know, there you are, in a public group. You watch the public group get more and more uncomfortable, half of them earnestly looking like they just don’t even feel safe anymore, and you watch them look to you to fix it, knowing that a lot of them want you to say exactly what you’re all thinking because this jerk has effectively terrorized the whole room. But you know, too, that telling someone any of those things publicly, if you did, would primarily be for you, not them, since calling them out that way is likely only going to make them both feel even worse about themselves and everyone else and behave even more badly.
So, if you’re me, the best you feel you can do is to tell him that again, this is outside the scope of the book, that this is a sexuality education book that addresses bigotry a bit, but doesn’t get into any sort of blaming, and that no one in the room is blaming anyone for anything right now (even though they’d have every right to). And then you tell him, more strongly than calmly this time to SIT DOWN. He keeps talking, so you say it AGAIN. This still doesn’t get through, so you then try being a little more direct and say it’s clear he is making every single person in the room grossly uncomfortable, but before you can get that out of your mouth, both of your parents, from opposite sides of the room, take flank positions and ALSO tell him to sit down. Then the staff try and tell him to sit down.
It is at this point that I finally just cracked up laughing, watching the bizarre circus that is sometimes my life, and did a little “Ladies and Gentleman, meet my parents…” which everyone in the room thought was just me being funny, and that the two people in the room I gestured to were just acting like parents, but were not actually my parents for real.
(My mother’s girlfriend later remarked that that was likely in part because when you look at both of my parents, while I may physically resemble them both in part, one wouldn’t assume I’d come from some soft-spoken, but very professional-looking now-blonde, or from some gangly, skinny old Italian. I’m not sure why not, but there you go. She also observed that she thought that some of why these guys went so batty was that they were expecting something from me that wasn’t there — that I was supposed to be, in their minds, some sort of femme fatale, or ball-busting dominator, rather than the short, funny and damn-patient chick in ratty jeans who talks about sex like she was talking about the weather. Who knows.)
Believe it or not, he did finally sit down, but in near-perfect unison, both Man One and Man Two piped up to say they EACH had “anecdotes” they wanted to share with the group. I think at that moment the collective imagination of everyone in that room about said anecdotes made us all wish there was some sort of soap we could use inside our heads.
Thank CHRIST that a half-second later someone else raised their hand so I had someone to call on. For the rest of the evening, the best I could do was look at both men with their perpetually raised-hands, letting them know that I saw that, unsurprisingly, they were not anything close to done, but that as far as I and everyone else was concerned, they’d said MORE than their fair share.
* * *
Honestly, the thing that grated my cheese the most about all of this was that, from everyone’s observations as well as my own, both these guys came into the event with an agenda. Both came in seeming to feel that they needed to tell all of us how it was, and that we were some sort of threat to them. Into an event at a women’s bookstore which has been hanging on financially by a thread, where most of the audience was some sort of minority, be it by age, sex, race or sexual orientation, all talking about sexuality for another marginalized population. In other words, how on earth we could have been any sort of threat to either of these guys, even if we’d have wanted to be, is completely beyond me: I’m not sure there was a single person in there with that power, nor that desire.
I’ll tell you, two, that having survived a couple assaults and stalkers, as well as being someone who has taught self-defense, that my radar is exceptionally good for predatory people. I was exceptionally glad that I was not taking the bus or the el home alone as I would have if I’d still lived there, because I can nearly guarantee that without a doubt Man Two — and possibly, though less likely, Man One — would have been the sort to follow me home.
Some of why behaviour like that pisses me off so freaking bad — beyond the fact that it also resulted in me losing my voice for the rest of the weekend, and feeling like I’d been run over by a Mack truck — is that for fuck’s sake, they were both validating the exact things that both seemed to be saying they did NOT want people to think about men. There were some awesome men in the audience, but those awesome guys are NOT the men anyone was going to leave that event remembering, because the other two made that completely impossible.
More importantly, one of the many reasons that I choose to struggle to keep serving the populace that I do is that shit like this is very real and very common in terms of this populace — teens and women. Interpersonally, politically and educationally, publicly and privately, in everything from their sexual healthcare to trying to negotiate sexual activity they are shouted down and yelled over just like this. We can talk about exceptions to the rule all we want — and by all means, should note that there nearly always ARE exceptions — but this still IS the rule. It’s also a fine example that someone doesn’t have to be the numeric majority to do that: there were but two of these guys, and at least 25 of the rest of us (and I say “rest of us,” because the only other people in the room who were male were — and it was made clear to me by them that they were — either gay or bisexual, of color or homeless), and yet they still found the way to dominate when no one else was fighting them FOR dominance, nor was that anything resembling the vibe of the room. They still attacked, still walked in on the offense, when there was absolutely no cause or reason to: when they were in no danger whatsoever, when there was less than zero threat to them of any sort, save the threat of someone else getting to take their turn speaking about their own issues or questions.
And for crissakes, you’d think, you’d hope, that one could at least be given a vacation from this sort of shite when you’re doing a mellow event, at a mellow women’s space that’s making room for everyone. But you can’t, and perhaps can’t all the more, because I think sometimes that that in and of itself is perceived as a threat: that women could have a space that IS ours, and have the “power” to invite anyone into that space with the understanding that they are expected to behave like guests and expected to make the same allowances.
And I know, we’re so often not supposed to say things like this, but the trouble is that the reality of these situations bears itself out time and time and time again. To pretend that it doesn’t, or to not speak about it (or feel we’d better not, or to be kind must not) is to deny that reality and to choose to be silenced. Like it or not, if you don’t get it, a scenario like this is a big part of why women want exclusive women’s space sometimes (however you define what women’s space is and who it includes): because every now and then, we’d like to be able to speak and talk without being shouted down as most of us so often are, especially if what we want to say either is — or is simply deemed to be — less important than or in conflict with what the men in the room determine so.
(It feels stupid I even have to say this, but just ’cause: does that mean that ANY white, middle-class hetero male is like this? No. Nor does it mean that had another shown up, he would have behaved this way. But this was the actual situation at hand, and these actual situations happen a’plenty.)
Interestingly, I think it’s the first time my mother has actually understood what parts of my job are like, how much of it flat-out stinks, and how small the payoff is so often for me. As we were driving home, she seemed to first be operating under the assumption that something like this never happens, and I let her in on the fact that this sort of thing happens all the time with what I do, in a lot of different contexts. It happens on the message boards, it happens in my email box, it happens with events and talks I give. In talking to straight, white male colleagues of mine who do similar work about these sorts of things, I have yet to have a single one express that this sort of thing EVER happens to them (not saying it doesn’t, just saying that of yet, no one has reported it to me), while other women I know in the field have stories like this in spades. In fact, much as I hate to say it, of the handful of hetero male sexologists I have met face-to-face all but one or two have not hit on me, made salacious comments to me (or about me, to a partner when I stepped away), or seemed to have even the smallest iota of real respect for me and my work beyond how it or I might benefit them personally. Last year, I had to tell a male colleague in the field to stop asking me to do his work for him (for his profit, and for free on my part) at least five times before he stopped, and even then, he literally sent ANOTHER man to harass me to do something for him. Only in saying to said other man that this was at the point of harassment which I was about to take action with did it finally cease.
But I digress.
My mother was pretty mortified, and since that event, has asked how things are going with the book and Scarleteen in every conversation, whereas she used to ask me about it maybe once a year, tops. Oddly enough, one of the lone positives from the whole fracas was that I actually got to see my mother seriously stand up for me in public — which has not happened in my recollection since 1976 — and not because she felt she was supposed to, but because she wanted to. I also think she grew some respect for me that she didn’t have before.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is that my parents cooperated with something. MY parents, who I don’t think have cooperated with anything since 1969, when I was conceived.
My father, of course, was not that shocked: he knows the deal. And my father, of course, made new friends that night, and is now paying attention to the event listings for WCF and asking me about them in terms of if I think he should go to make sure there aren’t any jerks in the audience harassing the two staffers who adopted him. I’m sure there could be all sorts of analysis, gender-based and otherwise, on what my parents each took from the event, but I’m fresh out of analysis today.
The event did sell out of all their cartons of books, though, to the point that they ended up buying the three copies I had with me from me, and sending a few sad folks away bookless. And, of course, we all got to leave with whatever our own oh-so-entertaining versions of the story were, though I think the girl who got asked to give over armpit hair got the shortest end of the stick.
This wasn’t the book event that broke the camel’s back or anything: like I said earlier and in another post, there were actually some other very positive experiences there, and it really was fantastic to be able to have an event in a shop I hold so dear. But I’d already decided that week that after the couple workshops I’d committed to in Victoria for October, and the San Fran trip that same month, that I’d be taking time away from promotion. Not only am I out of funds for it, I’m out of “on” for it, especially since big social events drain the hell out of me to begin with.
And to be honest, those two guys did make me want to take a break all the more. I loathe that result, as it makes me feel like a wuss, but it is what it is. It’s one thing to deal with this stuff online, but it’s entirely another to deal with it up in my face, and that filled my limited quota of it for a while.
I’m also done with it right now, because the far more attractive prospect of friend + bottle of wine just showed up on my door, which beats out pretty much anything, but most certainly kvetching further about this crap.