It Doesn't Have to Be This Way: The Infuriating Reality of Womanhood


I love women. And as I get older, my life is becoming increasingly about them. I dance with women, I speak with women, I am coached, sponsored by, and counseled by women. I meet them for coffee. I talk to them about sex. I ask them for advice. I hold them while they cry. I love the deep feelings. And the competition. The struggle to be seen and held. The intimacy. The complication. The ability to heal.

My experience at S-Factor has deepened this for me, surely, but on some level, it’s always been this way for me. I remember reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent in middle school and being just obsessed with the vivacious, earthy, female community of the novel. It was this raucous irreverent crew separated from everyone else just because they were female. They were special, ancient, and secret. Aunts, cousins, daughters, grandmas, sitting on moss and bleeding in a tent in the desert, while rubbing each other’s feet with oil and cackling about their husbands. Oh my god. I wanted to eat it. I wanted to be there.

It echoed for me. Because even as a middle-schooler, I knew that being a woman does feel like that. Quarantined and venerated. Ever since I went through puberty, I’ve felt like I was a part of a club that everyone was obsessed with and also couldn’t wait to abuse. On the public bus, in a piazza in Italy, I remember those first pre-teen moments, when people started watching me. The power you’re gifted just by being a woman. It comes without your permission, and it’s heady, potent.

But the lack of control over that power; it comes too. The first time you feel it, it’s both. It’s neither. You don’t have tools to deal with it yet. You didn’t ask for it. It just arrived. On that same trip to Europe, just as I started to glow under male attention, someone in Turkey tried to buy me from my family. My parents joked. The man was serious. I was 12.

It’s a complication that I’ve spent years trying to unravel, and one of the main reasons I went to S-Factor in the first place. Before I learned to dance, my sexuality felt like something that was always a reflection of someone else. Desire was put upon me, but I could only mirror it back, enjoy it sometimes, but know that it wasn’t mine. So as a woman, when you start hearing stories of rape, on TV, from your friends, it isn’t a surprise. At least, it wasn’t for me. Because on some level, I’ve always known that I was prey. You feel it. You do.

But as an adult, my outrage at these stories is becoming difficult to carry. Suddenly, despite knowing about this quiet threat for years, sensing it in corners and alleys and at clubs, and in class, I can’t handle it anymore. The more empowered I become personally and the more obsessed I become with women and what they hold inside of them, the more I’m starting to feel like I can’t live in a world where sexual assault continues to happen. Globally. Epidemically.

And I do mean “feel.” I actually feel it. The nausea, watching the gang-rape scene in Top of the Lake, the helplessness, watching the news coverage of the Ariel Castro case, the absolute horror, the outrage, the disgust, rising up in the back of my throat as I hear about the rampant rape of women officers in the army, or in prisons, or the insane spinning blathering about the Woody Allen case. This happens over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, to my friends, to my teachers, to my role models, to my sisters. It happens so much that it’s on TV. It’s a part of our entertainment. Of course Top of the Lake or The Killing didn’t spare me from the gory details of their fictional gang-rapes. Why would they? We’re used to this. We aren’t horrified anymore because it happens so fucking often. Women are victimized, women are victimized, women are victimized. Bodies chopped up. Invaded. Buried. The end. Tune in next week.

There is an entire Law and Order series dedicated to sexual crimes. We tune in to watch it with a tacit acceptance. A sigh. Yes, this happens. What a shame. We shrug and watch and feel better that fictional justice is meted out, but don’t worry about the fact that no one helped her in the moment. No one stopped it – not the abuser, not the people who may have heard her screaming. No one decided that this woman, that all women, are too beautiful and complex and real to dehumanize and violate, and just stopped it. These fictional abusers took what was there, because they’ve learned that we allow that. And we do allow it, don’t we? Doesn’t it continue to happen? Everywhere?

In order to function as a woman in the world, you have to walk around pretending you’re not that vulnerable. As individuals we believe that we’re stronger. I remember, at 24-years-old, play-fighting with my boyfriend in his bed. “Bet you can’t pin me” I teased. I did spin-class. I did yoga. I believed it. So we tussled. We rolled around, and pushed and hit. And he pinned me. Easily. So we tussled harder. Then we tussled again. And again and again. Because he could always pin me. All skinny, pale, 6 feet of him could pin me. Every time. Even when I fought past the point of flirtation. Even when I started to get pissed. To really try. He could pin me. He could always fucking pin me. And it all came home to me, right then, that I couldn’t get away. If anyone wanted to do anything to me. I couldn’t claw, fight, scratch my way out of it. Not even me, who felt so strong. Who did so much research. It doesn’t matter how capable you are if someone decides to take something from you. And we’re living in a world where that happens all the time. Where subconsciously, we must be validating this behavior, or it wouldn’t continue on such a profound level.

Should I be surprised that I asked, in bed, to be dominated by my boyfriend? In the safety of a man I trusted, that I should seek to explore what is such a fundamental part of the female experience? Being held down? Being forced?

Watching TV today, I felt that it was a fucking miracle that I made it through high school and college without being raped. And how deeply fucked up is that? We’re steeped in it. A fellow actress in my acting class had to pretend to be fucked backwards over a table while reading off a list of missed calls to her fictional boss, once. She had to walk into an audition room, and let people see her that way to try to get a job. How deeply dehumanizing. How disgusting that someone even felt entitled to write that role. And don’t even get me started on Khaleesi, everyone’s favorite princess on Games of Thrones who, just an episode or two after we meet her, is raped on her marital bed by an enormous Dothraki man who has recently purchased her, and proceeds to then fall in love with her (apparently gentle-hearted) rapist? Please. This is so widespread and so sick. And yet is it better to acknowledge these things by writing stories about them, than to keep them secret? Is it better to tell these stories so that we feel this outrage?

I don’t know. I don’t know if it is. At least, I don’t know if it’s better to tell them in this way. In this throw up your hands, clean up the mess sort of way. The cops come afterwards. Couldn’t save her. Couldn’t stop it, but at least someone will be punished. Sort of. Unless they’re famous. Or rich, then it’s pretty much whatever. Right?

What I’d rather see than sad stories of abuse that someone swoops in to try to half-assedly address, is an absolute refusal to tolerate these crimes in the first place. Rather than TV shows trying to mete out justice in one-hour segments, I’d rather see men on TV becoming empowered to stop each other in the moment. High school boys resisting peer pressure, not succumbing to it. Father figures who even though they’re in a half-hour comedy, defend their women, rather than being cowed by them.

I’d also rather see law enforcement becoming accountable for stopping these crimes before they happen, not just cleaning up the mess. Part of the horror I feel watching these crime dramas is that by the time they start investigating it’s already too fucking late. It’s over. She’s dead. Or raped. Or brutalized.

And this passivity is not just on TV. At 25, while living alone in Hollywood, a drug-addict neighbor started leaving notes in my mailbox and waiting for me on my porch when I came home at night. He would bang on the door when I wouldn’t answer. He would yell at me through the windows. I went to the cops. “Has he hurt you?” they asked. When I told them “not yet,” they said, “You live in Hollywood. What do you want me to do?” And in response to my shocked silence? “Don’t be that woman.” “What woman?” I asked. “The woman who whines that we won’t help her until something bad happens.”

Yes. God forbid we act BEFORE something bad happens. God forbid we fight systematic oppression with a little proactivity. If we want these crimes to end, then it’s clearly not enough to just document these stories and sigh and look away or to tell your daughters not to walk down alleys alone at night like it’s her responsibility to keep herself from being raped by someone. We have to try to right this terrible wrong that keeps being perpetrated again and again, not just mop it up afterwards. What the fuck are we doing? Why is this still happening? And why are we watching it happen while we eat popcorn on our couches? Would we all tune it to see a series about lynching? Torture? Racial profiling? Then why we do tune in to see women being cut into pieces? Publicly humiliated? Raped? It is not entertaining. It is horrifying. And it’s closer to home than anyone would care to admit.

I’ve always known that being a woman was complicated. That it comes with a price. That the joy I find in being desirable, is also a liability – I’ve been taught that. My life has taught me that. But even I was shocked, as I sat in a group therapy session just a few months ago, to hear a friend, an incredibly beautiful 23-year-old girl, a girl I was jealous of, to be totally transparent, tell us with horrifying casualness about a recent sexual assault and wrap up by saying “I know this isn’t my fault. I know that when I look this way, these things will happen to me. It’s just the way it is.” She understood the price of her body. She understood that over and over again, no one fucking helped her. Not even her mother believed her when she came clean, because it’s too painful to open your eyes to a world in which this happens, epidemically.

You guys. It just doesn’t have to be this way.

Talk to your sons. Talk to your friends. Write about your experiences. Defend your daughters. Stop laughing at misogyny. Go pick something you can do and go to work. It’s not just women who have to fix this. It’s all of us. So get outraged. Start with your own community, and do something. I know I fucking have. And make better TV, people. Give us men who give a shit, and cops who get there in time. I am done feeling this helpless.

Sascha Alexander is an actress, writer, and recreational pole-dancer living and working in Los Angeles. This post originally appeared on her blog, Searching Starving Stripping. Republished with permission.

Image via bruniewska/Shutterstock.

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