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The Commons
Photo 1

Brenda Lynn Siegel/Commons file

At the Women's March on Washington, a sea of pink hats — and a significant number of men.

Voices / Essay

Beyond my burden of shame

At the Women's March on Washington, I was expecting outrage, catharsis, and the solidarity of strong women. What I wasn't expecting were the men.

Diana Whitney (www.diana-whitney.com) is the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller in 2014 and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Salon, The Washington Post, and many other publications. A yoga teacher by trade, she runs a studio attached to her family’s farmhouse. This piece originally appeared in the web magazine Roar (roarfeminist.org).

Originally published in The Commons issue #399 (Wednesday, March 15, 2017).



Editor’s note: This piece is somewhat more explicit than the material we usually publish. It also addresses sexual violence.

My pre-teen daughters didn’t want to go to Washington, D.C., and I didn’t push it, not wanting to force them into any activity against their will, be it cross-country skiing, hugging, or political protest.

To be honest, I was relieved to have space for my own experience, to travel solo to the nation’s capital to the Women’s March on Jan. 21 with my two high-school best friends, Stacey and Sarah, the same gals who’d coined our senior-year slogan: My Body Is a Shrine. We hand-painted the “My B.I.A.S.” acronym in puffy letters on XL white T-shirts that we wore at sleepovers.

At 17, we kept one another honest and knew one another’s weaknesses. I was perpetually infatuated and pushed the boundaries with boys any chance I got.

My friends always forgave me for my dramas and obsessions — even in college, when I struggled to explain what had happened with my frat-guy crush in a dorm room.

* * *

It took Donald Trump’s election for me to use the words “date rape.” Call me a half-hearted feminist. Call me a puppet of the patriarchy whose internalized misogyny made her submissively silent.

But I’m a poet — language is my currency. I wanted to be precise.

So I called it “coercion” or “a gray area,” always acknowledging my own confusion and complicity. I was reluctant to claim the victim role when other women had been jumped in parks or gang-raped in fraternity basements. Those were the women who’d been lawfully abused.

Not me, who’d led the cute guy down the hall to an empty single. Not me, who was always up for “fooling around”— our vague term for erotic adventure in the ’90s.

I resisted the word “rape” for 25 years. But then Pussy Grabber took power, and that event ignited an old fury in me I hadn’t known was smoldering.

At least 13 women had stepped up and accused this man of assault — groping them, kissing them, worse — but enough voters shrugged off his crass actions to win enough states for him to become commander in chief.

For decades, Trump had unabashedly objectified women, treating their bodies as extensions of his vast business empire, a kind of real estate to which he was sexually entitled.

Now his presidency legitimized that behavior.

So I traveled down to D.C. in my dark-pink pussy hat, knit during long, ice-bound January nights.

I was staying with a dear family friend in the Takoma Park, Md., bungalow she’d dubbed “The Revolution B&B,” where I met a cadre of fierce feminists who’d been protesting since the ’60s.

I was expecting outrage and catharsis. I was expecting the solidarity of strong women.

What I wasn’t expecting were the men.

* * *

I stepped off the Metro at 7:20 a.m. and saw a tall, Black ACLU guy wearing a fuchsia pussy hat. He stood beside a cardboard Statue of Liberty, handing out signs, banners, and sashes to the first trickle of marchers.

I loved his dedication and enthusiasm, his willingness to don the emblem of female resistance. We grinned at each other. He handed me a “Dissent Is Patriotic” button. I snapped his picture and walked on.

By the time I met up with Stacey and Sarah on the corner of 4th and Independence, we were packed in a surging crowd of protesters, an ocean of pussy hats in every shade of pink: fluorescent, pastel, raspberry, coral.

Standing like sardines on our little square of sidewalk, we saw Gloria Steinem on the Jumbotron in her black leather jacket and iconic aviator sunglasses. She raised her voice above the crowd’s roar and proclaimed:

“We are here for bodily integrity. If you cannot control your body from the skin in, you cannot control it from the skin out. You cannot control your lives...”

She was talking about reproductive rights, but her message applied to sexual freedom and safety.

“Bodily integrity”— the right to say no and say yes, to decide who and when and how you’re going to have sex. Later, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, demanded reproductive justice and declared, “We’re not going to take this lying down.”

And I thought about lying on my back in that dorm single when I was 18 and saying no quietly, in a half-apologetic manner, but still saying it, repeating it even, saying no and no again until I realized I was hearing the syllable inside my head, not speaking it with my voice.

What had happened to “My B.I.A.S.” that night? I understood the boy was not going to leave and, instead of screaming, I went mute while he entered my body.

“No means no,” they told us in the ’90s. Now they tell college students, “Yes means yes,” and if you want to have sex, all parties involved must say the word out loud. This slogan has become a policy called “affirmative consent,” adopted on many campuses nationwide and even made law in the state of California.

I thought about lying down and taking it and carrying that shame and self-blame like a stone for 25 years.

I thought about my crush and how he’d also given me a copy of Gibran’s The Prophet for Valentine’s Day.

Maybe he was a well-meaning guy, but he was drunk and horny and hell-bent on his own pleasure.

I’ll never forget the searing pain of that sex, the savage thrusts that seemed to rip me open. I squeezed my eyes shut and moved my hips to make it go faster. When he left, I stood in the shower letting warm water soothe my burning body.

Whatever had happened, it wasn’t consensual.

* * *

“There’s nothing more powerful that a group of determined sisters marching alongside their partners and their determined sons and brothers and fathers, standing up for what we know is right,” said Kamala Harris, California’s newest Democratic senator, one of the most compelling speakers at the rally and a potential presidential candidate.

She was talking about our men — our “male allies,” as one activist friend called them.

Traveling alone to meet the women I loved, fueled by my fury at Trump and his cronies, I hadn’t given the guys much thought, but there they were, in the rising energy of the day: men of all flavors, many in pink hats, standing beside their partners and sisters, their mothers and daughters.

Some prominent feminists have critiqued male allies within the women’s movement, asking how those who form the dominant culture can help dismantle the patriarchy, but I found the presence of men at the Women’s March respectful and strengthening, an act of true solidarity.

Bearing witness to history at the five-hour rally, I wished my girls were by my side. But they were back home in Vermont, carousing at the water park with their dad, my husband, cannon-balling off the high dive, swimming the length of the pool, fearless and secure in their own strong bodies.

Their father is a man of principle, a man who has never had dubious sex with a woman before — no “gray area” experiences when her consent might have been in question.

I want to believe this equals protection, that if girls grow up with such a father, that if they see their mother raise her voice for justice, it will protect them from pussy-grabbers everywhere.

But I know this is magical thinking.

One in four women experiences sexual assault on campus. And girls and young women aged 12 to 34 have the greatest risk of being raped.

What my daughters need are open, honest conversations about sex (both its joys and its risks), as well as courage, confidence, and self-defense training.

* * *

Appropriately, my pussy-hat ears looked more demonic than feline. Swept up in a euphoric, pink-capped sea, I raised my arms high to display my sign — My pussy my rights — an evolution from my college feminism, because I never would have used the word “pussy” at 18, whether for practical or intimate purposes.

It took a new generation of women like Lena Dunham to talk unapologetically about their anatomy and sexuality for me to claim that language for myself. Reading Dunham’s memoir, I saw my story in her chapter about dorm-room sexual assault. Her conflicted narrative gave me the courage to write my own:

In a recent interview with Dunham, memoirist Mary Karr commended the millennials for their open-minded contributions to feminism: “I think women of your generation, they have better underwear. [...] Better politics. I think they like themselves a little better. I think the men of your generation are a little better, a little more sophisticated.”

I believe Karr is right, but we still have a long way to go.

Peggy Orenstein, whose research on girls and sex reveals what happens in today’s dorm singles, interviews dozens of college women who consistently prioritize their partners’ satisfaction over their own.

The way forward, she says, is through more candid sex ed and more “honest conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after yes — discussions about ethics, respect, decision making, sensuality, reciprocity, relationship building, the ability to assert desires and set limits.”

Orenstein continues: “We still tend to avoid the biggest taboo of all: women’s capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure.”

It’s high time for me to start feeling entitled.

* * *

I held my sign aloft like a beacon as our free-form wave of marchers flooded up Pennsylvania Avenue. “There’s no excuse/for sexual abuse!” chanted the masses, a triumphant backbeat to our moving feet.

And that’s when I saw him, the young man in a red bandana sporting a hipster scruff on his chin. He was carrying a sign that celebrated the concept of consent, and he was wearing a slim-fitting black T-shirt that read, “I <3 female orgasm.” Grinning and elated, seemingly alone in the vast crowd, the guy was maybe 25 years old.

I turned around and shouted over the din. “I love your sign! Can I take your picture?”

“Sure!” He beamed brighter. We exchanged a comradely look that verged on the flirtatious. I held up my phone and clicked for posterity.

He was a symbol of hope, this millennial dude, out there marching for consent and women’s pleasure. The cynic in me wondered if he was just trying to get laid, but even if so, his sign was right — consent isn’t sexy, not something to be packaged and sold like perfume or lingerie, like another romantic accoutrement in our consumer culture.

How can I explain what he meant to me? How I’ve thought about him in the weeks since the March, turned him into a source of solace, a counterpoint to the ignorant frat boy who violated my body?

Who would guess that Millennial Dude could help a Gen-X mom lay down her burden of shame? I’ve tried to deconstruct his relevance to my experience, question whether it’s un-feminist to place a man at the center of my protest.

But then I lighten up. I look at his sign and his shirt, and I have to smile. I imagine his younger cousins or nephews or other enlightened brethren dating my daughters in college.

May my girls (if they are straight) grow up to meet such evolved men and have amazing sex with them without guilt or self-judgment. May they shout out their boundaries and speak up for their pleasure.

May they live out “My B.I.A.S.” in the new world we are building.

* * *

When I got home, my daughters wanted to see the photos, hear how I flipped the bird to Trump’s hotel and marched to the line of riot police at the roadblock where the White House glimmered through the trees and Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” blasted from a boombox. Then they got bored and went back to watching YouTube.

But the trip was the defining moment of my mid-life, akin to my mother dancing barefoot at Woodstock or my father hunger-striking against Vietnam. In D.C., the personal was political, and the political was personal.

I was marching for all women who had ever been silenced and violated, for my daughters on the cusp of their sexual awakening, for my sisters of all colors, for our male allies everywhere.

Maybe someday my girls will ask me about it, when they’re studying gender and society or the history of the women’s movement.

“I was there,” I’ll tell them. “I saw the future. I saw it, and I felt hope.”

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