women

Women are Bitches

By

“Women are bitches,” says a young man as he sits down. Apparently a woman at the bar wouldn’t give him her number. He’s talking to the man sitting on his left in spite of the fact that I am sitting two feet to his right and at the same table.

I’ve spent the last couple months in the company of writers, mostly poets, mostly men. I am growing weary. The group I hang with is large and fluid—I’m not naming names, not pointing fingers, I like these people—and yet an issue I cannot ignore has begun to emerge: when it comes to many of the men in the company, mid-thirties and younger, making conversation, even with women present (older, younger, students, professionals, I’m a grandmother for Christ’s sake), the topics frequently revolve around who is sleeping with whom, which female is more fuckable, which poop or dog-cum reference is the funniest, and what is the latest text from “the Korean girlfriend.”

It’s not that I mind swearing, not that I dislike racy humor, not that I’m a prude—the more sex the better, I say—but self-aggrandizing dick jokes get old fast. At one point, just to balance the conversation, I suggested, loudly, to another woman in the group that we begin starting our sentences with “My vagina is so tight…”

After one poetry reading and various levels of alcohol consumption (not to offer mitigation, just setting the scene), two of the younger women in the group (younger than me, that is) were repeatedly propositioned and pawed by more than one man in our company, even though the men knew the women were in long-term committed relationships and, more importantly, were entirely uninterested in a bit on the side.

My personal issues with some male colleagues have been slightly different. On reminding a colleague about a deadline, he told me not to “scold” him. This, in spite of that fact that (a) I was the project manager, and (b) it was a simple deadline reminder. If I had wanted to scold, it would have sounded less like “We need X by Y date” and more like “You are consistently lacking in follow-through, and I’m getting fed up with your inability to make deadlines, so pull your thumb out of your ass and get it done.” Yeah. That.

On the night before a poetry reading I had arranged, I got an email from a young writer saying he didn’t think he could read the next day, as his girlfriend hadn’t brought her proper ID and so couldn’t get into the reading venue (a bar) and he didn’t want to leave her alone. My email response: “Alrighty.” This writer had cancelled on me before, so really, what was there to say? In response, I received a lengthy plea asking me not to be cold and to try to understand and Would you leave [name of my husband] alone in a hotel while you read? You bet your fucking ass I would—in fact, my husband was clear across the country at that very moment, taking care of all domestic matters including a new puppy who was shitting all over the house.

I have five children. That’s enough.

***

Back to the weeks of concentrated writer events. One man offered as a compliment “You look rape-able.” One man seemed compelled to check out and comment on the breasts and legs of all the women we passed (or perhaps it just seemed like all) on the street, at the bar, in the restaurants. One man I was talking to opened a conversation with “You know that chick…” It turned out he was referring to the late-thirties editor we had just been chatting with, but it took me a minute to figure it out, because not in my wildest dreams would I have referred to the mature, professional woman as a “chick.”

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This kind of crap went on and on. It was exhausting. Exhausting to figure out how to respond to the relentless misogyny from men who are otherwise kind and educated, who would never think of themselves as chauvinist assholes. I have heard more than once from this crew, “Most of my favorite poets are women.” If I were to guess, I’d bet that the lot of them vote pro-choice, support the Violence Against Women Act, and consider women well capable of intelligent, complex thought. I certainly don’t assume that all men under 40 would engage in the kind of language and behavior described above; indeed, I know of many who would never do so. And yet, after the past several weeks, its frequency is far beyond what I thought possible.

What is up with all this dehumanizing language? Honestly, I have no idea. But I do know this. If “good guys” feel perfectly at ease using degrading language that objectifies women when talking not only to one another but also to women they purportedly respect, then the bullshit that came out of the GOP this past election cycle (vaginas that can tell the difference between consensual sex and rape, for example) can be explained. A big pile of reasonably aware and well-intentioned people doing thoughtless shit creates a solid set of stairs for unreasonable, ignorant assholes to say and do what most of us (men and women alike) would deem shockingly destructive.

The group I was spending time with recently was mercifully spared a flood of “That’s what she said” jokes, though I have surely been drowned in them before. The only recent instance went something like this.

Woman referring to her sandwich: “That’s too big for my mouth.”

One of the men at the table: “That’s what she said.”

Me: “That’s what he is hoping she said.”

***

So I’ll offer this: in addition to being exhausted and discouraged by the relentless barrage of bathroom humor and frat-party antics, I’m bored. I’m in this world of poetry and books for ideas and language and beauty. Seriously. So I’ll say to whoever needs to hear it, put your shit back in the can and let’s talk about things that might actually be funny or engaging or matter once the whiskey has worn off.

Last year, a good friend of mine was deeply injured by a woman he had been in a relationship with. For his birthday, which occurred in the middle of the mess, I gave him a vintage nutcracker in the shape of a pair of women’s legs. Was this me buying into the same bullshit I’m talking about here? I’m not sure.

While preparing an essay for VIDA the other day, I reviewed the guidelines and saw the following description of one of the essay categories: “For you alpha personalities willing to be bold and opinionated, for this feature we send you five to seven provocative questions about life, writing, or current happenings.” Huh. Are women who are willing to articulate their opinions automatically “alphas”? Perhaps that’s how we are currently characterized in our culture, but surely that will not be the case in a world where opinions are valued based on merit and not based on the gender of the speaker. Even VIDA, an organization working tirelessly to increase the awareness of women’s accomplishments in the arts, can fall prey to language that protects misogynistic tropes.

So, again, here’s what I say to anyone who needs to hear it: let’s get together, knock a few back, have an entertaining conversation about literature or human nature or something hilarious one of us saw on TV. But here’s the thing: the moment you start talking about the tits of the woman at the end of the bar, or referring to grown-ups as “chicks” or start getting me confused with your mother, that’s the moment I move on. Not because I’m offended or uptight or a bitch, but because I’m bored. Get interesting (and perhaps help shift our cultural consciousness at the same time), or get out of the way.

That’s what she said.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

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KMA Sullivan‘s poetry and essays have been published or are forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio, The Nervous Break Down, Southern Humanities Review, Pear Noir!, Gargoyle, The Good Men Project, diode, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Vinyl Poetry and the founding editor and publisher of YesYes Books. More from this author →