“Bless the thing that broke you down and cracked you open, because the world needs you open” – Rebecca Campbell
I said, “okay.” At first, I said I didn’t want to, but eventually I said, “okay,” because he had been buying my drinks all night and his actions implied that I owed him. I said, “okay,” because I didn’t know how to ask him to leave, and because I didn’t know how to say no. I said, “okay,” because I’d surely be leading him on, otherwise, and because he was being persistent; it seemed easier to just get it over with.
You might be wondering how a person gets to a point where they feel like they have to say, “okay,” to something like this. There was a lot of conditioning in my life that led up to this. I’ve said, “okay,” to a lot of things that made me uncomfortable and that I didn’t want to do, but this instance really made me aware of how bad it had gotten. It started a thought process for me about why I felt this was something I had to give in to, and I realized all the ways this notion engulfs the lives of American women.
We have an idea in our society that it is romantic for men to be unrelenting in the pursuit of gaining our affection, even when we give countless “nos.” It’s the somehow-accepted idea that “no” just means “try harder.” There are countless examples in media (Love, Actually, among others) where the man’s tenacity leads to winning over his love interest. We, as women, are taught that we would be lucky to find someone who is so devoted to winning our affections. These ideas are also internalized by men in our society, and display themselves in the form of, “Come on, just for a minute.”
College only solidified and built upon society’s expectations of men and women for me. A lot of my college experiences shape my behavior and my beliefs about myself now. Within this group of newly-liberated teenagers is an entirely new set of social norms. It quickly became apparent to me, from the beginning, that freshman girls were something of a commodity on campus. I don’t mean that in a figurative way; I mean that in a truly economic sense. If you were a freshman guy and wanted access to a party, you had to bring at least four other girls with you; a 4:1 ratio. I remember being rounded up by guys who would tell me to recruit all the girls I knew so they could get in. And it wasn’t just to get in – bringing the most girls meant increasing their hierarchical rank among their peers. They were trading us girls to a party full of sexually-hopeful guys, for access to higher social-standing.
There was yet another level to this broken economic system. Access to a party, as a girl, was a trade as well. It was traded for expectations of sex. Guys made me feel pressured to kiss them because they allowed me to drink cheap beer in their asbestos-covered basement. My friends and I came to realize that we could only talk to a guy for so long, get so many invitations to social functions, before he would expect more. Seeing enough of these transactions planted a subconscious seed in my brain about my self-worth. If I wasn’t going to “put out,” then a guy’s time and energy couldn’t be spent on me. It was a conditional relationship, a woman’s body is a commodity, and that commodity comes at a price.
This sentiment carried over after college, as well. Once, I was on a date I wasn’t enjoying, and this niceties-for-sex idea had me borderline-begging him to let me pay for the meal, because I didn’t want him to expect anything of me if he did pay. I wish I could say that this type of transaction-expectation dies out with maturity but, just yesterday, my friend and I were discussing a guy paying for my drinks, and she said, “Play the fake-sick card, and you don’t even have to sleep with him.” Don’t even have to sleep with him. Exchanges like this remind me of how widespread this expectation is for other women, and that I’m not crazy.
I didn’t even think about it until I wrote this sentence, but after so many years of having my denials rebuffed by persistent men, I got worn down and I stopped trying. I knew it would just end with me giving in. Instead, I subconsciously tried to mask this realization with the illusion that I was owning my own sexuality and giving a middle-finger to a society that shunned promiscuity. That makes me sad, now. Most of all, it makes me sad for early-college-aged me, who wasn’t able to see the flaws in the social system before they broke her down and debased her beliefs and confidence.
I wish I could say that that night awakened me and enabled me to change my behavior, but if I’m being honest, it’s been an incredibly slow process that I’m still struggling with. It takes consistent reinforcement of these changes to really be effective, and I slip up all the time. I say, “I’m not interested,” a lot more; I turn down drinks that will lock me into an unspoken contract; and I subject myself to fewer situations that I know will make me uncomfortable, just for the sake of being nice. This isn’t exclusive to dating, but applies to all facets of my life. For a long time, I had a latent feeling that I had to put other people’s happiness and comfort above my own, and it feels good to start living my daily life in a way that repositions that happiness and comfort back within myself. When someone expects something like this of me now, I think of the girl I was before society’s expectations infiltrated my brain, and I try to treat myself how I wish that girl had been treated; because somehow that got lost along the way.