Eating My Words
“Silly girl,” I thought to myself when my friend decided to stay together with her sexist boyfriend. Little did I know I’d have to eat those words one day.
The summer after my first year of college I worked in a fairly non-traditional work setting (a dorm) with a plot of outspoken senior girls. I attend a radically liberal university that prides itself on its diverse student population, a population of Respectful Advocates who fight the patriarchy, honor each other’s cultural experiences, hate Taylor Swift, and only discuss topics at work that Tomi Lahren would condemn fit for a flurry of snowflakes.
One particular girl on the staff – let’s call her Esmé – was a Venezuelan woman dating an Indian man also on the staff. Their relationship, like any other twentysomething love affair, had been less than breezy, but they stayed together because they were (of course) in love despite it all. Needless to say, when I walked into my shift I could always expect an update on Esmé and Rohit.
“He comes from a small town in India, you see,” Esmé was telling Clarisse, another girl on the staff, as I slipped behind the desk and clocked in.
“So it’s really understandable as to why he doesn’t get women, you know?”
“But that’s no excuse for his behavior! Like that time he asked you why you never cook for him? Unacceptable.”
Yes, Clarisse. Stick it to him.
“But he doesn’t know any better, Clarisse! In his culture all the women cook and clean. None of the women go to school or join the workforce – they don’t even want to!”
“How can they know they don’t want to if they aren’t afforded the opportunity to begin with?” I chimed in. Clarisse shot me a look.
“You’ve entered a really big conversation here. Have some respect, okay?” Esmé sounded like she was talking to a ten year old, a ten year old who just so happened to be me.
“So anyway…” Esmé returned to her intended audience. “We were talking over dinner, and when the check comes he picks it up to pay for it – he always pays and it’s sooooo cute – and I said ‘Hey, you should tip the waitress 25 percent instead of 20 percent because she worked really hard and she was nice.’ And he looks at me like ‘What the hell, Esmé?’ and he says ‘She was just as good as any other waiter…I’ll tip her 20 percent’. So I explain that women only make 77 cents to the man’s dollar and that extra 5 percent might really help her, and you know what?”
Clarisse is waiting on pins and needles. Admittedly, I am too.
“He says ‘That’s just not true. Women get just as many opportunities if not more because they’re, you know, women. A guy can’t flirt his way into getting a job, you know. Women actually have it better. That statistic is just what women say for sympathy. It’s not true.’ And I just looked at him, and I didn’t know what to say. I was stunned Clarisse.”
Esmé paused, clearly confronting the boiling pot of emotional turmoil she’d yet to take off her own personal stove.
“You know,” she said, quieter. “It just really hurts to know I’m dating a man who is inherently… sexist.” The word landed like a lead paperweight on the counter. “I tried so hard to get him to see my side – you know, about how women truly are at a disadvantage in the workplace, or really anyplace – and he refused to see it or acknowledge his privilege or even acknowledge the fact that he had hurt my feelings!”
Clarisse took her cue, patting Esmé’s arm. “So…what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know, Lissy… I can’t break up with him. I still love him, despite it all! It’s just hard because he doesn’t respect women, you know?”
Up until this point I had felt genuinely bad for Esmé – the man she’d spent a year cultivating a relationship with turned out to be a first-rate misogynist pig. Clearly they would break up and I’d spend the rest of the summer consoling her and siding with the girls while pretending I was still Rohit’s friend to his face to save my freshman ass. But when faced with a Moment of Truth – the opportunity to take action and practice what she preached – Esmé faltered. She stayed with him throughout the summer, sexism and all.
I wrote her off immediately; the girl who sermonized her feminism to everyone within earshot was selling a brand I simply wasn’t willing to buy. I had just read Bad Feminist, so I secretly knew my newfangled, sophisticated, sexist-boyfriend-dumping feminism was superior to Esmé’s apparently shallow interpretation. I dismissed her from my personal definition of Respectable Advocate, replaced it with jagged yet fitting Hypocrite instead.
A year later I found myself on a greyhound travelling upstate to visit my boyfriend in the incest capital of the East Coast. It was on the way to this bus that I’d plucked a copy of Charlotte Shane’s NB from the Strand and tore through half of its contents on the ride. My boyfriend and I were getting serious – serious enough for me to be riding on a fucking Greyhound for four hours to see him – and I had decided that he deserved to know I had spent the year prior to our relationship hustling around my city with older, richer men. Somehow Charlotte’s words grantedme the courage I needed to tell him this, and the courage to decide that I could only date Respectful Advocate; a man who truly accepted and supported my former profession.
Charlotte actually came in handier than expected. I was on his bed reading, and he took a look at the sleek white cover with two cryptic initials in the bottom corner and asked what it was. I explained how Charlotte chronicled her sex work career on the blog Nightmare Brunette, and upon deleting it shuffled the diary-like entries into the published collection now split open between my thumb and pinky finger. Trying to play it cool, I asked, “Would you ever do it? Get paid to have sex with someone?”
“No,” he said with more confusion in his voice than declaration. “Would you?”
The look on my face must have given it away, because he changed his question to “Have you?”
“Once or twice,” I lied, sloughing it off. Noting his reaction I quickened to “One time a guy gave me fifty bucks for a ride home after we hooked up, but I just walked so basically I got a blowjob and fifty bucks and that’s basically getting paid for sex!” The story was true, though it certainly wasn’t representative of my career.
“I mean I guess,” he said. “I just think it would be degrading to have someone pay to have sex with you.”
The Classic. Fucking. Line. I dropped the subject, unwilling to let it ruin the evening. I hadn’t seen him in six weeks and I wanted the night to be perfect. I wanted him to feel loved, and I wanted him to hold me and kiss me and tell me he wanted me and hear how much he missed me too. I had nearly forgotten what he tasted like, or what lying in his arms felt like. I let him fuck me. I think that was my solution.
As it turns out, when faced with a Moment of Truth, I faltered just as Esmé had. Instead of ending the relationship with someone who did not validate or respect sex work in the way I craved, the way a Respectful Advocate should, I stayed. I decided the boy on the other side of the bed who smelled like oranges and smiled like no one else and made my blood turn to chocolate when he touched me was worth the patient fight.
Over the next several months I warmed him up to the idea of sex work, spilling the beans a pod at a time. I encouraged him to educate himself, recommending essays, TED Talks, Twitter handles and websites, but you can only lead a horse to water. He simply wasn’t ready. I realized I was doing more harm than good; I was attempting to educate him to clear my own conscience of telling the full truth instead of exposing him to the unsuspecting beauty I’d found in human connections through sex work. Eventually I settled into only speaking about sex work when he brought it up. It worked, and he’s been meeting me halfway. He now has the answers to the questions he needs, and I’ve eradicated the stigmas on sex work that he entered our relationship with. No, he won’t join me at a protest, not yet, but he respects that I go.
In some ways my attempt to educate my ignorant boyfriend on the importance of sex work is a form of advocacy, though it doesn’t fit neatly into the file I’d created for Respectful Advocate at my dorm a year prior. It appears I too am the Hypocrite I mentally chastised a year ago for continuing to date a sexist man. And like Emsé, it appears I too am in love despite it all. Silly me, this time. Perhaps I owe her an apology.