Ripples of Doubt
"What about me? What, wasn't I pretty enough? Why did he not target me?"
I think, for some women scientists in my Twitter timeline today, words along these lines were some of the most difficult things they'd tried to put into 140 characters. They were saying the unsayable. They were admitting that, as brilliant science writers, confident in their fields, researchers, academics.... they had doubts. Doubts about how attractive they were. And even worse, doubts because someone didn't sexually harrass them.
The brains, or the beauty. The dichotomy of the modern woman. You can have either, but you can't have both. So in the aftermath of the revelations about Bora Zivkovic, among the anger, the stunned disbelief and the vows that it should never happen again, the small voices began to be heard: "why not me?"
And, in contrast, "Was it me?"
Did he accept that article, give me that blog, talk to me for hours at that conference... because I'm a good writer, or because he liked the way I looked in that skirt? Am I a good writer? Could I make it if I pitched to someone else, if Bora didn't look after me? Am I fooling myself?
Karen James boldly broached the subject of women who may doubt themselves, their brains or their beauty, and soon the slow ripple of answers became a flood. As I write, the #ripplesofdoubt hash tag on Twitter is alternately a heartbreaking read as the stories pour forth, and an inspiring one as women take comfort in the support of their peers, and men seek to self examine and figure out how they can be better allies and mentors when they might not even realise the effect they have.
It may seem completely irrational and horribly self-punishing that any woman would have either of these feelings in the aftermath of a situation not of their making. It is, I agree. But after years and years of conditioning, of being told that things are their fault right from when Eve bit an apple to the college date rape, women look for Things They Could Have Done. And they punish themselves for Not Doing Them.
I sat heartbroken today as I read in my Twitter timeline of a friend's sexual assault. She related a familiar story, of years before when she was in her teens and she just... did nothing. Was too shocked and stunned to respond. Until she left the situation, went home, and in her own words, "disintegrated". You think of what you should have said, of what you should have done, when the moment is gone. When the danger is past. But when you are there, you shut down. You go into a state of disbelief, as if your mind is protecting itself from what is happening. A kind of mental numbness. It's a feeling I suspect many, many women know. And that a small but frightening group of dudekind see as "consent". I have no doubt that some men wander blithely away, unaware that what they just did was abuse.
And sometimes a woman may wonder too. Is she making a big deal over nothing? Is she making a fuss? Did it really happen the way she remembered? She will keep quiet because she is afraid of embarrassing herself, afraid she won't be believed, afraid of seeming uptight, prudish.
This is why a hashtag like #ripplesofdoubt is important. It's a space for women to talk about the things they've kept inside, the doubts that have given them sleepless nights. It's a space for their peers to say "I believe you", or "it's OK to feel that way, it's a conditioned response because society sucks". In a week where it seems so many respected bloggers have had Big Things to say and Big Pronouncements to make, it's good to give space to the smaller voices. The tiny doubts, the insecurities that are so much part of daily life that they don't seem worth blogging about, the people who don't blog anyway. A space for everyone. A space for women to speak and for men to listen and learn.
If one good thing comes from all this, it should be that women feel free to speak. Let them.