#metoo

There's no doubt in my mind that every woman in this country falls into the #metoo camp. 

The other day I was looking through an old journal and found a page from a year ago. Across the top I wrote: "I like it when guys holla."

For those not quite as hood as I am, let me explain: "holla" is when a man (typically) says something to a woman while she's walking past him, usually about her body and what he'd like to do with it. It is a root cause of #metoo. 

Being hollered at was part and parcel of life where I grew up. It happened on the street, in the mall, in school. It wasn't something I was ever afraid of — not at all, I learned to love it.

Some of you know that until I was eleven I was an overweight kid. I lost a bunch of weight that year and transformed into a too-skinny preteen. I had a strong sense of internal pride for this transformation. But I also had external validation, the most meaningful of which came from how boys started responding to me.

One of the last straws for me when I was "fat" was a guy walking past me and whispering "you could lose a few pounds". Once I did, that tune changed and the remarks were more like "let me put a few pounds on that ass." Twisted as it may seem, remarks like that were proof that I was now desirable. 

I remember walking in town with a girlfriend when we were thirteen or so. Her dad was several steps ahead of us. We passed a couple of guys a few years older than us and one of them looked at me and said something "flattering" about my body.

I'll never forget how this played out: 1) I smiled in satisfaction. 2) My friend said "I want them to say that to me." 3) Though it's very possible he didn't hear, her dad said nothing and we all kept walking. And these young men knew this would happen, because even when other men do witness something like this, it's the rarest situation that they will interject. Even fathers. 

A few weeks ago I did a training for teaching yoga in prisons. This training has appealed to me for years, though I never really considered why. Not every yoga teacher is drawn to this population or scenario but it never dawned on me, or perhaps I wasn't quite ready, to look at why I am so inclined to do this work. 

As we progressed through the weekend of training I did start to think about why. A lot of my thoughts brought me back to my preteen and teenage years. I thought about my relationship to men (boys) and it started to become clear to me that there was a connection between this early time in my life and who I am as an individual, a teacher and a woman today. 

WHY

I've always thought that I'm not afraid of men. I've never been scared to walk in a dark alley with a strange man. My fearlessness is rooted in the feeling that I have a certain power over men that keeps me safe. I've seen men beg for sex. I've watched them turn their back on everything else in their world for sex, and sacrifice their word for it time and time again. The back of my mind is a graffiti wall of the "complimentary" remarks that have been hollered at me. As a result I developed a misguided sense of confidence in my worth and my safety. This confidence has remained largely intact because I'm one of the "lucky" ones who hasn't had it physically taken from me, not really anyway.

But what I've realized recently, and am only realizing fully as I write this, is that sexuality is the foundation of my security around men. And therefore, in the male-dominated reality in which we live, in life overall. The real reason I feel safe around men is because, when I look hard at the facts, I think I have the power to manipulate with sex. I wish I could say my confidence is rooted in my intellect or my accomplishments or the simple fact that I'm a human being. But when I'm being honest my conditioned belief is that the one thing I have that makes me uniquely powerful and worthy and valuable in the presence of men (ie in the world) is sex. 

Not only is this untrue, it's a misbelief that shapes much of the way my life and life in our society plays out. 

It hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized that part of me is seeking the validation of the prison population; that to feel 100% good and whole in doing what I love, that I need to appeal to this hardest-to-please contingent. When I think of men in prison, I see some of society's most "masculine" men. I see the ones whose desire most secures my self-image as a beautiful and powerful woman. The ones whose whispered remarks have made me falsely feel most safe and confident. The ones who are the biggest feat to win over, with my sexuality of course.

It was sad for me to realize this for a few reasons. For starters, it means I can't work in prisons right now. You can't effectively teach and have your confidence rooted in your students' perception of you. It isn't appropriate and it just doesn't work like that. 

It was sad also because I saw for the first time how far back, and how crucial to my life, my need for approval from men is. What am I without it? 

And it was also sad because I saw how deeply tolerated and how inherent this construct is in America. I didn't get to this place on my own. I've arrived here, worthy as a woman only in relation to men, because that's the way our lives are designed. I slipped right into the tire grooves that have been carefully trodden on our collective path.

But at the same time, especially from a societal perspective, these realizations are uplifting. There is only room for improvement. I think about what was happening a year ago that caused me to even think about guys hollering. Oh right, our country was hand-holding a sexual predator into the presidency. 

SINCE TRUMP

At the time, in the aftermath of "grab em by the pussy", women around the world responded with stories of being violated by Trump himself or by other men. The stories ranged from unwanted hollering to unimaginable physical advances and abuses of power. I found myself sympathizing with the overt abuse, but looking at some of the more "mild" disrespect as overreaction. Part of me quietly rolled my eyes at women whose complaints were of men staring at them longingly in the streets, uninvited. Part of me was protecting the behavior every single male I've ever known, even the ones I love most, participates in: the "harmless" conversations about womens' bodies, the assumed open-invitation to be flirtatious. Behavior I've witnessed, sometimes provoked, and often laughed at and allowed.

All of me was ignoring that these "mild" offenses are a huge part of the problem. They raise our tolerance for the bigger offenses. They set the stage for men and women to perpetuate a way of life that holds a man's worth in higher regard than a woman's. They make it easiest for women to stay quiet about both the everyday and the epic assaults on our rights and esteem, and for men to deny their responsibility to change behavior that they didn't invent but they have adopted.

Blind to that reality, this is how I found myself writing "I like when guys holla" in my notebook.  

As an individual I've changed a lot over the last year, and as a society I believe we've changed a lot too. I don't think I "like" when guys holla now. It's not that I suddenly don't like the flattery — that I still do. But I've started to distinguish my sense of worth from the validation of others (particularly men), and every street remark is a reminder to root myself in something deeper.

It's the non-stop spotlight on issues of gender and equality and race/sex/human relations, shining brightly as a result of our current administration, that has allowed me to come to these changes in perspective. I knew when Trump was elected that there were deep wounds our society needed to address, and that was why we landed in our situation. Perhaps due to my own bias, I assumed those wounds were more race or religion-related. I didn't expect to uncover personally that my worth is wholly tied to men and that this is how we've chosen to design our society for generations and that it's time for this change to happen as much as any other.

I think to the specifics. It's insane what is allowed to happen in the hallways at school, what teachers overlook. It's not that our schoolteachers are bad people — it's that we as a community accept certain behavior and teachers have to pick their battles. It's insane what we accept in pop culture, particularly music. I still know every single word of Kim, where Eminem violently murders the mother of his kid because he's jealous. And I still listen to and "love" that song. It isn't that Eminem and artists like him are at full fault for their messages — it's that we allow their words and voluntarily soften the blow. 

This issue is now at the forefront. I've spent my whole life, and women in America have spent generations, with our esteem and legitimacy linked to the approval of men. While it will take some time to untangle we have an opportunity to make fast progress. I love the #metoo movement for exposing the systemic nature of female repression. For revealing to women like me that I'm tied up in this web and it's time to get myself out; for revealing to all the #ihearyou men that their acknowledgment of where we are and their involvement in creating change is crucial. 

As always, I believe that awareness around an issue is the first step to changing it. Personally, it's a liberating step to identify where I started to lose my sense of wholeness. I'm grateful for this conversation. 

Joanna Cohen