We support and we march in support of black men, but we can’t get to work or home without fighting through dick offers and bitch insults from them.
By M. Shelly Conner
Let’s be clear: I paid three dollars and a hug for street harassment. Or assault. I still don’t know what to call it. I do know that I didn’t want it and felt forced to consent to it.
As a genderqueer woman, I’m often taken by surprise by the unsolicited interest of men. As a black, cis-gender woman, I am surprised by my surprise. In his 1999 comedy special Bigger and Blacker, Chris Rock joked (because men are privileged to joke about rape and hebephilia) that, “every woman [in here] since [they] were thirteen, every man they met has been trying to fuck [them].” Of course most women know, depending on their development the depravity of their assailant, that age can go much lower.
Rock goes on to posit that it is easy for women (and let’s include girls, since he opened that can of hebephilia with his 13-year-old starter age) to turn down sex because it is in constant supply for them. Ignoring: 1) the heterosexist framing, and 2) the assumption that women/girls are in equal positions to decline sexual advances from men as men are to decline them from women, we are still left with the idea that because “it is damn near impossible for men to turn down sex,” it is socially acceptable for men to “[offer women] dick three times a day.” Rock insists, “Every time a man’s being nice, he’s offering dick.”
I don’t believe that and, of course, the joke is that neither does Rock. Far less humorous is the necessity for women to make this joke into a safe assumption. To act as if every kind offer from a man comes with an unwritten sexual addendum. To question intentions and weigh consent. In accepting a greeting of hello or a gesture of holding open a door, am I consenting to the unvocalized “offer” of sex? Although Rock uses the word offering as if it is merely a cup of tea, unsolicited dick offers in all of their myriad forms are more akin to scalping another’s head and calling it a haircut.
I held this state of awareness when a man pulled up to me outside of my local Autozone as I struggled to remove old windshield wipers in the pouring rain. At first, I was happy to receive his business card identifying him as a mechanic and his offer to replace the blades for me. But remembering that I didn’t have any cash, I apologized and declined, sharing the reason. I told him that I’d hold on to his card for any future automotive repairs. He started to pull away and then stopped. “Hey, sis, I’ll just do it anyway.” A kind offer indeed.
In searching for the origin of that Chris Rock bit, I went down the rabbit hole of the internet and immediately saw two related statements. The first was a comment on the YouTube clip of Rock’s joke by ParaglidingManic stating, “Women say it’s bullshit, only because they are bitches and they don’t know what they want.” This Victorian idea that women don’t know what they want and men must take control of their decision-making lies at the heart of gender inequality. Social worth and power is determined by assigning value to biological differences between binary concepts of men and women. Because I was born with a vagina, I am entitled to less than those born with a penis—approximately twenty-three cents less on a dollar. As a black woman, nearly forty cents less.
I knew it was a mistake to accept the offer as soon as the inquiries started about my relationship status. He wanted to know if I was married. Yes. No. Undeterred, he persisted with asking about everything outside of the topic of my car. At one point, as my responses became curt, he wordlessly looked me up and down. I felt uncomfortable and immediately began a mental search for emergency cash. I remembered that I had a few crumpled bills in my jeans. Three dollars could get him a beer or a burger. It could get me out from under the intense gaze that bore through my sweatshirt, the leer and open nod of approval he bestowed as if we were co-conspirators. Chris Rock was right, but I wasn’t laughing.
The second Rock-related mansplaining that I found was the academic version of “bitches don’t know what they want” sprinkled with a lot of biological determination. On the Psychology Today website, Barry X. Kuhle writes, “In Bigger and Blacker, Rock astutely notes that men tend to over-offer sex to women, a tendency that proponents of error management theory (Haselton & Buss, 2000) might view as a means of minimizing their likelihood of missing potential mating opportunities.” Again, we see a heteropatriarchal framing and linguistic manipulation of describing harassment as an over-offer. According to a 2014 GfK survey, sixty-five percent of all women in the United States experience street harassment.
When the mechanic finished, he asked for a hug. No. He asked again, or rather over-offered. I repeated my no and tried to back away from his advance but he blocked the car door. Behind me, vehicles raced down Stony Island–a busy four-lane strip of road on Chicago’s south side. I fished out the three dollars and handed it to him. He grabbed it and continued to advance until we were head (mine) to chest (his). He wrapped his arms around (strike that)…he grabbed me. I froze and endured but my body screamed. My head pounded because my hands refused. When he released me, it was with a look that read: Now that wasn’t so bad. It was just a hug, right?
That was no more a hug than rape is sex. They both are exertions of power—one person empowered by a dominant culture forcing themselves onto another. I was not raped. I didn’t fear that he would rape me. I was, however, terrified that if I continued to say no that he could, at his discretion, shove me into traffic. I felt powerless and that was the point.
Since then (but not because of then) I’ve cut my hair. I drape my feminine body in bowties, blazers, trousers and wingtips. More masculine of center, unsolicited offers still surprise me. Rape culture perpetuates the idea that victims are at fault for their assault. And when we alter our appearance and behavior to prevent it and question our actions and allow guilt to settle after it, then we too uphold the machinations of rape culture.
It took weeks before I could shake the guilt. I fought against blaming myself for knowing better and not acting accordingly. Conversely, I also felt that I should have stood up more for myself. Refused more. I imagine myself saying a firm but polite, Nah, man, I ain’t giving you no hug. Thanks for the repair. But I know that respectability politics cut its teeth on gender constructs; and there’s a good chance that man who felt so secure in forcing himself into my personal space, would have no qualms about shoving me into traffic.
My fiancé and I recently discussed male aversion tactics. As a black femme, she receives a barrage of over-offers on a daily work commute via Chicago’s “El” train. She’s come home in tears at times. What hurts most is that, as black women, these assaults often come from black men. We support. We march. We write our think pieces on the modern lynchings of black men. Then we can’t even get to work or home without fighting through dick offers and bitch insults from black men. Feel free to insert “not all men” arguments here. I’ll just grab my headphones while I walk to the store.
“The great thing about headphones,” my fiancé notes, “is that although they don’t completely drown them out, at least you don’t hear the ‘bitch’ afterwards.
“The key is movement. Just keep walking. But it’s worse when you’re on the [train] platform and you have nowhere to go. Then you’re like, he can shove me onto the tracks.
“Also, what sucks about headphones is you get the really committed ones. So they’ll follow you and grab you.”
I remember when she told me that a man reversed his car and followed her from one bus stop to the next, while white people watched because you know, black on black. Then there was the time that another chased her into her work building. She has an open demeanor so a right of refusal but her “no” isn’t as effective. My sister circle and I try to train her against nervous laughter, which men take as encouragement. We teach her to be less her. It makes us all sad and we decide to talk about anything other than men.
But it’s okay because they’re just trying to increase potential mating opportunities. They’re just eagerly offering and re-offering and over-offering dick, which we should want. Too bad bitches don’t know what they want.
Author Bio: M Shelly Conner is Chicago-based writer, humorist, and scholar. She is Executive Director of Quare Square Collective, Inc. – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for queer artists of color. Shelly is also creator of the new comedy web series Quare Life (currently in production with OpenTV). Follow her blog about travel, culture and food through a queer womanist of color lens at DapperVista.com.