I can’t help but view what that man said to me through the lens of our current news cycle. We are hearing a lot about men who behave badly toward women. Very badly in some cases. The current political climate is also reminding me that the men who do bad things are often protected by other men who hide or minimize that bad behavior. I am hopeful our political, economic and social structures that have allowed men to get away with bad behavior for many millennia are changing. But the fact remains that we live in a world where some men see women as inferior, and that kind of thinking can lead to some pretty terrible things.
Hearing that man’s name triggered a traumatic memory. I’ve managed to not interact with that man since the day we met, but chances are good that my luck will run out and I will see him again someday. I hope I’m lucky.
This man did not hit me, or hit on me, or sexually assault me. But his behavior did cause me harm. It happened a little over three years ago. I met him through a mutual friend. We were walking together with our friend and having a conversation about the similar work that we do. In the midst of our conversation, the man, who I had met just hours before, called me a bitch.
The man who called me a bitch said it so emphatically. “You’re a real bitch, aren’t you?” It felt threatening. He said it in a way that leads me to believe he probably calls women bitches with exacting venom all the time. I can only imagine what he calls women when none of us are around.
The man who called me a bitch was responding to something I had said. What I said wasn’t meant to be offensive. But the details of what I said don’t matter. Name calling is the refuge of scoundrels. It’s what you do when you know you’ve lost the argument and you have nothing intelligent or constructive to say.
I regret how I responded to being called a bitch. It’s how many women respond when men belittle us. We apologize. We blame ourselves. I was embarrassed that I could have behaved in such a way to provoke the name calling. I regret that I didn’t defend myself.
What’s equally regrettable is how the other person in this scenario — the man I knew — responded. I’d like to say he rebuked his friend for calling me a bitch. He did not. But the look on his face suggested he was as shocked as I was to hear what his friend called me. He minimized the bad behavior by ignoring it and changed the subject. I would have taken any verbal acknowledgement of the attack. Even a “bro” response, like, “Aw, dude, that’s not cool,” would have helped. Maybe he wanted to call me a bitch, too, but his friend beat him to it.
I will never forget the look on the man’s face who called me a bitch.
I will also never forget the look on the man’s face, the man I knew, who protected him by doing nothing.
At the time, I fantasized about how I could have responded. A closed-fisted strike to the face was one thought. He’d fall to the ground in agony with a bloody nose, and the two of us still standing would go grab a beer together. But, of course, resorting to violence is no answer to conflict.
Men call women bitches to humiliate them and to put women whom they perceive as uppity in their place. “Bitch” is used to silence women. It’s so deeply gendered and misogynistic. There’s no equal word that can be used to disgrace and humiliate a man. Calling a man a dick, which is also gendered, doesn’t pack the same punch. The fact of the matter is men created the structures that govern us, and those structures were designed to keep men in power. And that’s why gendered words used to disgrace women can be so powerful.
Bitch is also a complicated word. It’s not always used to mow down women. For example, have you ever bitched about work? How about used bitch as a compliment? (“Woah! That’s a bitchin’ Camaro!”) And, like many groups that struggle for equal rights, women are trying to take the word back. Change the meaning altogether. Bitch magazine is a good example of the work women are doing to use it as a term of empowerment and not degradation.
When men use the power of language to demean women, the effect is real and powerful.
And when men choose not to act when they witness other men demeaning women, the culture of men protecting men wins.
You might wonder why I am still saddened and upset about being called a bitch so many years ago. I wish I could forget about it. I’m sure the two men in this story have never given that moment a second thought.
I don’t recall another time when a man has ever called me, with such conviction, a bitch. I’m sure that’s why I remember it so well. Have I been called a bitch behind my back? I’d be a fool to think otherwise. Under their breath when I somehow challenged their masculinity? Most certainly. I’d like to think the men I keep company with don’t call women bitches. I’m sure that’s why I still remember: the men I typically spend time with are good.
My story pales in comparison to other women’s stories of assault. In the scheme of violence against women, that man calling me a bitch was a small act of aggression. This is just a tale about a man who hates women and uses name-calling as a strategy to degrade them. But experiences like mine — experiences that happen to women every damn day — added together, constitute something greater than the sum of their parts. It’s the everyday-ness of these acts of nonviolent aggression that makes them dangerous and powerful.
What’s more is the other man who lacked the moral courage to right a wrong. He could have intervened on my behalf but didn’t. Sadly, he missed out on a chance to help all women who suffer in our culture of men protecting men. Things won’t change until all men choose to stop protecting men who behave badly.
If you’re like me, the news out of Washington, D.C. is causing you to wonder if anything has really changed. I want to be hopeful. But I also feel like I’m on a merry-go-round that I can’t escape. Twenty-seven years ago the culture of men protecting men helped a man ascend to the U.S. Supreme Court. The culture of men protecting men will also help a man who violently attacked a woman possibly receive that same lifetime appointment to join him.
When women tell their stories about men who do bad things to them, a cultural machine emerges that functions to protect men. While some are believed, more often women and their stories are discredited, marginalized or ignored.
I do wonder if the man who said nothing in my defense when his friend called me a bitch thinks back on that day with any regret. I’d like to believe that he remembers what happened and wishes he had acted differently. But our culture of men protecting men tells me otherwise.
What we’re witnessing is the patriarchy being questioned in meaningful ways. It’s promising. Men can help by simply being civilized and respectful of women by serving as allies as we continue to struggle for equality. I imagine some men will continue to use their gender to socially and physically dominate in an attempt to maintain the status quo. And the men who fail to treat women as equal will learn that their culture of protecting one another is crumbling.
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