Microaggression: Woman on Woman

“Tamatora Pursued by a Dragon”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Microaggression: Woman on Woman

As anyone knows who knows me, I detest the very word “microaggression.” To me, it’s part of a newly weaponized jargon that allows any accuser to put on the mantle of victimhood and leave the accused to fight her own way back to social safety. That said, I can’t think of another title for the story I’m about to share with you.

In these columns, I’ve sometimes written about my walking handicap: the near-endless series of remedies I’ve tried, my unresigned attitude and how I fervently wish it would get cured. I’ve mentioned some recent remedies: a terrific physical therapist and a wise and skilled acupuncturist. They have helped somewhat, but at a pace so slow that I’ll have to live to be 135 before I begin to feel a difference in real life.

So, when a new treatment came to my attention, I thought I’d try it. Hell, all I risk is time, money and hope.

Unlike a lot of medical interventions, this one is not embarrassing. Patients can be in the same room with each other without feeling their privacy compromised. Patients report improvements and they’re obviously not lying or making it up. The staff have reason to believe they can help and that may be why the atmosphere in the facility is gentle and considerate. So I was startled when the staff person who was applying some instruments to my lower back said, with a little laugh, “Pull your pants down!” and again, when the instruments were in place, “Pull your pants up!” again with a titter.

Her titter and choice of words embarrassed me, but it wasn’t clear whether she had the faintest awareness of that. It seemed too trivial to make a fuss over. Maybe the embarrassment was the fault of my thin skin and another woman, more endowed with robust common sense, would not have felt a thing. Also any protest was risky. It could antagonize her, especially if my tone was wrong. And I wasn’t sure that I could find the right tone. If I tried to communicate the problem to her supervisor I could get her in trouble unfairly and meanwhile get myself typed as a troublemaker.

There are women, and men, whose instinctive defenses are such that nobody messes with them. Or if they do, the messers soon learn better. All I can say about that happy breed is that I’m not one of them.

The staffer’s choice of words did not change and my sense of being torn one way and torn the other was leading me to dread each trip to the treatment facility. At the same time, the problem seemed both trivial and embarrassing, to the point where I did not even share it with Jerry. I simply did not know how to understand this situation.

Let me make clear what the stakes were, in my mind. I believe that erotic self-defense is vital and nonnegotiable. If someone whom you cannot get away from is compromising your sense of feminine dignity, that’s not trivial. It’s serious and you ought to try to handle it. On the other hand, perhaps she’s just socially awkward, doesn’t quite know how to talk, and had no such intent? If I protested, and was clumsy about it, I might injure her sense of social ease and professional competence.

As long as I had no evidence one way or the other, I waited. Then it came: the first clear bit of evidence.

My helper had the task of applying the same instruments to another patient in the same room. This one was a nun. To the nun, the staffer’s words were, “FIX your pants.” Not “pull ‘em up.” Not “pull ‘em down.” And no damn titter.

So! She knows the nun would be offended. Which means, she knows I’d be, too.

This meant, she’s not acting unawares. Hey! Thank you Jesus! Light on the path.

Since you don’t roll over for abuse, I am now morally obligated to stop her. But how? What came to me, just a second or two before the next time she was to apply the instruments to my back, was to say aloud preemptively – before she could say anything — “So I’ll loosen my slacks and, when you’re ready, you’ll let me know and I’ll zip them up again.”

I’d prevented the indignity that time. But I still didn’t know that she knew that I had. I didn’t know how conscious her woman-on-woman aggression had been. Was it just a reflex, like a cat scratching at a person without thinking about it? Or did she know? Again, I lacked evidence.

That is, I lacked evidence till she obligingly provided it. Departing from standard procedure, this time she set the instruments without telling me that she had done so, or at what level they’d been set, and – again unprecedentedly – she did not return to check on me until the half time.

It’s not courtroom evidence, but in real life, at a certain point, you have to trust your hunches. To me it looked like her reprisal for having been caught. Which meant:

She knew.

She knew that I knew.

And she wasn’t sorry.

At that point, for the first time, I felt that I understood the situation and could tell Jerry.

One of the great things about Jerry is that he doesn’t go in for Denial in the service of making things nice when they’re not. He advised me to request another helper. That allowed the situation to be cauterized where I was concerned. As it turns out, though I hadn’t complained, the change was noticed, and the problem subsequently addressed, both responsibly and harmlessly.

Is there a lesson to draw here? Probably it goes like this: if you can squelch aggression reflexively, without thinking about it, be my guest. Do that. But if you’re like me, and you’re not sure but you think you’re being victimized, don’t react on a mere suspicion. Wait till you have sufficient evidence. Just because the surroundings are peaceful and the purposes officially benign is not a reason to forget the dictum of the American sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Social life is war.

Just because you’ve done nothing to provoke it, doesn’t mean you’re imagining it. But don’t get ahead of the story. Wait till the situation clarifies itself sufficiently to take the shape of —

a handle you can grip.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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