I have a sticker on my phone that says: “Consent is sexy.” It came from C.A.R.E. (Concerned About Rape Education) Week at my college. I put it on the back of my iPhone, a glorified extension of my arm, because people would see it. I figured it would spark conversation about rape and rape culture, a cause I am passionate about. But I have been disappointed.
People always ask about the sticker, that’s not the issue. With raised eyebrows and a smile playing about their lips, people ask. Like I am a child first exploring my right to free speech, people ask. Like adolescent boys, grinning at seeing the word “sexy” in an unexpected place, people ask. When I answer, the smile fades because the punch line to their assumed joke isn’t funny.
The most forgivable askers get uncomfortable, quickly changing the subject. I understand this. It isn’t fun to talk about rape, nor is it easy. The least forgivable are those who get that particular look on their faces. Feminists and activists of all kinds are familiar with this look. The one that says, with infuriating faux-sympathy and patronization: “Oh, you’re That Girl. Sorry I asked.”
Yes, I am That Girl. I will pull you aside and talk to you — kindly, privately, but seriously — if you make a rape joke or a homophobic comment. I am That Girl who brings argument over structural racism to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. I am That Girl who can’t let it slide.
I didn’t always do this. I had a tremendous fear of creating awkwardness, hurting people’s feelings, being a downer. But then the things I let slide started keeping me up at night. I was overwhelmed to the point of severe mental unrest by the horrible things that happen to women and men every day from first to third world countries and everywhere in between. I didn’t know what to do.
But then, through the Women’s Resource Center at Boston College and through our chapter of Bystander Awareness, I discovered that my place was to remind people of the power of words. As a self-proclaimed writer, I am embarrassed not to have thought of this myself. But we all need a little help on our way to “a-ha.”
In the past few days I have been reading a lot of Maya Angelou, an idol of mine who recently died. She nails it.
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
Words are underestimated. They are so easy, too easy, to throw out into the ether with no thought. Especially in our internet-era, we are reckless with our far-reaching words. They are the beginnings of values and beliefs. Values and beliefs are the precursors to actions. To be That Guy, That Girl, I have learned, is to remind people of their own power.
It is with this realization that I grew to examine admire the men and women who speak up, and eventually to become one. It is easy to be frozen into inaction by the sheer volume of atrocity — women stoned to death, women beaten or raped, women being killed simply for being women, even as close to home as California. Everyone feels that. But it is equally easy to do something.
Just by forcing myself to speak up, listen up and be unafraid to confront actions and words with words of my own. I am not perfect at these skills; it’s a process. And It isn’t a cure-all by any stretch, but at the very least it’s a good place to start.