author – activist – faculty – mom
When I was a budding writer in my 20s, an older man asked me to be a featured reader at his poetry series. I was so honored and excited. I had been reading at the open mics around the Oakland/East Bay poetry scene, and it was great to have my work validated.
I did the short feature set, including a piece on growing up with a curvy colored girl’s body in an era that worshipped the white girl stick figure. I got good feedback, and I headed home with a feeling of triumph.
Later, the older man would share a poem that was so obviously about me, objectifying my body, referring to the outfit I wore during the feature set and recalling my words from that poem in some kind of twisted she-didn’t-know-she-was-beautiful-but-I’m-going-to-let-her-know-know-via-this-creepy-poem. I felt uncomfortable and sent him a message telling him so. He got angry and his commentary had two outraged threads: 1. he couldn’t believe that he was being so maligned after all his service to the poetry community and 2. the world is just a very sexual place and I would know that when I matured. I was distraught by his response. I felt anxious every time I opened my mail. And I stopped going to artistic events hosted by older men. I now know that I was fortunate in many ways. The trespass wasn’t physical; he didn’t use his position to manipulate me into sex or a relationship. Many young women, like I did, have a deep desire to write, to find voice, to have a community. We also have vulnerabilities, inexperience, insecurity. Predatory men exploit that in ways that are sometimes lacking in integrity, and other times downright criminal.
But I was fortunate enough to avoid getting entangled with any of those men. Eventually, I got older and became a working performer. I was no longer in range of the type of male artists who prey on young, ingenue women writers. So it seemed, as women artists, we would age out of these outrages. We would get to a professional point where it wouldn’t happen anymore. Or so I thought.
One of the many reasons I am so upset about the alleged sexual assault of Shailja Patel is that the one thing I thought I could count on–that women get older and that shit stops happening–was taken away. We, as women, are never safe. The notion that she, as an internationally acclaimed poet at an international poets gathering would be assaulted by another writer is outrageous. But really it’s not any more outrageous than the young women in the Alt Lit scene who were allegedly assaulted by an editor, or the young women every day who are assaulted, abused, raped, battered. It’s all connected. It’s all part of the war on women. It’s all outrageous.
As a woman, there’s this massive discouragement in the battle against sexism. As a defense mechanism, I begin to narrow the scope to eliminating sexism in my personal life. There’s this hope that if only I can escape one or another particular trap of sexism; if only I can assure that my daughter will escape this or that trap, then I can chalk up a victory. Yes. We need to chalk up every victory in every woman’s life against sexism, and yet, we cannot settle for any victory for any individual woman; we need to keep fighting for victory over sexism in the War On Women for all women of all ages in all circumstances in all parts of the world. Period.