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Ugly Incident Essay

In each of my daughters’ lives came the day in fifth grade when we had to sit on her bed and practise. I pretended to be the boy in class who was making her sick with dread. She had to look right at me and repeat the words until they felt possible, if not easy: “Don’t say that to me. Don’t do that to me. I hate it.” As much as I wanted to knock heads around, I knew the only real solution was to arm a daughter for self-defence. But why was it so hard to put teeth into that defence? Why does it come more naturally to smile through clenched teeth and say “Oh, stop,” in the mollifying tone so regularly, infuriatingly mistaken for flirtation?

Women my age could answer that we were raised that way. We’ve done better with our daughters but still find ourselves right here, where male puberty opens a lifelong season of sexual aggression, and girls struggle for the voice to call it off. The Mad Men cliche of the boss cornering his besotted secretary is the modern cliche of the pop icon with his adulating, naked-ish harem in a story that never changes: attracting male attention is a woman’s success. Rejecting it feels rude, like refusing an award. It feels ugly.

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Now, all at once, women are refusing to accept sexual aggression as any kind of award, and men are getting fired from their jobs. It feels like an earthquake. Men and women alike find ourselves disoriented, wondering what the rules are. Women know perfectly well that we hate unsolicited sexual attention, but navigate a minefield of male thinking on what “solicit” might mean. We’ve spent so much life-force on looking good but not too good, being professional but not unapproachable, while the guys just got on with life. And what of the massive costs of permanent vigilance, the tense smiles, declined work assignments and lost chances that are our daily job of trying to avoid assault? Can we get some backpay?

I think we’re trying to do that now, as the opening volleys of #MeToo smack us with backlash against backlash. Patriarchy persists because power does not willingly cede its clout; and also, frankly, because women are widely complicit in the assumption that we’re separate and not quite equal. If we’re woke, we inspect ourselves and others for implicit racial bias, while mostly failing to recognise explicit gender bias, which still runs rampant. Religious faiths that subordinate women flourish on every continent. Nearly every American educational institution pours the lion’s share of its athletics budget into the one sport that still excludes women – American football.

Most progressives wouldn’t hesitate to attend a football game, or to praise the enlightened new pope – the one who says he’s sorry, but women still can’t lead his church, or control our reproduction. In heterosexual weddings, religious or secular, the patriarch routinely “gives” his daughter to the groom, after which she’s presented to the audience as “Mrs New Patriarch,” to joyous applause. We have other options, of course: I kept my name in marriage and gave it to my daughters. But most modern brides still embrace the ritual erasure of their identities, taking the legal name of a new male head of household, as enslaved people used to do when they came to a new plantation owner.

I can already hear the outcry against conflating traditional marriage with slavery. Yes, I know, the marital bargain has changed: women are no longer chattels. Tell me this giving-away and name-changing are just vestiges of a cherished tradition. I’ll reply that some of my neighbours here in the south still fly the Confederate flag – not with hate, they insist, but to honour a proud tradition. In either case, a tradition in which people legally control other people doesn’t strike me as worth celebrating, even symbolically.

If any contract between men required the non-white one to adopt the legal identity of his Caucasian companion, would we pop the champagne? If any sport wholly excluded people of colour, would it fill stadiums throughout the land? Would we attend a church whose sacred texts consign Latinos to inferior roles? What about galas where black and Asian participants must wear painful shoes and clothes that reveal lots of titillating, well-toned flesh while white people turn up comfortably covered?

No wonder there is confusion about this volcano of outrage against men who objectify and harass. Marriage is not slavery, but a willingness to subvert our very names in our primary partnership might confound everyone’s thinking about where women stand in our other relationships with men. And if our sex lives aren’t solely ours to control, but also the purview of men of the cloth, why not employers too?We may ache for gender equality but we’re rarely framing or fighting for it in the same ways we fight for racial equality. The #MeToo movement can’t bring justice to a culture so habituated to misogyny that we can’t even fathom parity, and women still dread losing the power we’ve been taught to use best: our charm.

Years ago, as a college student, I spent a semester abroad in a beautiful, historic city where the two sentences I heard most in English, usually conjoined, were “You want to go for coffee?” and “You want to have sex with me, baby?” I lived near a huge public garden where I wished I could walk or study, but couldn’t, without being followed, threatened and subjected to jarring revelations of some creep’s penis among the foliages. My experiment in worldliness had me trapped, fuming, in a tiny apartment.

Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday

One day in a fit of weird defiance I tied a sofa cushion to my belly under a loose dress and discovered this was the magic charm: I could walk anywhere, unmolested. I carried my after-class false pregnancy to the end of the term, happily ignored by predators. As a lissom 20-year-old I resented my waddly disguise, but came around to a riveting truth: being attractive was less useful to me than being free.

Modern women’s magazines promise we don’t have to choose, we can be sovereign powers and seductresses both at once. But study the pictures and see an attractiveness imbued with submission and myriad forms of punitive self-alteration. Actually, we have to choose: not one or the other utterly, but some functional point between these poles. It starts with a sober reckoning of how much we really need to be liked by the universe of men. Not all men confuse “liking” with conquest, of course – just the handful of jerks who poison the well, and the larger number who think they are funny. Plus the majority of the US male electorate, who put a boastful assaulter in charge of us all.

This is the point. The universe of men does not merit women’s indiscriminate grace. If the #MeToo revolution has proved anything, it’s that women live under threat. Not sometimes, but all the time.

We don’t have unlimited options about working for male approval, since here in this world that is known as “approval.” We also want to be loved, probably we want it too much. But loved. Bear with us while we sort this out, and begin to codify it in the bluntest terms. Enduring some guy’s copped feel or a gander at his plumbing is so very much not a Valentine. It is a letter bomb. It can blow up a day, an interview, a job, a home, the very notion of safety inside our bodies.

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It shouldn’t be this hard to demand safety while we do our work, wear whatever, walk where we need to go. And yet, for countless women enduring harassment on the job, it is this hard, and escape routes are few. The path to freedom is paved with many special words for “hideously demanding person” that only apply to females.

Chaining the links of our experiences behind a hashtag can help supply the courage to be unlovely while we blast an ugly reality into the open. The chain doesn’t negate women’s individuality or our capacity to trust men individually, nor does it suggest every assault is the same. Raped is not groped is not catcalled on the street: all these are vile and have to stop, but the damages are different. Women who wish to be more than bodies can use our brains to discern context and the need for cultural education. In lieu of beguiling we can be rational, which means giving the accused a fair hearing and a sentence that fits the crime. (Let it also be said, losing executive power is not the death penalty, even if some people are carrying on as if it were.) Polarisation is as obstructive in gender politics as in any other forum. Sympathetic men are valuable allies.

Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday. Mixed signals about female autonomy won’t help bring it down, and neither will asking nicely. Nothing changes until truly powerful offenders start to fall. Feminine instincts for sweetness and apology have no skin in this game. It’s really not possible to overreact to uncountable, consecutive days of being humiliated by men who say our experience isn’t real, or that we like it actually, or are cute when we’re mad. Anger has to go somewhere – if not out then inward, in a psychic thermodynamics that can turn a nation of women into pressure cookers. Watching the election of a predator-in-chief seems to have popped the lid off the can. We’ve found a voice, and now is a good time to use it, in a tone that will not be mistaken for flirtation.

Don’t say that to me. Don’t do that to me. I hate it.

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(AP)

Serena Williams will return to Indian Wells for this March’s tournament, ending a 13-year boycott, she announced Wednesday in an exclusive column for time.com.

In 2001, Venus Williams and her younger sister Serena (who was still a teenager) were set to play in a semifinal at the revered California tournament. One day before the match, fellow player Elena Dementieva accused the sisters’ father, Richard, of deciding matches between his daughters (she later said it was a joke), a statement that had long been whispered but never been said by a top player in public or proven at all.

(Getty Images)

Then, four minutes before the Thursday semifinal was set to begin, Venus withdrew with an injury, leading the crowd to understandably boo. (They’d have booed any player in that situation.) Later, in a news conference, Venus was asked about the charges of the sisters essentially fixing their matches. To some, Venus wasn’t adamant enough in her denials of her father playing puppet-master. Though she denied the accusation, she said stuff like “everyone has their own opinion,” an understandable comment now that we know the gentleness of Venus Williams in press, but seemed to some at the time like a cop-out. Other answers were less than definitive.

But if that was the end of the story, there wouldn’t be a story. That booing continued on Saturday when Serena faced Kim Clijsters in the final. It turned ugly quickly. Serena describes that moment in her Time essay.

(Screenshot)

I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing. In my last match, the semifinals, I was set to play my sister, but Venus had tendinitis and had to pull out. Apparently that angered many fans. Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me. It is also everything and more to Venus. The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The under­current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.

(This is a 33-minute clip of that final, which Serena won, but it’s worth watching, or fast-forwarding through. If ever you thought a cheer couldn’t sound vicious, watch when Serena double-faults. The crowd is brutal.)

Though the crowd was as callous as you’ll see in a tour match, nothing about race had yet been reported, according to a 2009 ESPN recap of the incident.

It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever — not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality.

Two weeks later, Richard Williams spoke to USA TODAY Sports and said the boos were racially motivated and that he had personally heard racist comments:

(AP)

“When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me [expletive],” Williams said. “One guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way. Then I realized that (my) best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”

Though tournament director Charlie Pasarell said he was embarrassed about the way the entire crowd acted during the final and didn’t discount Williams’ story, he said he hadn’t heard any of the racist comments.

Serena defeated Steffi at Indian Wells in 1999. (AP)

Serena, who get her first big win (over Steffi Graf) at Indian Well in 1999, continued.

Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.

Despite years of pleas from fans, analysts and people involved in the sport, Serena wouldn’t return. The only way she should have, and would have, is when she was ready.

She’s ready. See you in March.

Note: Venus has yet to say whether she’ll join her sister at the tournament. She also hasn’t played since the ugly 2001 incident.

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