Pretty unambiguous

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As an undergraduate I majored in Women’s Studies. I am well-versed in women’s history and feminist thought. I wrote a book about women’s reading interests. I read feminist critical theorists for fun.

Even so, the asshole misogynist sexist jerks sometimes win.

At the homeless shelter the other day, I encountered two men from east Europe. I don’t know how long they’ve been in the States, but English immersion has not yet had any appreciable effect on their language skills. Eventually, through a mix of situational context and my own astonishing powers of deduction, I figured out that the word the one dude was muttering – it sounded sort of like “animal” – was actually “envelope.” He wanted me to check his mail.

This I could handle. Clients use the shelter’s address to receive mail. A big part of my job as a volunteer is to hunt through envelopes and packages to see if clients have received anything. We keep a signup sheet at the desk: people write down their names, then I go searching to see what I can find.

So I handed the clipboard and pen to the guy. He took the pen, inserted it into the circular metal doohickey at the top of the clipboard, and starting pushing it in and out. He made eye contact with me to make sure I noticed.

I’m angry at him for making a crude sexual gesture at me, obviously. But I’m angrier at myself for my response – or rather, my complete lack of response.

ImageThe thoughts going through my head were like so: “Oh, gosh, that seems pretty sexual. Surely he doesn’t mean it like that. Maybe it’s some kind of cultural or language barrier.”

Later that morning, I sort of mentioned the incident, obliquely, to a staff person: “Have we ever had problems with those two guys? Because something weird sort of happened, but maybe I’m wrong.”

Later still, I mentioned it more directly to the director: “Uh, I don’t know if I’m misinterpreting this, but this guy’s pantomime was pretty unambiguous.”

That’s right, folks: with my fancy degree in Women’s Studies, it still took me several hours to work up to describing it as “pretty unambiguous.” Pretty unambiguous? Pretty unambiguous? No, no. The charming little pantomime was unmistakable. That kind of shit transcends language and cultural barriers.

The correct response would have been to snatch back the clipboard and loudly (because public humiliation works) tell him not to treat women like that and order him to leave.

Instead, I demurred. I rationalized. I made excuses. Cultural misunderstanding, my ass. And then I hedged when reporting it to staff.

Speaking in generalizations here, women are the peacekeepers. We are culturally predisposed to be nurturers and caregivers. We don’t like to make a fuss. And we will go through amazing mental gymnastics to absolve other people of bad behavior, especially inappropriate sexual behavior.

I think everyone deserves food, shelter, and healthcare. No matter how lazy, depraved, or horrible, each person should have those, guaranteed, and by God that’s how things will roll once I’m queen of my own personal utopia. Until then – well, I’m going to be less upset about some people’s homelessness than others, and my new east European acquaintance is at the bottom of my list.


2 responses »

  1. Most civilised people react to completely unexpected non-conformist behavior such as that with shock. Sounds like what happened to you. Your mind gets locked into a “WTF? Really?!” mode.

    If you had immediately reacted to it, it would mean that you’ve been desensitized to that sort of inappropriate behavior. Revel in your civility and situational naivete.

  2. Jess,
    All that you do in service to humanity is now perhaps lacking in appropriate daily rewards, but you seem to be operating at the Shelter as a member of the Carolina Foreign Ministry staff for refugee and displaced persons department. We applaud your continued effort and hope that such incidents as you describe are few and far between. The East Bloc expat crowd from which this character stems seem to have produced a generation of folks who lack the virtues extolled by Tolstoy. You behaved well and reacted as a perfectly well educated person should. Such insults unfortunately are only avenged properly in Camelot. Sorry you had to be there for the boorish rude behavior of that crudely wired character. best regards


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