Bad Attention

“I like those pants, boy… but I think they would look better on my bedroom floor!”

It started… when did it start?

I am not sure I even noticed it when it first began. I was too innocent. It was probably way over my head. The first time a man looked at me that way, I doubt I saw it. The first time that a guy felt entitled to tell me what he wanted from me, I doubt I grasped his thinly veiled meaning. But I do know that, whenever it happened, I must have been younger than twelve years old.

Back then, people always thought I was older than I was, which is kind of funny, because these days people tend to think I’m younger. When I was eleven people thought I was sixteen. When I was sixteen people thought I was twenty one. It was all wishful thinking.

It wasn’t that I had “developed” spectacularly fast or anything. I think it was because I was a sad, quiet, smart kid, attributes which people interpreted collectively as ‘maturity.’ I was socially awkward with my own age group and often preferred to talk to adults, and I trusted adults more than my own peers. Of course I was vulnerable.

But I was raised right. My mom taught me all that good stuff about respect and boundaries. So when in sixth grade a male teacher started behaving extremely inappropriately towards me and towards the girls in my class, I knew enough to report his ass. Apparently my complaint was investigated. He was gone soon after.

Sadly, that was probably the last time that I was able to respond to sexual harassment in any effective way at all. Soon I had become so traumatized by the constant barrage of stares, leers, innuendos, and come-ons that I completely lost my ability to draw boundaries. Over time, my defenses were battered down, and in that ruined state they remain to this day.

On the street, on the bus, at school, in virtually any place that other human beings gathered, I experienced harassment. Some of it was fairly extreme. I have had my chest grabbed. I have had my crotch grabbed. One time, at work, I had a guy ask me for a hand job. Another time, a guy to whom I had hardly been introduced to felt entitled to grab me and kiss me, with tongue. And those are only a few of the more memorable incidents. And of course there were the comments, the things shouted on the street or asked point blank at menacingly close range, far too many of them remember.

“Hey baby!”

“Ooh, you are just too sexy!”

“Do you like to be fucked hard? All bottom boys like to be fucked hard.”

Of course it was worse before transition. It was constant when the world saw me as female. Straight cis guys were the main culprits back then, along with a handful of entitled butches. But since transition I’ve gotten a fair amount of sexual harassment, too. Some of it has come from gay men. Some of it comes from transphobic dykes who are trying to put me “back in my place.” Some of it comes from straight cis men who happen to know I am trans. That’s the ugliest shit of all and it gives me a headache to try and figure it out. Probably some are just trying to cut me down to size, make me act how they think I should as a “woman” or whatever. Some, I think, may be dealing with their homosexual attraction to me by trying to erase my gender. An awkward situation: I think I’m a dude, and you think you’re straight. Only one of us can be right…

But of course, the absence or presence of actual sexual attraction in sexual harassment is utterly irrelevant, since the object of aggressive, objectifying, and threatening harassment is highly unlikely to reciprocate it anyway. The whole thing is about power and oppression more than it is about desire. That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise me that a lot of the sexual harassment I have experienced has been liberally sprinkled with homophobia and transphobia (in addition, of course, to overwhelming misogyny). I think anyone who has ever identified as a queer woman probably knows the all too familiar refrain of

“You and your girlfriend are both so sexy, I wanna watch you together sometime!”

And I think every trans person knows how it feels to be asked, with prurient curiosity and avid salacious interest, about hormones, about surgery, about everything under their clothes and what they like to do with it in private.

Sexual harassment is a tool of oppression. It is used against women, against trans people, against queers, and especially against people who are all of the above. The bodies of people who are “other”– people of color, people who are fat, people who are disabled, people who are not cissexual and people who are not male– are exoticized, fetishized, scrutinized, and objectified.

That it takes a toll on us. When other people feel entitled to make demands on your time and attention at any time, when they are all too willing to impose on you with their opinions, prejudices and desires, when this imposition is often accompanied by the subtle or not so subtle threat of violence, and when this happens regularly, over many years, it becomes traumatic. It has eroded my sense of self. It has chipped away at my personal space. It has conditioned me, in fight or flight situations, to freeze instead.

And I was also conditioned to minimize all of that damage.

I was taught to be grateful for the ‘compliments,’ for the ‘attention.’ (No attention is bad attention, right?) I learned to laugh it off, to shrug– and sometimes even to say ‘thank you.’ And even now, every time I think I’ve just about got over that conditioning, something happens that leave me speechless and scared, again… and I just want nothing more than to resurrect that sixth grader who could call it like it is without hesitation. What a brave kid– brave with the courage of total naiveté.

So I write today to acknowledge what I have gone through, to remind myself not to minimize the damage done. The worst of it is that my experiences, although some of them have been fairly extreme, are in the final analysis mild compared to what many other people suffer.

This entry has been very personal, and yet it’s not about me. Sometimes I say that sexual harassment and sexual violence are some of the least personal things I have experienced, since none of the perpetrators were interested in me as an individual, but only in me as a category, me as a demographic.  Those of us who have suffered this kind of depersonalization have got to stop minimizing what happened to us, have got to admit that all those “little” indignities can add up to major trauma.

So I invite you to join me (carefully) in owning your pain.

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About Asher

Asher Bauer is fast becoming a fixture in the San Francisco kink community, and intends to stay that way. He has worked as a Queer Educator at LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation And Information Center), and since has taken his talents as an educator to a wider variety of audiences, teaching on subjects ranging from safer sex to BDSM to trans and queer identities. He is also one of the hosts and originators of Transmission, the new trans-centric party at the San Francisco Citadel, and Invasion, the Citadel's all-genders queer party. View all posts by Asher

9 responses to “Bad Attention

  • Anon

    Ah shit… I needed to see this today. The pain scares the shit out of me. The anger has been a lifelong companion & much more comfortable (compared to the sadness buried underneath it) but has lost it’s usefulness so here I am digging through these memories while trying to remember to breathe.

    Glad I’m not alone.

  • Amy

    Once again, you nail it. I am sorry you had so many of these experiences. I wish I’d known.

  • Ethan K.

    In the midst of packing to move to my new apartment, this made me pause. It made me think. It also made me sad and angry. It made me sad and angry to think that people would be horrible to someone like you who strives to do good where other people couldn’t give a fuck. It made me sad and angry to remember things that happened to me that I thought I’d forgotten. Forgotten? Or blocked out?

    People used to hit on me in elementary and high school back when I was presenting as female and knew no other way. They did it in an insincere way because I was the scary girl who always sat way off in a corner writing poetry or reading a novel. I don’t know why people’s first instinct, when they can’t fit you into a stereotype box, is to pick at you to try and figure out what your “deal” is.

    My parents were “good Christians” that wouldn’t allow their daughter to associate with the rabble. Didn’t let me go to dances, join clubs, go to sleepovers, etc, and in their attempts at “protecting” me, managed to isolate me from my peers. I remember thinking, all while being sexually objectified for sport: “Goddamnit, if only he were being serious about it! I swear I’d even give him head… or be his friend, or whatever would make him happy.”

    What is it about society that crushes those who most want to help their fellow human beings? Those who desire to please others and make them happy? People say that the world is so cruel, well, perhaps it would be a bit less so if the helpers and peacemakers were not sitting numb and dumb from the barrage of insensitive prodding and outright malice dumped upon them year after year, day after day.

    Is it too much to ask to want to be treated kindly? To be listened to? To be treated like a human being, especially by the people we love the most? Betrayal sucks the energy right out of me. Malice and objectification suck the energy right out of me. I understand what it’s like not to have any strength left to fight with. What I don’t understand is how people can scoff and say they don’t think that transfolk can really be all that depressed. What is that? I thought we had moved on from the: It’s your fault for getting me all excited like that. I thought we’d moved beyond the idea that a man can’t be sexually harassed or raped by a woman because “a real man would have enjoyed it” (leaving unsaid the tacit agreement that if you’re not “a real man” there’s no justice for you regardless.)

    Hopefully soon there will be that justice, if C389 passes for us. It just passed its third reading and is going into the final round. It’s a long road, but goddamnit we will win.

    I’d better get going. I just spent an hour of packing time ranting. (*sigh* That’s me for you.) I just want to thank you for giving me a smack and making me think about stuff I don’t want to but should. Maybe when things quiet down tonight I’ll talk it over with my partner. She probably has some stuff to get off her chest too.

  • Robin

    Thanks, Asher. With Trans 101, Trans Power Manifesto and now Bad Attention, you are building a basic primer for me, a pretty clueless but concerned cis-sexual. I appreciate the honesty and the anger, and the clarity with which you write.
    In 101 when you say “All cis-people and many trans people are binary-identified,” I do want to say I don’t think many people ever got the vote. Binary sexuality was not an option among ways of thinking, it was, still is for most, just the way things are. And yet, like all either/or thinking, it forces painful illusions and dishonesty on us all.

  • gunk

    Thank you for writing this. I too know these feelings. I used to be a “pretty girl”. I could not leave the house without being yelled at from a car, leered at, feeling unsafe.

    It feels sick that changing my presentation, moving towards (medical) transition, which has lessened the harassment, making me feel “lucky”. Fuck lucky, I should feel entitled to this. Yeah, I still cop harassment when I walk down the street with my partner (we’re two trans boys), because they know we’re queer, but they can’t quite decide what kind of queer we are, and that makes me feel unsafe sometimes too, but it feels so much better than being made into somebody’s sex object.

    So thanks.

  • Falcon

    Every time you write something, I feel like you’ve written something I’ve been meaning to for ages but have never found the words. So, thank you for putting yourself out there in such an eloquent and thoughtful way.

    I, too, have been on the receiving end of more straight cis male attention than I care to remember. And, like you, it started quite early. Unlike you, I never knew how to effectively report such things… when I was 12, I blamed myself for being raped, and was afraid I wouldn’t be believed. So I didn’t tell anyone for three years, and even then, only my lovers. It was only much later that I’ve actually stopped blaming myself and have gotten angry about it. Still, that started an early pattern of freezing up that has continued since.

    Coming out as a lesbian in high school got me unwanted attention, though since I was presenting as a femme lesbian dating a butch I got offers to “change” me instead of wanting to watch (or be involved with) my partner and I. Coming out as trans at university got me all sorts of strange attention, but a lot of it was from bisexual cis guys who wanted “the best of both worlds.”

    Going back in the closet due to an emotionally abusive relationship (with a straight trans guy) put me in such a weak headspace that fighting back at all wasn’t even a possibility. During that time, I received the most ridiculous bad attention I’ve ever faced, including getting my chest grabbed at work by a passenger as revenge for not allowing him to (literally) push me around. A year later, a cis male medical student was allowed to perform a gynecological exam on me, even though I was highly uncomfortable with how he was acting around me.

    And… just stuff. Lots of it, too much to remember or list here. And even now, as a much more politically aware and self-aware adult, I *still* fall prey to this social conditioning. So what’s the solution? How do we un-learn these responses? Fight back? Get angry? I wish I knew.

  • alex jerusalem

    Literally. Took the words out of my mouth. I was just explaining this very thing to someone right before I read this. Thank you so much for your writing, its so re-affirming…

  • Peeda

    I think the key to folks “getting it” is not only clarify what it means to be trans but also to understand that there is nothing to interpret or assume. I think Robin made a good point in remembering not to condemn the ignorant, for better or for worse cat calls are ingrained in American culture. Its our misfortune that regardless of intent the attention so frequently brings about the worst feelings of dysphoria and self disgust.

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