Two things happened this month.
Two things happened that reminded me that as much as I speak out, as much as I push back, as much as I try to stand my ground, my body does not belong to me. Indeed, my desires are often irrelevant and my pleasure decided for me. It seems I was created for consumption.
Unsurprisingly, one of these things happened at my job. The restaurant industry continues to be very successful in reminding women that we are mere objects to lust after and harass while breeding men to perpetuate this construct. The restaurant at which I work currently is one of the safest places I’ve been employed. Still, it has its flaws, and it is no exception to the standard Kitchen Culture, despite the owners’ best efforts.
I was confronted by one of the cooks in April. He glared at me out of the corner of his eye as he hunched his gaunt frame over itself to tie his shoe.
“So you’d really never go out with me?” he spat impatiently, as though this was a discussion we’d been having for hours.
“What?” I asked, taken aback.
Chris continued his rant bitterly, explaining that he had asked around regarding the state of my romantic life and found displeasure in the results. I stood by and mumbled an apology to his rhetoric.
This interaction marred our relationship, which had previously been friendly, if a bit superficial. As his vitriol refused to wane, so did my discomfort. I was frustrated, not only by being the recipient of such unwarranted venom simply for having a life and relationships outside of my workplace, but by Chris’s manner of ascertaining the details of my life. Never did he speak to me about my feelings or ideas or aspirations or experiences. To him, I was not a sentient being, but a plaything that belonged to someone else.
Over the course of the next few weeks his anger did not subside; it reared its head when I checked my phone for texts or mentioned Matthew near him. But as Chris’s resentment refused to wane, so too did his unwelcome advances. For every scowl there was a plea: “I’ll be good to you. Come on. I’ll treat you right.” The irony was lost on him.
Soon his words and glances no longer satisfied him. One day he came up behind me and begged in earnest for me to allow him to grab my hips. His hands pinched the air as I quickly moved away and gave him a sharp, impatient, “No!” Not long after this incident I found myself trapped by the ice machine as he rubbed his ass on my waitressing apron to the beat of the song playing in the cafe. My threats were immediate and fierce. Still, as he ran to the other side of the kitchen, I was left alone by that ice machine, overtaken by my sense of powerlessness to these situations.
Last week I woke up next to my boyfriend. In the dim morning light our still-sleepy hands found each other’s bodies as we kissed the night from our lips. Slowly, but not without certainty, Matthew worked his way from my mouth, to my neck, to my breasts, and continued downward.
“No, babe. Not now,” I whispered.
Annoyed: “I don’t need to give you a reason.”
He looked hurt. Still, it was too early to have an in depth discussion about consent. I relented:
“Because I haven’t showered, I need to shave, and I don’t feel sexy right now.”
“That’s the reason?” He was skeptical. But after a pause, “I just wanted you to communicate with me, Marie.”
“I don’t need to communicate that to you! I don’t have to fucking explain why I’m saying no!”
Matthew rolled over, taken aback by my sudden fury. I sat for a moment, aware that his questioning stemmed from a place of naivete and not one of dominance or ill will. I knew his eagerness and commitment to my pleasure and that this situation, poorly handled as it may have been, was a result of that. I sighed, softening a bit, as my hand traced the the curve of his back.
“Babe, listen. Here is my typical day:
I go to work, where I get harassed. I am leered at all day by my some of my coworkers. Then, I walk down the street and get catcalled and harassed in Central Square in Cambridge. Isn’t this supposed to be some sort of fucking liberal bastion?
Next, I go home, and my own boyfriend doesn’t want to take no for an answer. Tell me: when do I get to have autonomy over my own body? When?!”
He turned to me, his brown eyes wide and intense, “You do!”
“Do I? Then why should your desires override my consent to my body?”
Regret filled his eyes and his apologies were the heartfelt words of someone who has gained new understanding. He laced his fingers through mine as he voiced his last concern, “But babe, that stuff about work? I thought that had stopped.”
It wasn’t often that I spoke to him of the harassment I encountered at work and on the street. The days I came to him, sputtering stories of encounters I had, were the days that I had reached the end of my patience and could no longer ignore it.
“No, Matthew, it never stops.”
Apparently I’m writing a series on sexual harassment. Bummer.