Years ago, I was on a trip with some friends when one friend did something terrible to his girlfriend. We had all been drinking, and it was the kind of “joke” that can only seem funny when people are surrounded by approving friends and under the influence of several drinks too many. She wasn’t in any danger, but I knew that I would be incredibly embarrassed if it were me. He did it when she was blackout drunk — incapable of defending herself — and he did it front of several of us while people drunkenly laughed and cheered him on. While it is not my place to go into the nature of what he did, suffice it to say that I was disturbed that these things were going on in a group of people I considered close, and kind, and fundamentally good. I decided that, despite the social ramifications of forever labeling myself as a “snitch” and “unable to take a joke,” it was important to tell my friend what he had done to her.
Soon after, I told her what had happened, and apologized for not having done more to stop it in the moment. She was humiliated, as I expected. I was the only woman in the room at the time, and likely the only person who understood how offensive it was to carry on something like that in front of a tight-knit social group — especially on your own girlfriend. She thanked me for telling her, and went home.
She soon after confronted her boyfriend on the issue — and rightfully so — and I was pretty roundly ostracized from him and the group who had been there, having proven myself to be a girl who couldn’t be trusted with these kinds of secrets and would get all up in arms about a couple of guys “just having fun.” I was called a lot of names, and wasn’t invited to things. And that is only what I am aware of — I have no doubts that what carried on behind my back were much, much more damning. In terms of social consequences, it was only the act of saying something which was met with exasperation and even hatred. The initial act was thought of just a drunken little prank, something that could never be real cause for alarm.
I hadn’t thought of this in a long time, until a recent lunch with a friend brought it all back up. She had known us both at the time, and had mentioned that he didn’t like me — that he and his best friend (who unfailingly defended him) were never short of negative things to say. It didn’t surprise me, but it renewed in me a feeling of profound frustration about what it means to be a woman and deciding where and when you set your boundaries. There is an undeniable culture of passing much assault off as benign, or even as a joke that we are all supposed to find funny, and serious punishment for being the person who cannot laugh along with it.
Though these people have not had any bearing on my life in a long time, and this individual scenario in my particular life no longer affects me, I am forever aware of the kinds of problems which arise when you do not want to speak out and out yourself as being “not one of the group.” I was once a girl who hung out with mostly men, who lived with men, who thought of myself as a “guy’s girl.” And while I do not believe that every group of men will engage in acts about which it is essential to say “This is not okay,” there is a precarious position that a woman can be put in when she wants desperately to be accepted and yet knows that some of the things she is seeing are simply unacceptable.
If you decide to call out the sexist slur, or correct him when he insults how many people he believes she’s slept with, or touches her when she doesn’t want it, there is a huge wave of pressure, both societal and within your own social group, which is telling you that you will regret doing so. Because as long as the status quo of “it’s just a joke,” or “boys being boys” remains the narrative followed in these conversations, we will still be throwing other women under the bus in an effort to not seem uncool, or unable to hang with the group.
The truth is, with even an inch of perspective on things like this, I believe you will find that you are glad to be rid of these people. Looking back, I have no respect for him or what he did or the culture that allowed him to think it was okay — even if it is something we all struggle to rid ourselves of as we grow up. Even if you are made to feel like the humorless bitch who can’t be trusted to keep a terrible secret, you will one day feel glad that you no longer associate with the kind of people who would do something like that. But in the moment, it can be incredibly painful. We all desperately want to be accepted, to have friends, to feel cool. And if you are a woman who, like me, had internalized this idea that approval from a group of men was far and away the most important social currency, losing that respect is brutal.
But it was never respect. Any people who will do things like this never had respect for you as a friend, and there is nothing cool or chill or impressive about being quiet when you see ugly things happen. If you know it is wrong, say something is wrong. Always. Because soon enough, you’ll forget about them and everything they said about you. But you always have to live with yourself.