A WOMAN’S PLACE
by Janel Brubaker
I was no older than twenty-five when I first felt the weight of what it means to be a woman defined by social norms and gender roles. I came to this realization by degrees. Each misogynistic label plastered to me against my will, like the proverbial scarlet letter, brands meant to define my existence to suit the expectations of other people, prodded me closer to eruption. Only when I looked in the mirror at each label and realized that I didn’t know the woman these people said I was did I reach the conclusion that gender roles and stereotypes are bullshit. Looking back at my life, I see how prevalent these labels were; some were soft, some were harsh, but all of them inflicted harm and tainted my view of the world and my place in it. The deterioration of my autonomy was slow, whittled away with purpose so that, by the time I reached adulthood, I would be a perfectly crafted, submissive shell of a woman.
What’s worse is that I bought into it. Even when what was said didn’t settle in my mind and kept bouncing like a ping-pong ball against the walls of my psyche, I set aside my own voice in favor of others. I was not one who broke or questioned the rules. I obeyed them. I was not rebellious. I grew up in a traditionally Christian congregation where great emphasis was placed on female modesty and purity. I didn’t know to question this. I had never heard the terms “rape culture” or “victim blaming” or “slut shaming,” so I accepted these values as true and right. At fourteen, I hadn’t yet matured into my sexual self, so I didn’t realize the danger in relating the female body to a pathway for sin, or in vilifying sexual desire altogether. I didn’t know how shame could erode a relationship, erect barriers between spouses.
I remember attending youth group at two different churches. I remember the leaders of both churches attempting to address issues of sexuality. I remember it was impressed upon the young women that it was our responsibility to shield our brothers in Christ from lust; if we wore modest clothing that wasn’t revealing, wasn’t too tight, didn’t flatter us too much, then we would have done our jobs. Otherwise, we would be culpable in their sin. The first time I heard this message, I was thirteen years old.
I don’t know what the young men were told. These “lessons” were always given to the genders separately. I know I never heard about masturbation or pornography. I know I never heard anything positive about sex other than that, as long as a man and a woman were married, it wasn’t a sin. I remember thinking that I didn’t ever want to have sex if it was as dangerous as they made it seem. I was never told that sexuality is a natural part of human experience and identity. Telling teenagers to pretend as if they have no sexuality, or to try and pray it away, only reinforces shame and unmeetable standards. When a young woman is told her body is simultaneously a vessel for sin and a temple for the Holy Spirit, it reinforces the message that one’s sexuality is contrary to living a life of righteousness. To live a passionate and fulfilling sexual life, therefore, requires an abandonment of her faith.
I remember being told that sex was created for men’s pleasure and was a duty a wife was expected to perform. Well into adulthood I encountered this message, yet another attempt to silence and repress female sexual expression. I remember there was a time I didn’t believe marital rape existed, as if “I do” placed the woman in a perpetual state of consent that could never be revoked. I heard nothing of women truly enjoying sex because, of course, it was unladylike for women to discuss such things.
I heard nothing of platonic, intimate relationships between the sexes. I never saw single men and women develop friendships for any other purpose than romantic intent. Men only pursued women for sex, and women only married men for companionship and security. I never knew it was acceptable to simply be friends with a member of the opposite sex and appreciate them as a human being. I didn’t know it was alright to be a single, independent woman. Even Paul said it was better not to marry, and perhaps for men this was fine (especially those called to ministry), but for a woman to remain single was to deprive a man of her body, and that was incomprehensible. A woman’s life is not her own, I was told; it’s God’s first and He would never create a woman without also creating for her a husband. And as a couple they, of course, are required to have children.
Even my appearance was not my own. I was told on a repeating loop not to cut my hair because, “Men prefer it long.” The first time I heard this I was fourteen and, by my parent’s rules, much too young to date. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. I wanted a pixie cut. At thirteen I had begun to wear makeup and wanted to try a different hairstyle. I was dabbling in my own sense of fashion and self-expression. I saw women in pixie cuts on television and I wanted to know if such a short haircut would look good on me. Instead of encouraging my self-expression, I was told to ground my choices in the preferences of a group of teenage boys who hardly ever spoke to me. I was fourteen and already taught to value my desires less than the desires of the men in my social circle. This was the beginning of my existence as a woman in the patriarchy.
As I grew older, the gender roles and expectations became amplified. Already I was ashamed of my body and its potential for sin. By sixteen I couldn’t walk down the street without someone shouting, “Nice ass!” or “Show us those tits!” I didn’t understand how they could say those things when I took such careful effort to dress modestly, to walk without allowing my hips to sway too much. This took careful concentration and focus on posture and how long my strides were. I often resorted to wearing loose shirts and long skirts in an attempt to hide not only my figure but the sway of my hips that I could not entirely subdue. In summer it was the worst; I never wore shorts for fear of exposing too much skin. I only wore jeans or capris, and they too were enough to elicit unwanted and unprovoked calls of sexual interest. Even riding in a car with the window down, my face makeup free and glistening with beads of sweat, pulled in whistles and flirtatious smiles from men walking down the street or driving next to me. It did not occur to me that this was their issue rather than mine. Each whistle, each call from drivers by, made me feel ashamed, as if I had failed to be modest enough and somehow deserved what was being tossed at me. I avoided taking walks in my own neighborhood for fear of attracting unwanted attention. And if I dared to ignore these shouts, I was flipped off.
Once, a blue car with two young men inside pulled up next to me to “chat;” they smiled, eyed me up and down as I was walking on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. I stopped walking as they pulled up, unsure if they were going to ask for directions or something else. When it became clear they didn’t want directions, I kept walking. The driver kept his car next to me while the passenger tried to get my attention. I ignored them, hoping my being in a busy neighborhood would deter any malicious intentions. I don’t recall the specifics of what they said, but I know they were trying to get me into their car. When I didn’t acknowledge them again they both shouted, “Bitch,” and sped off. Both of them flipped me off through the sunroof. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how lucky I was it only went that far.
Church was no safe haven, either. Teenagers are awkward beings, no longer children, but not yet adults, navigating the space between the two. I was, and have always been, an outgoing human being. My mother used to call me, “A social butterfly,” and it was an apt description. I loved having friends and, as a homeschooled student, church was where my friendships were mostly based. If someone wanted to talk with me, it felt wrong to say no. I was thirteen when a young man around fifteen first attempted to ask me on a date, only I didn’t realize that was what he meant. Each Sunday for several weeks he asked if I wanted to come to his house and help him work on his car and then have dinner with his family. I did not want to do any such thing. I hated cars and couldn’t fathom why he would think me the kind of person to ask for such help. I told him that he should ask someone else, but he continued asking me. He made me uncomfortable, giving the kind of compliments I knew were inappropriate to speak in church; nothing explicit, but close enough that I didn’t want to see him again. I never understood his interest in me, either. We weren’t friends. We didn’t talk. We had no similar interests that I could detect. Our interactions with each other were entirely contained in him asking me to help him with his car, and me finding an excuse for why I couldn’t. He didn’t stop asking me for my help until his family left the church a month or so later. I never understood why one “No” wasn’t enough.
I was fifteen when another young man at our church thought it was hilarious to sneak up behind me while I was talking to my friends, and poke me in the sides. I don’t know if he was trying to scare or tickle me, but I didn’t like either option. It hurt. I did not find it funny. I did not laugh. I told him not to do it again and he responded with, “Aww, boo hoo.” This happened almost every time I was at church and he was there; Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday nights. Sometimes he did it twice, once before service and once after. It didn’t matter how many times I told him to stop, he wouldn’t. He just laughed. He didn’t take me seriously when I told him I didn’t like it, when I told him he was hurting me. He didn’t care about the bruises he left on my sides. He didn’t care about the emotional torment each time we pulled into the church parking lot. I loved going to church. I felt alive there, really connected to life and purpose. For weeks I was afraid to go because I knew he would be there, and I knew he would put his hands on my body again.
I finally told my parents. It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did for me to tell them, but when there’s an especially awkward teenager in the youth group who suffers from chronic illness, and who almost died a couple of years prior because of his chronic illness, it feels cruel to try and get them in trouble. I didn’t know what the fallout would be if I told my parents what had been going on, so I kept it hidden, hoping that he would realize the inappropriateness of his actions. He didn’t. He wasn’t going to stop without some higher authority getting involved. My parents said they would talk to his father. Their reassurance did nothing to comfort me. I asked my dad if there was anything he could teach me in self-defense that wouldn’t cause him injury, but would warn him to stay away from me. My dad was a fourth degree black belt in Kung Fu San Su. From a young age, he emphasized the importance of valuing my physical safety and to never hesitate to defend myself if I felt threatened. This young man had made me feel unsafe for weeks. He may have thought it was just innocent fun, but I was tormented. My dad told me, if he touched me again, to turn around and land an open handed smack to his solar plexus as a warning to leave me alone. It would be enough to express my boundaries without causing him harm.
The next Sunday morning came and my family left for church. I was nervous. I am not an aggressive person by nature, and I was not comfortable with what I felt boiling inside of me. It made my palms sweat. Indeed, they’re sweating as I recall the memory. It made my body tremble. Between my eyes a cluster ache pounded. My jaw was clenched so tight, it throbbed the rest of the morning. I felt it wrong to contemplate and even prepare to make an act of aggression inside of a church, but I reminded myself that I was not the one who violated its sanctity.
The warning shove was enough. He never touched me again.
It should never have been necessary in the first place.
I started college at twenty-one years old. In spring term of my first year I met a female friend for lunch in the cafeteria. We had hardly grabbed our food and sat down when an intoxicated male came over to our table and asked if either of us wanted to go to dinner with him. We both said no and he walked away only to come back and reiterate that he offered to take us to dinner because he wanted to have sex with us. (Because buying someone dinner is akin to giving irrevocable consent, apparently.) To this day I don’t know if he intended to pursue us as a potential menage troi, or if he just tossed his interest on the table between us hoping at least one of us would pick it up. I told him I was married and my friend was in a relationship, and he walked away mumbling about how, “Ya’ll always say you’re married or in a relationship.” As if being male entitled him to whomever he wanted.
Moveover, that she and I even had to use the relationships in our lives to justify or explain our rejection of his advances is wildly problematic. Not wanting to date him should have been explanation enough. He didn’t respect our refusals until we made it clear we were spoken for by other men, and even then his respect was begrudged. Why wasn’t “No” enough? Why was my refusal only made valid by the existence of a pre-existing husband?
I could go on. I could tell you about the time I bought a dress at the mall and my parents shamed me into returning it, even though I was nineteen and it was more modest than the other modest dresses I owned. My father’s exact words were, “You look like you’re about to go work 82nd Avenue.” I could tell you about the time, in a fit of drunken anger, a young man I was conversing with said he “Hoped I was raped” because I told him I was against the death penalty. Even though the death penalty isn’t used as sentencing for convicted rapists. I could talk for hours about what it was like to be a woman and watch the last election. I could tell you how, at fifteen, my youth group crush said, in earnest, how he wished he could revoke the 19th Amendment, and how, at sixteen, this mattered so little to me, I still went out with him for four months. I could tell you about the times my male and female family members have said, “A woman’s place is in the home,” or how if a woman wears slutty clothing, she’s asking to be raped. I could tell you about the time a pastor and his wife chastised me for what I wore to church two Sundays before, and how his wife said, “The dress really wasn’t flattering on you anyway. You could see all of your rolls.” I could tell you I no longer attend church.
I could give many more examples as to how society, both my specific social circles and society at large, have tried to silence me almost since the moment I was born. The message has been unmistakable: I am female, therefore my place in this world is less valid than those of men. I’m also bisexual, so that only serves to invalidate me further. Looking back at my childhood, my teenage and young adult years, I see how I was being groomed into patriarchy’s perfect woman. Even in my life today, I’m bombarded with images of my reflection held in contrast to what society deems the acceptable modern woman, and I don’t hold up. I’m not skinny. I don’t attend church any longer. I’m almost twenty-nine and have no kids. I’m pursuing a creative writing degree and I work part time as a barista. I drink. I curse. I smoke weed. I like sex with my husband and I think I would enjoy sex with women. A few weeks ago, I buzzed off all of my hair. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not quiet. I never have been. I talk a lot. I have strong opinions.
And I thank God for all of it, because it means the message, the labels, the roles that were assigned to me at birth and regurgitated throughout my life never stuck. It means I have not allowed myself to be defined by anyone else’s definition of who I am. The labels still pester me. They pop in and out of my life and try to irritate the internalized shame planted there more than fifteen years ago. Sometimes, they get the upper hand. But then I look at my shaved head and put on a tight dress that accentuates every beautiful fucking roll on my body because a woman’s place is wherever the fuck she wants to be.
About the Author:
Janel Brubaker graduated from Clackamas Community College with her associates in English and Creative Writing. She also graduated from Marylhurst University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Writing. Her writings have been published in Bookends Review, The Bella Online Review, Crab Fat Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Phenomenal Literature, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Sheepshead Review, and LEVITATE Magazine, and soon to be published in DoveTales Journal, Sheepshead Review, and Timberline Review.