November 17, 2017

Female Physical Strength Privilege

(Alternatively titled: Another Reason Why Girls' Sports and Female Physical Fitness Matters)

I currently have and at various points in my life have enjoyed all sorts of privilege.  And, I'm not sure if the Female Physical Strength Privilege I want to write about here matters or is helpful if you haven't had the same privileges I have.  I'd love for folks who have opinions on this to weigh in and educate me.

I, like many women, have been reeling and processing all of these public revelations about sexual harassment (which, duh, I have experienced) and sexual assault (which I've clearly experienced at least twice in the form of an unwanted and uninvited touching of my boobs through my clothes by strangers in elevators in completely non-sexual environments). 

So, I've had it pretty damn easy compared to most of my female counterparts.

I read so many of the #MeToo women's accounts and my heart aches for all of them, but in particular, the very real physical fear many of them obviously felt.  And I feel a little guilty, because I very rarely felt that fear as a young woman, (although, as I age, I must admit I am starting to feel it more often, not in a gendered way, just in a straight up I am not as strong or able to protect myself as I once was, way).

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I think of the very early lessons from my mother and father (and eventually deployed against my brother when we physically fought) that said, "If someone grabs you, you bite; you pinch; you hit the groin, the neck; you scratch, you elbow; you kick; and YELL, YELL, YELL!"  I was not taught to be fearful, I was taught to be egregiously strong and a serious problem for someone who tried to take advantage of me.

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I think of a practice soccer game against the boys' team who shared our practice field in my tweens where I aggressively shoulder checked a boy my age and knocked him off balance (just as I would have as if he was a girl on the opposing team) before stealing the ball and passing to my forward who scored.  It was talked about at school for a few days as a big deal and I realized everyone thought it was cool that I could do that, whereas I thought it was weird that they thought it was special.  We were 12.  Boys were the same size as the girls, for the most part...why wouldn't I shoulder check him?

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I think of my new stepbrother at the time, who had been admitted to the Navy Seals, pounding on the bathroom door while I was taking a shower when I was 16, demanding to be let in, threatening to break down the door.  I left the shower running, put my workout clothes back on, left through the side door out to the yard from the bathroom, scaled our back fence and surprised our neighbor by asking her to call 911 and then my mother.  I never feared for anything because I knew I could get away long before he ever got in (perhaps this was not a correct assessment of the risks, but it was the one I made).  I never had to see him again.  I did, however, cut off my long hair and rock a serious short "don't fuck with me" haircut that year.

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I think of the high school math teacher who handed the guy who sat behind me a magic marker and told him to put a dot on my forehead as punishment for falling asleep, and Robert (I was told) said, "Are you kidding?  I'm in PE with her, she will wake up and kick my ass!  Do you know how many pushups and pull-ups she can do? No way.  You do it."  (I slept without interruption 'til the end of class, and heard the story after the bell.)

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I think of the looks and occasional compliments I got from the male athletes in the collegiate weight room -- my strength to weight ratio was apparently impressive.  From this feedback, I *knew* I could use my body in a way that demanded respect.

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I often wonder how awesome it must be to be *really* fast as a runner (I am not).  I have, however, outrun a few dogs and other situations, which was wonderful, and I can only imagine how safe you must feel in your own body if you are Desi, or Shalane, or Kara, or Lauren -- my "come at me mother fucker, I'll kick you!" has nothing on their, "come at me mother fucker, you can't catch me."

When I think of female fear of physical violence from men, I think of realizing that I *loved* to work with the speedbag, punch and kick the heavy bag, and eventually spar when I took up Tae Kwon Do.  I realized that I *loved* to throw hard punches and kicks and occasionally land them against opponents who were much more skilled than me -- the blows they landed usually didn't carry as much force as mine did, and the sucked in breathe and surprise at a punch or kick that fierce from a short female orange belt made me feel powerful.  It was oddly addictive.

When I think of the stories of women dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, I think of the time my boss in my early 20s made a very suggestive and inappropriate comment about my body at an after-work party and I kicked him in the chest with my knee high boots, using the Tae Kwon Do to throw him back in surprise.  I reined it in so as not to really hurt him.  But there were hoots and hollers and claps, and all the men (and most of the women) in attendance made it clear they respected me for standing up for myself.  For a long time, I felt like I was an equal.  And then at some point I realized how fucked up it was that the only reason they respected me was because I had made it clear that I was the rare women in the situation who could and would kick my boss's ass if he kept up the bad behavior.  If I was a dude, I'd probably have been fired for what I did.

In hindsight, when I think of women fearing violence from men, I think of all the times I waited alone at busstops in sketchy neighborhoods.  Or the time I was followed in Bordeaux after getting in on a 1 AM train and was asked if I wanted to be in "un film" as I walked home, but I just walked quickly away, down a one way street the wrong way and then another, heart racing, ready to sprint, but comfortable that I would be okay.  In all of these situations, I felt that worst case scenario, I could hit, punch, kick, run, etc.  It wasn't my first choice.  In fact, usually I felt quite stupid for taking unnecessary risks, but I always felt physically safe in my body.  I knew how to use it.  I could make it a weapon if necessary. I'd been playing sports and pushing my body for years, and I knew those dudes who saw me simply as a 5 foot tall woman had another thing coming.  Of course this sense of safety is ridiculous, a gun or other weapon or large human trained to fight obviously would have prevailed.

But, I do think that part of the reason I haven't had as tough of a time of it as many of my female counterparts is that I was raised to believe and have sought out activities that confirm that I am STRONG.  To this day, I know that if confronted, I can make efforts that will physically defend myself and will do so more than most people expect.  I have been told that the physical confidence I have speaks volumes and makes me seem much larger than I actually am.

To be clear, none of the situations I am describing involve career pressures (except the boss I kicked in the chest, but I *knew* that I would be buying myself serious mad credibility in the patriarchy of my workplace before I kicked... it was *good* for my career to take him down a notch and call out his inappropriateness in the pre-established professional framework of corporate folks and salespeople where physical strength and aggression was something to be respected.)

I am not positing that if only women were "physically stronger" or "more physically aggressive" we'd avoid the abuse of power by men against women.  Obviously, the structural power norms where men have more power on average than women exist in many realms, including the physical.

But I am saying that one of the big privileges I've enjoyed in my life is that of being a physically strong female.  I'm grateful for the insulation it's given me from many fears my fellow women have experienced.  And, I would argue that it's a dang good reason to put young girls in sports and let them get to know how to use their bodies with fierceness and force, if necessary.  

I don't think it's the only solution, and I certainly don't think it's the best solution, but I do think there are a bunch of people who would think twice before touching a woman inappropriately if they knew that the likely outcome was that she was going to quickly reverse punch back into the crowd and connect with a groin when they stuck their hand up her skirt (Confession -- I did this at least twice in my 20s in crowded clubs.  The guys moved their hands off my ass very quickly.)

And this is where it gets very real for me.  Because as much as I've felt safe and protected by my physical strength, as much as I have physically protected myself and taken comfort in it -- those aforementioned boob grabs in elevators? The two times I'd say I was openly sexually assaulted in a completely non-sexual environment?  I didn't do anything. 

One, because I was in Egypt and I'd already been subject to enough cultural WTF since my arrival that it had been made very clear to me that this society considered me property of the male I was traveling with, and after having been surrounded on the metro and hissed at by a bunch of men, I somehow lost my physical sense of power.  Without it, I couldn't do the math and realize that I could totally have taken that skeevy Saudi* dude in the hotel elevator who, after greeting me in English and trying to make me feel comfortable with English chit-chat in the foreign environment, subsequently grinned and grabbed my boob with a "what are you going to do about it?" look.  I did nothing.

Two, because I was at a conference to get certified for a professional skill I really needed and I was so shocked that a fellow professional would reach over, in my own country, in my own culture and grab one of my boobs with the shrugging "it's not my fault" look accompanied by him saying, as if he was actually sorry, "I just had to know if they felt as good as they looked."  It happened so fast.  He did it right before we got to his floor.  I'd like to think that with more time alone in the elevator I would have done something, anything, to assert control over my body.  But the truth is, I didn't.  It wasn't fear.  It was shock.  And a desire not to make a scene at the professional event where I was getting certified.

So, I guess the take home I have from all of this navel gazing is that sports and physicality are very good for girls and women because:

- it makes them feel physically empowered, which makes them look like less of a desirable victim, and actually makes them less likely to *be* a victim

- it makes them feel very comfortable making a scene in anything that feels like a physical contest, because they have lots of practice in physical contests, and frankly, real physical danger is a physical contest

But, after much reflection, the sad honest conclusion I've had to come to in my own personal experience, is that the Female Physical Strength Privilege, while awesome, is not strong enough to overcome the professional pressure not to make a scene unless you've already decided that the scene will earn you professional credibility or at least won't harm you.

*I reference the Saudi nationality of the dude in the elevator because I think it's important to note that while I had a very difficult time with gender roles in Egypt, when it comes to actual aggression, I was only hissed at and yelled at by Egyptian males.  While I felt like the property of the friend I was traveling with, I was *never* touched by Egyptian men, there was some sexist safety in being my male companion's property that the Egyptian males respected.  Perhaps if I was in an elevator alone with both Saudi men and Egyptian men and none of them knew I was traveling with a male companion I could run a double blind study, but Egyptian men never got on the elevator except when I had my travel companion with me, so I only have my one skeevy Saudi dude who proudly self-identified as Saudi before grabbing my boob as a data point.


Jen said...

Thank you for sharing. I love that your parents empowered you to fight back -- I wished that my parents were more aggressive about that, especially considering that they raised 4 daughters. (The most my dad ever did in this manner was to try to get us used to drinking alcohol, so we didn't get taken advantage of in that way.) I completely agree with your points about sports for young girls, it can be very empowering. I also can relate to the getting groped part and not having enough time to react- though my incident happened while I was running in Berkeley, and not in a professional situation. It was frustrating to not be able to fight back or do anything about it. Anyway, I'm really hoping that this recent firestorm of news about sexual harassment and assault changes our culture in a positive way. I hope the women of the future will read your post and be shocked and confused that "these kind of things" ever happened.

bt said...

@Jen -- I love that my parents taught me that I was worthy of survival and fighting back. It pains me to realize that many girls/women have never been told that they have a right to survive and they should assert it. I think your dad is a smart man for teaching you girls about how to manage alcohol. That's definitely a lesson many American parents don't offer.

Arvay said...

I think the emotional empowerment that comes from being athletic is more important than the physical. When you are physically strong, but emotionally weak, and one of the vast majority of victims who is attacked by a trusted family member, the memories hurt all the more. Because compounded with your anger is your deep regret at not having punched the motherfucker in the face (which you were perfectly physically capable of), instead of lying there weakly. You feel lame and dumb and weak and full of regret. :(

bt said...

@Arvay -- You make a very good point. It's not the fact that I was/am physically strong that's the privilege, it's the combination of that strength with the fact that I was raised in and exposed to environments where my physical strength was openly appreciated, encouraged, and commented on as worthy of respect. Because of all of this, I felt powerful and safe. As Jen noted, up above, first and foremost, I was taught as a young girl that I could and should fight back against anyone who physically mistreated me.

Biting Tongue said...

And, of course, after I wrote this, all of the Larry Nassar bullshit came out and upset me and make re-assess everything, because, of course, most of his victims could have probably kicked his ass without too much effort...