I wonder if there will ever be a day when I walk out of my apartment and someone doesn’t feel the need to comment on my body. Earlier this week I needed to go out to get some flu medicine for myself. As I was walking to the store, every group of men I walked past made a comment on my body. These comments made me feel overwhelmed and unsafe because there was nothing I could do to escape the situation. All I could do was smile or ignore so they wouldn’t engage me. Why do these men give out their opinion when it was unasked for?
I remember my first couple days at VCU. It was my first time being away from home, and the first time I had ever talked to or hung out with so many boys. There was one night where a boy my roommate had made friends with was in our room. As I was going about my business he felt the need to tell me I “looked really sexy.” I felt trapped because he had come into my space to give me his unwanted opinion of my body.
These small actions are called microagressions and they happen everyday to every woman, every person of color, queer people, trans people, every person who does not fit the mold of the white heterosexual cisgendered male. Right now, at VCU and colleges across the country, women are entering college for the first time and experiencing these kinds of microagressions, or even worse, situations of sexual assault and abuse.
Most often when discussing the topic of consent, it is easy to limit the conversation to sexual consent. Many colleges across the U.S. have been in the spotlight recently, criticized for how they have dealt with sexual assault and the steps they are taking to change that. In contrast, VCU has implemented a mandatory online course for students that focuses on sexual violence.
This requirement comes in the wake of the federal review of four Virginia universities for alleged sexual-violence violations of Title IX, the federal law which protects against gender-based discrimination and sexual violence in any institutions that receive federal funding. These universities include James Madison University, University of Virginia, University of Richmond and The College of William & Mary.
The implementation of the required course came only a day after a crime alert notified the community of a reported sexual assault on the Monroe Park Campus. It also came a month after three VCU soccer players were sentenced to 150 days in jail with 140 days suspended for two years for the unlawful videotaping of a minor — in effect receiving only 10 days of jail time for the violation of a minor. While it is of the utmost importance that these issues are in the spotlight, it is also important to talk about the small ways women are violated everyday.
Here are three things that are by no means a comprehensive list, but certainly are something more men need to think about when approaching a woman (romantic/sexual intentions or otherwise):
1. When a woman says “no” she means “no”. If you ask a girl out on a date, for her number, or even for her Facebook name, and she says no, just walk away. You aren’t going to wear her down, you aren’t going to convince her you’re worth it. She’s said no for a reason. It takes so much courage and strength to say no because I have spent my whole life being told by my male peers not to say no to them. Once, several men told me that a girl should never say no to a date with a guy, because “the guy worked really hard to ask her out and if he gets a no, his feelings will be hurt.” As a woman, I am conditioned to say yes to everything asked of me by men, regardless of my feelings about the situation, so for a woman to choose the opposite and say no, it takes so much strength.
2. When a woman says yes, but looks or sounds unsure, she probably means no. Just because someone says yes with their mouth doesn’t mean it is a contract written in stone. Again, women have been conditioned to always say yes, because when we do reject men, the repercussions are damaging.
3. Women owe you absolutely zero. Women don’t owe you their number, they don’t owe you a date, they don’t owe you sex, they don’t even owe you a response. If you feel like you did something nice for a woman, or she was giving you “signals” that she was into you, she still doesn’t owe you anything. I work in customer service. When a client e-mails me asking for a service, I e-mail them back within two hours because I work for a business and the client expects me to provide for them. This makes sense for a business, that I owe them a response. But I am a person, not a service, and when a man asks something of me personally and thinks I owe him, it tells me exactly what he thinks of me, that I am a service to him. Women are not a service, we are people, stop treating us like we are something to be used.
As the conversation around sexual assault and consent grows on the national level, it can be easy to wonder what you could possibly do to make change. Start by actively changing the way you think about women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA community. What are the judgements you snap to, what are the assumptions you make about these and other marginalized groups? Maybe those assumptions are absolutely wrong. If we all did that together, it could make the greatest change.