My senior year of high school, I sat in a hot tub drinking Bud Lights with two boys from my class. The conversation took an unexpected turn when the gentlemen discovered they shared a notch in their belt buckles. Both young men had slept with a girl in our class, who also was a friend of mine.
It was innocent at first. I felt awkward listening to them talk about this girl, hearing the intimate details of their escapades; yet I didn’t speak up. I rolled my eyes and softly protested, but I let them get it out of their system, figuring eventually we’d move on to something else. As the beer continued to go down, the tone of the conversation turned sour.
“I wonder if we got her drunk if she’d do it again? Ha! Maybe both of us in the same night?”
“Yeah, she totally can’t hold her alcohol. She’s not like you,” my friend nodded his head in my direction. “Give her a couple of wine coolers and she’s gone.”
“I’ll have to remember that. I think she wants me. Maybe we should try to see what she’s doing tonight….Hey, where you going,” a deep voice said to me.
Without even thinking, I rose up out of the hot tub and grabbed a towel. “I have to pee,” I called over my shoulder, than grabbed my flip flops and walked the mile to my house and took a shower.
Later that night, one of the boys called me to make sure I was okay. I told him the truth. “Sorry, I felt sick all of a sudden and didn’t want to hurl in front of you.”
“Oh, bummer. No kissing for you this weekend,” he replied and then hung up the phone.
They were just words, but they had a physical effect on me. I felt upset by what they said about this young girl, fearful for what could happen to her. She was the prey, and I just sat in a jacuzzi with the predators.
I hoped the conversation was for shock value only, but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy around them from that point forward. The conversation changed me.
A few years later, I danced at a night club at 3 a.m with my sorority sisters. A large hand grabbed my scantily clad bottom and I felt hot breath in my ears. “Nice ass.” he shouted.
I whipped around to come face to chest with a man-child who weighed at least 250 pounds. “I’m a football player,” he stated matter of factly.
“I don’t really care,” I countered. “Don’t touch me.”
“No need to be a bitch about it,” He said calmly, putting his hand around my arm. “But if I really wanted to touch you though, I would.”
His eyes blazed into mine, and I stood there frozen, looking up at him.
“Let go of her,” I heard a girlfriend say, pulling me back towards our group.
It was just an exchange of words on a dance floor, but I felt fear and uneasy. I didn’t sleep well that night, and became more aware of men who had too much to drink, and men drunk on power.
A few years after that, I picked up two executives at the San Francisco airport to assist with their company’s product launch at a trade show. The men sat in the back of the town car, while I rode up front with the driver, making calls to confirm appointments.
“Did you see the tits on that stewardess? What a piece of ass!” I heard from the back seat.
“Seriously. I think she wanted me. She didn’t charge me for my wine. Damn, I should have tried for her number while we were in town.”
The banter went on, making me increasingly uncomfortable, but since I worked for them, I kept my mouth shut. Later, as we sat at the hotel bar before a reception, the lewd comments continued.
“How much do you charge to be our wingman?” one asked. “Like maybe you can get one of your PR friends over here. One of the good looking ones.”
“Yeah, maybe we can double date,” he joking replied.
“Um, I don’t think that’s in our contract,” I laughed uncomfortably. I kept telling myself it was just jokes, but the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up straight. It felt like more than just words.
A few months ago, my daughter and I rode our bikes to get frozen yogurt. Her brain is eleven, but her lanky limbs and lithe body look much older. A group of young boys driving in what must have been their father’s convertible BMW yelled out some catcalls while flying by us.
“Marry me!” the young men shouted.
“Mom, what are they doing? Why did they say that when they don’t even know us?” my daughter asked me.
“Sometimes I think men believe their words don’t matter. They think women like to hear those things, even though they make us uncomfortable.”
“It made me feel weird,” she remarked.
“I know,” I reply. “They’re just words, though. They can’t hurt you.”
But they’re not just words. Not even close.
They are threats and barbs and put downs and intimidation tactics and insults. They made me feel frightened and nervous and panicky and anxious and uneasy.
Should I be tougher? Should I ensure my daughter is tough enough to handle these itty bitty little words?
Words are a double-edged sword. We want them to be meaningful when shared intimately or spoken from a podium. We want them to inspire and motivate and convey how we feel; however, when words are said as a “joke” or off the cuff, we diminish their power. When they are said privately, we want them rendered unimportant.
But if these little utterances — said behind women’s backs in locker rooms, to our faces at parties, yelled out the windows from automobiles, whispered in elevators, stated in boardrooms — if these words don’t matter, why are they still being said?
Edgar Allen Poe said, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
The horrors these words spark for most women include rape, sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, among others. I know they did for me.
I believe some men think their words don’t matter because these males aren’t talking about people; they are talking about women as objects, things on display or available for their use and pleasure.
It has become customary and normal, and passed down from generation to generation. My daughter already experienced the power of men’s words, and the deep emotions they can illicit.
Is it her fault for feeling “weird” because young men were yelling words at her? Is it my fault for feeling fear when men use these words — the same ones they use behind closed doors —in common conversations?
They say words are just words until we give them the power to affect us, yet women are expected to be aware of all the potential dangers in the world and handle ourselves accordingly. How can we not let them impact us? How can we not hear these words and anticipate risks, as signals to peril?
To the men who say they’re just words — you may be right.
But it’s the user, the intention and the context of those words in which I’ll judge you.
Words reveal who we are and what we believe. The ones we use collectively are a reflection of where we stand as a society and what we find acceptable.
There is a reason why we say we give someone our “word” when we make a promise. It’s an assurance of who we are as an individual.
I hear you, men who say they’re just words. And I’ll believe you when you say them.