Photo by Paul Burnett (Creative Commons)
“If I was a lesbian, I’d be with you,” she said, her arms reaching around my waist as she leaned in closer to me. Too close, I thought, my body moving reflexively backwards. I’m not sure what had changed in the two hours since I had first met this woman, a friend-of-a-friend, that would have led to this sudden declaration. Perhaps she felt more comfortable now that we were in her friend’s apartment instead of the restaurant where we had sat exchanging pleasantries.
Her proprietorship towards my body vexed me. The assumption that the only thing holding back our promised lesbian future was her heterosexuality was insulting and hurtful. It was time to leave before I spent the evening pawing this woman off me while she knocked back whiskeys and unburdened her desires onto me.
I hustled the two friends who would be leaving with me, telling them it was time to go. The woman grabbed onto me one more time, placing her arms around my shoulders. I hugged her and tried to extricate myself with, “Have a good night!”
She said, “Kiss me.”
I froze, the bevy of her friends sat lined up on the couch watching our interaction in the middle of the room. I tried to laugh it off before she planted her lips on mine for a brief, placid second. I was embarrassed, my selfhood turned into a thing of play for her on a boring Sunday night. I rushed for the door, losing myself in the hallway.
Later, I ended up at a bar with two male friends. Alex sat to the left of me, pouring out the failures of his dating life for me to caress. I offered up tired reassurances. “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone. You’re a really great guy.”
He turned to me with gravity in his voice, “I wish you weren’t a lesbian, Kari. You’re really great and smart and one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever met. I just wish you weren’t a lesbian.”
I felt emptied by this ill-conceived compliment. My selfhood was now rebuffed twice in the span of an evening because it did not meet someone else’s needs. There was no recognition of who or how I felt, only the needs and desires they placed onto me with their ignorant arrogance and entitlement.
I drove home shortly after this, more acutely aware of my body—the calves accentuated by ankle boots and black stockings that crept under my loose-fitting dress. I suddenly detested my clothes and makeup for drawing unwanted attention, for turning me into an object of untasted pleasure rather than a person. I started blaming myself. I started to think, “Maybe if I was more butch…” But I know from past experiences that this, too, had never stopped otherwise heterosexual men and women from laying claim to non-heterosexual bodies.
That night in bed, I grappled with the uneasy feeling that even among friends and acquaintances, my body was still not mine. Like most women, I have learned how to handle the street harassers, cat-callers, and the strangers who drape their attention onto me in social settings. Should I also need to keep my guard around me even in the most intimate of settings? Among perceived friends? Had I slipped up and forgotten the golden rule of being a woman: Trust No One.
I didn’t cry. But I thought about it.
On Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after these dual encounters, I learned that 29-year-old Janese Talton-Jackson, a mother of two, had been killed in Pittsburgh after declining a stranger's advances. According to the police report, a man named Charles McKinney approached Jackson at a bar on a Friday night. He expressed some interest in her, she rebuffed him and left. McKinney allegedly followed her outside and then shot her in the chest. On what had been an otherwise usual Friday night for Talton-Jackson, she had been murdered because she wrongly assumed that her body belonged to her, not to her suitors and admirers.
Janese Talton-Jackson - photo via Facebook
This sobering reminder of what could happen to a woman because she dared to choose for herself what she desired shook me. This is what my mind had been wrestling with the night before—finding a grim disquiet in the unnecessary things women deal with on a daily basis for no reason other than they have dared to be women. Many men of the world decided long ago that they were entitled to women’s bodies.
I thought of the near-daily discomforts women learn to live with, barely noticing them until we feel their intrusions heightened. Then we respond in quickened steps on darkened streets, shrunken bodies folding themselves away from the unwanted warmth of breaths, eyes averting as another set bores into our bodies, standing ourselves on a platform of words that are variations of “no.”
“I’m not interested.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Leave me alone.”
“No, thank you.”
“Please don’t talk to me.”
Until one day, a man like Charles McKinney or Adrian Mendez decides that he doesn’t like your “no.” Then, saying “no” will become a life-and-death issue. There are countless more news items detailing the fatal outcomes for women who have rejected what are otherwise routinized advances towards them. Harassment kills women.
Homicide is among the top five causes of death for women aged 20 to 34 in the U.S, with even higher rates for Black women, such as Jackson. When you take into consideration that, opposed to male victims of homicide, the majority of women who are murdered know their attacker, it becomes uneasy to look away from the extraordinary number of things that happen to women on an ordinary day. Remarks, looks, advances, small comments that violate our sense of safety and bodies without our consent are seen as the normal functioning of our society. But they add up to something truly terrifying.
Somewhere in our past, each of us as women ceased to be a girl without our acquiescence, becoming moving prey whose bodies carried in them the longings of others. We are taught explicitly and through experience how to maneuver this jungle we now find ourselves in. But no amount of preparation can ever ready us for the day that we, like Janese Talton-Jackson, say “no” to the right person and end up with the wrong response because we dared to lay claim to our bodies.