ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
#MeToo and the Cult of Desirability
The first time I was harassed was on the school bus. I was in the fifth grade. Every day three first grade boys sat behind me and, for the duration of our ride, they giggled and kicked my seat and made comments about my body. They liked to say they were going to sit on top of my head and have sex with me—a suggestion which, with its logistical confusion, makes me laugh a little now. But it didn’t feel funny at the time. It felt weird.
I did not try to stop their comments. Or tell anyone about them. I felt that, as the oldest kid in the situation, I was responsible for what was happening.
But as their attention began to escalate, so did my discomfort. I started to worry about other students—older kids—overhearing them. So one day I threatened to tell the bus driver. Of course, I wasn’t actually going to tell the driver. I couldn’t even say the word “sex” to friends without a deep flush crawling up my chest. And the terse, cranky man who piloted us around the subdivisions of rural Virginia was not someone I would ever, ever talk to about sex or my body or comments made about my body by seven-year-old boys.
The next day I was called into the principal’s office. She told me that one boy’s mother had called. He said I’d been teasing him and his friends on the bus. His mother wanted to know why a fifth-grade girl would tease younger boys. I burned with shame.
I explained, in the most non-specific way possible, that the boys were the ones bothering me. I’m sure I used that word, “bothering,” because it would never have occurred to me to call it anything else. I knew the word “harassment.” After all this was 1991, and every morning, as we ate our cereal, the Today show continued its rapt coverage of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy. It was the year I learned that some women wanted attention so badly they were willing to lie for it. These women strove to discredit powerful men, using their sexuality as a weapon.
I was supposed to be the powerful one on the bus, but somehow it didn’t quite feel that way. I knew it was my word against the boys’ and, while I cannot recall what the principal said to me, I do remember that no one was punished. After that, the boys stopped talking to me on the bus. And I moved to the front, near the driver: a lonely, uncool position, but a safe one.
I hadn’t thought about that story in years. And I might’ve continued not thinking about it were it not for the emergence of #metoo on social media in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Before that day, it had never occurred to me to name my experience “sexual harassment.” It seemed too typical, too unremarkable to even be named. At worst, it was “teasing”’—and boys teased girls all the time.
Suddenly, though, as my social media feeds filled with stories far more traumatic than mine, I began to think differently about my own experience. What did it mean that six- and seven-year-old boys knew—already—how to make an older girl squirm with discomfort? They liked provoking me. They weren’t bad apples or proto-sociopaths. They were like me. We were all middle-class kids who played sports and got decent grades and went to church.
I posted the story on Twitter. I wanted to point out that this kind of behavior starts early. It’s not that someone becomes a movie producer and then begins to dabble in harassment and assault. Harassment is learned. It is inherited. It is practiced on school busses and playgrounds well before it happens in offices and hotel rooms. I know now that those boys were just parroting what they saw in the world around them. We all grew up watching Pepé Le Pew and John Hughes movies. And I know that they probably decided to test this behavior on me because I sat alone reading books. I was a convenient target. I could’ve been anyone.
But that wasn’t what I thought in fifth grade. Back then, I’d thought they picked me because they liked me. They had crushes on me. And what I didn’t say when I posted my story on Twitter was that, at least at first, I’d liked their attention.
Like every other girl of my generation, I was told that if boys teased you, it was because they liked you. Already, at age ten, I knew that desirability was a kind of currency. I wanted boys to tease me—it was proof that I was worth their time and attention. Proof that I was worthy.
In this way, male attention almost always felt like a kind of gift, a coin dropped into a bank account that would one day add up to the total of my value in the world. And for most of my life, I was willing to trade on my comfort—even, occasionally, on my own sense of safety—for that status that came with being desired.
I met Patrick my first year of college. We were both members of the school’s honors program. He had dark hair and dark eyes and his personality was an unstable mix of intellectual liberal and deep-south conservative with a veneer of European family history. At first, he ignored me and my friends. I could tell he’d written us off as flighty or shallow. He’d talk around us, making eye contact with the people he’d deemed cool or interesting. But then one night, after he found out that I’d won a prestigious scholarship, I sensed a shift in his attention.
He liked me, he drunkenly confessed a week later, because I was smart—smarter than the other girls. I beamed.
I didn’t necessarily want to date Patrick, but I was curious about him. I was flattered by the intensity of his interest.
He began calling late at night and showing up at my dorm room unexpectedly. If I didn’t answer, he’d come by the next day to ask where I’d been. Sometimes he’d ask my friend who lived next door.
Patrick told me he didn’t like it when I went to campus parties. He thought I was too good for fraternity basements. He thought I drank too much.
I never asked for his opinions, but he doled them out like small gifts. He preferred my glasses to my contacts. He liked it when I went to church and to poetry readings, but he wished I would stop buying clothes from the Gap. I should buy more vintage clothing, he suggested. I should take more philosophy classes.
Sometimes his constant input annoyed me, but I liked feeling the force of his attention. I couldn’t untangle my sense of validation from my sense of discomfort.
People describe harassment as “unwanted sexual attention” but what this definition assumes—wrongly, I think—is that women are free to know and express their own desires when it comes to attention from men. I didn’t like how Patrick treated me. He made me feel inadequate and small. He undermined my confidence. But still I thought I should be grateful he bothered to care about where I went and what I wore. I did not know that I was allowed to not want his attention. Without it, how would anyone know that I was desirable?
The week before Christmas break, Patrick suggested a stopover at my parents’ house to break up his long drive home. That night, we went to a movie in a neighboring town and on the drive to the theater I said something that made him angry. I don’t remember what I said, but I can viscerally recall his response. He grabbed me by the wrist and squeezed, hard. He held my gaze for several seconds as I tried not to flinch.
It was the first time I felt unsafe. I realized I’d made a mistake by not being clearer that I wasn’t going to date him. I regretted inviting him home and introducing him to my parents. We didn’t talk at all during the movie, though at one point he tried to touch my leg and I pulled away.
Later that night, after everyone else had gone to bed, Patrick knocked on my bedroom door. He said he had a Christmas gift for me. I stood awkwardly, feeling too polite to say no. He came in and shut the door behind him before pulling a pink plastic jewelry box from his pocket. Inside was a pink plastic ring. He knelt on my bedroom carpet, holding the ring aloft, asking if I would be his girlfriend. I froze, trapped in my room with my parents asleep downstairs. For several seconds I was mute, full of dread.
“You grabbed me in the car,” I finally managed to say. “You grabbed my arm and it hurt. And you think I want to be your girlfriend now?”
I remember thinking that, in a perverse way, I was glad he’d grabbed me like that. It gave me a good reason to say no. I’m not sure what I would’ve said otherwise—I’d spent the previous weeks wondering if maybe I should give him a chance.
His face was hard and flushed as he stood up. “You can keep the stupid ring,” he said, placing it on my dresser. He handed me a small wrapped gift before heading downstairs to sleep on the couch. I locked my bedroom door for the first time in my life.
Inside the package was a copy of Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, a book I’ve still never read, and a handwritten poem. The refrain, every other line, contained my name: “Mandy, she walks on me.” I wondered: if I had said yes, would he still have given me the poem? Would that be part of the deal in a relationship with Patrick—accepting the narrative that I was the one who was abusive?
After the holidays, Patrick stopped coming by my dorm room. He stopped calling. A few weeks later, when I found the passenger-side window of my car shattered, I wondered why the only thing missing was my lumbar cushion. It could’ve been anyone, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the miniature baseball bat I’d seen on the floorboard of Patrick’s SUV. He transferred schools in May. And I was relieved.
For years I thought of my relationship with Patrick as an unpleasant experience. But I did not think of it as the inevitable byproduct of a culture in which a woman’s desirability is her primary social currency and men feel entitled to appraise and comment on that desirability. In Patrick’s case, not only did he see himself as welcome to assess the things that did and did not make me attractive to him, he also felt that I owed him something in exchange for his interest and attention. We both felt this. Not until I was directly threatened did it occur to me that I might not owe him anything at all.
This cult of desirability is why we have lip fillers and butt implants and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and the acronym MILF and ladies-drink-free nights at every college bar in America. It’s why we ask what women were wearing when they were raped and why I shortened my cheerleading skirt in high school. It’s the reason men feel betrayed when women look thinner in their Tinder photos than they do in person. It’s why I thought I was supposed to be flattered when boys rubbed up against me in fraternity basements, and why women are afraid to leave the room when a famous comedian begins to masturbate in front of them. It’s why, as a teenager, I thought being catcalled was better than being ignored. The cult of desirability produced the phrase “friend zone” and the social obligation for a woman to dye her hair the moment a strand of gray starts to show. It’s why my university students are invited to go on Rate My Professors and rank me as hot or not, indicated by the presence (or absence) of a chili pepper beside my name. And it’s why part of me still wants the pepper, though I know it has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of my teaching.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be wanted. And there is, in my experience, nothing more exhilarating than discovering that someone you want also wants you. But being desirable isn’t the same thing as being wanted. Desirability is diffuse. It is unmeasurable. It requires constant assessment and recalibration—and constant input from the arbiters of desire. Sometimes these arbiters are Hollywood executives. And sometimes they are the boys on the school bus.
This arbitration is pervasive and ongoing. And we are all complicit in some way or another. A few years ago, I was out with a guy I was dating and I mentioned a woman we both knew, an impressive athlete whose feats had been covered in national news. “Oh yeah,” he said, trying to place a name with a face. “Isn’t she kind of an uggo?” Uggo—as in, a woman he did not want to sleep with.
I regret not calling him out in that moment. I liked him. I wanted him to like me. But the word stuck with me, rattling around in my mind for the rest of the evening. I still think of all the ways I might’ve handled it differently.
I know I am complicit in other ways, too. Before my book was published this summer, I spent hours practicing doing my hair and makeup for book events and interviews. I worried I wasn’t pretty enough to be on television—that no one would take me seriously if I wasn’t both articulate and maximally conventionally attractive. I know that many of us want to look our best in professional situations—but none of the cis-male writers I know equate their own beauty with professional legitimacy. I am loathe to think about all the other things I could do with the energy I put into worrying about my own attractiveness.
Some of the men in my life want to know what to do in the wake of #metoo, now that the scope of sexual assault and harassment is so visible and overwhelming. One way forward is to begin reckoning with the cult of desirability: to acknowledge that the women-identifying people in the world around you are valuable in ways that have nothing to do with their hotness. Champion other forms of social currency. Read and recommend books by women and non-binary authors. See movies that aren’t directed by men. Celebrate female athletes—without debating whether or not you’d like to sleep with them. Cultivate a sense of sexuality that’s more nuanced than the Swimsuit Issue. Make a big deal out the professional and personal accomplishments of the women and non-binary folks around you. Do all of this in ways that are visible to the adolescent girls in your life.
When your first job is to be desirable—as it is for so many women, but especially young women, and especially women in an industry as image-oriented as Hollywood—it is difficult to accept that you are allowed to decide what kind of attention you do and do not want. And it is almost impossible to opt out of the cult of desirability. Girls on the school bus can’t know they’re being harassed until they know that attention from boys isn’t a reliable social currency. Young women can’t stand up to abusive behavior until they know that abuse can look like flattery. Only now, in my mid-thirties, can I step back and see that the cult of desirability is a sliding scale that goes from the school bus to the hotel suite.
Now I can see that all of it counted: every bad date, every catcall, every dance floor grope, every free drink that wasn’t actually free at all. I finally understand that everything I heard about Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky was all also about me. I know that constant critique is a form of abuse and that I don’t owe a man anything in exchange for unwanted attention. But no one should have to wait this long to understand all of this. Imagine a world where we’re all valued on our own individual merits. Imagine the power of a generation of girls who understand that being desired is not the same thing as being worthy.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it also is timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change.
We received over four hundred submissions to our initial call and will not be accepting additional pieces at this time. We may reopen for submissions at a future date. We also must acknowledge that the submissions we received overwhelmingly came from white, heterosexual women. While we are actively assessing how we can do better in our next call for submissions, we also believe this points to systemic inequalities that need to be addressed: who has access to healthcare and to therapy, who has been taught to speak up and who has been taught to be silent.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
Visit the archives here.