Women, Sex, and Cars (Part II)

Content Note: sexual assault in the news, rape culture, sexism, misogyny, sexual symbolism

My blog post about buying a car was only going to be one blog post. But as often happens with conversations, it begets further conversation. Which springs forth into further reflection, deconstruction, reconstruction, keyboard smashing, synthesis.

And today I read about Patricia, the most recent in a group of over 30 women who have come forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault, and between comments on that story, and conversations and comments on my first post about buying my car, I’m up to my earholes in rape culture and power dynamics. So here’s the alternate title to this post:

How I Learned to Drive a Stick (that’s what she said)

Right off the bat, I am going to issue this clarification: at no point am I issuing an indictment of individual persons, with the exception of Bill Cosby. It’s pretty clear he’s guilty of some horrible acts against women. My other commentary is “aimed up” at the culture and systems and not “aimed down” at the people forced to navigate the resulting marginalization.

When I bought my car, I left feeling adequate. I felt not completely empowered, but not disempowered either. I left with enough of my autonomy intact to feel I had done a good job negotiating and purchasing my car, my first big ticket item since my divorce. A discussion happened among some women acquaintances about our experiences buying and servicing cars. We were split into two groups: those who had been traumatized, ripped off, or otherwise dehumanized, and those who had survived mostly unscathed. Those in the latter group cited strategies for the successes: bringing a male partner to the dealership, doing extra research, choosing a female salesperson, calling a male friend on the phone for back-up. A few of the women in the latter group made suggestions to the women in the former group for a more positive experience next time: Seek out a saleswoman, or Well, I know to bring a man with me.

My problem isn’t that these women gave these suggestions, but that the automotive culture is such that this conversation exists at all. Why do we have to “know to bring a man”? Why should buying a car feel like reporting a sexual assault on a college campus (a lived experience a friend of mine used during the aforementioned conversation)?

Why did all of this remind me of the “how to avoid getting raped” college presentations for freshman women?

The same society that produced our current rape culture produced the boys’ club that is the automotive show room.

When I got my butt grabbed at the Old Broadway in Fargo, there were those who might have told me to take it as a compliment. When someone touched me unexpectedly and without my consent and called me sweetheart at the car dealership, one of my friends did tell me to take it as a compliment. Neither of these is a compliment; both of these are about power.

Salespeople generally assume that women don’t know anything about cars. Legislators generally assume that women don’t know anything about what constitutes sexual assault, too.

I’ve been writing about my car a lot on my personal Facebook page. I’m sure some people are looking forward to the end of my overly emotional good-bye to my car. But it’s my narrative. I get to decide when to move on.

I know some people are tired of how drawn out the Bill Cosby story has become. The allegations first came to light in a 2005 civil case and were effectively silenced in 2006. This latest viral resurgence of victims stepping forward began in October 2014; to date over 30 women have publicly accused him of drugging and assaulting them, seven of whom are from the 2005 civil case. As far as Hollywood news is concerned, this story seems like it has gone on forever.

But this isn’t just Hollywood news. And five months is nothing compared to years of silence and internalized shame. You want the media to move on? This isn’t your narrative. This isn’t Cosby’s narrative, either. Finally–yes, finally–this narrative belongs to the women. The women who felt partially responsible for their own assaults. The ones who looked up to a man as a mentor, only to have that power used against them.

The statute of limitations has passed on these cases. This isn’t about going to court, or getting money. This is about power. And from where I sit (and I could be wrong), it’s not even about the victims/survivors getting power over Cosby, but about getting some of their power back.

When I was in rehearsals for How I Learned to Drive, the hardest scene for me was the hotel room scene, when Li’l Bit finally confronts her uncle for the years of inappropriate interactions and abuse of power and “grooming” that led up to that night, her 18th birthday. Li’l Bit runs through a huge range of emotions, and anger is one of them. I am still learning how to let myself experience my own anger, so portraying such a raw and visceral emotion on stage was challenging. The director could see my struggle because, let’s face it, I was sucking. She told me that scene was for the women who never got to face their abusers, and that I needed to be angry for them. I didn’t want that burden, really, and I don’t mean to imply that I fixed the abuse of the world by performing that role for three nights in July. But that was what I needed to hear, as part of my own journey as Danielle and as Li’l Bit.

I got good and angry. Li’l Bit took her power back. Everything is about power.

And if you think it isn’t about power, ask yourself this question: Why are there people who express more worry for Cosby’s legacy than they do for the damaged lives of these 30+ women?

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