Feminism: An Ally Story

[Content Note: Sexism, Rape Culture, Racism, Homophobia] 

I'm still not feeling well (and I'm sorry about that, not just for me, but also for all of you because I really hate it when I don't have posts up), but I wanted to have some kind of post for today, so I thought I'd tell a personal story about a time when a male co-worker was a real ally to me.

One of my first jobs was working in a bookstore, which was a little piece of heaven for me (because books!) but was also my first real introduction to the idea that, as a female worker, I am a second class citizen. This realization manifested in a number of ways, via subtle micro-aggressions and a culture of sexism. And it's somewhat telling that this ally story isn't about micro-aggressions, but is rather about something relatively Big and Obvious. But, even so, it's still a meaningful story for me.

Anyway. At the bookstore, we sold naughty magazines and books in addition to all the regular magazines and books, but we sold the naughty ones from behind the register counter. The rule was that customers weren't allowed to leave the register counter with the naughty pictures, because it was believed by the Powers That Be that the naughty books were a greater temptation for shoplifting and/or reading in the bathrooms than the regular books. Most customers bought their preferred naughty books without a fuss and left to take them home and everything was lovely forever.

But. There was a subset of customers (always male) who would come in to ostensibly browse the naughty magazines at the counter, but who were actually there to leverage their privilege as a customer to leer at the woman on cashier duty (and they would specifically wait for a woman to come up for cashier duty before they would approach the counter and ask to see the magazines). These customers would then try to force us to participate in their public arousal against our consent, by prying us with relatively "polite" questions while they leered at us and thumbed through these magazines in front of us.

These men were not socially inept nor were they ignorant of the implications of what they were doing. Most of them were very canny predators, and would choose their timing carefully, making sure we were alone and isolated at the registers, with no one available to watch the registers for us or keep us company until they left. They used social conventions to manipulate and coerce us female employees into answering their questions, counting on our inability to leave the register area unattended and our fear of offending a customer who was "merely" asking how we were, how our day was going, what our names were, and other personal information we didn't want to share while they were using us as an object of arousal. 

Most of these men got away with this aggression into our lives, and most of our male co-workers didn't care or bother to notice. But we had this one assistant manager who seemed to genuinely care about this issue and how it affected his female co-workers*. He would watch the registers whenever he could, and any time one of these guys came in and started to sexually aggress against us, he would casually wander up and say something like, "Hey, you haven't had a break in awhile. Why don't you let me watch the registers for a bit?" He didn't make us leave, but he gave us the option. Most of us took it. And he'd stay there for as long as it took for the customer to give up on us coming back for him to victimize.

* Due to the organization of job titles at this place, we weren't really his "employees" but were rather co-workers at a lower level of privilege. An assistant manager was basically just another employee, but at a more "trusted" level, meaning that he had keys to the registers.

I don't even remember the Assistant Manager's name. I barely remember what he looked like, except that I recall that he was a perfect visual example of male privilege--thin, tall, white, conventionally attractive, and with an air of privilege reminiscent of good education or wealthy upbringing or both. And I only remember that much because I remember--even then, even before my feminist awakening--being surprised that he would bother to help us or care about us when so many of the other men didn't care in the slightest. Though I didn't understand privilege, I did understand that he didn't need to help us, that no one would have even expected him to help us.

I don't know that this man ever got anything tangible out of helping us. He never asked us for thanks or ally cookies; he never hung around after the men had left, waiting for us to say something. As far as I could tell, no one even talked about what was happening, nor what he was doing for us--we just knew that if the creepers came around, this one assistant manager would remind you that you had a break to take, if you wanted it. And we knew that the break could last as long as it needed to, until the creeper was gone, and that he would cover for us if anyone asked how long we'd been away from the registers. Then you went back to the registers and he went back to assistant managering. It wasn't really anything you talked about, because talking about it would have uncovered all the systemic sexism permeating these events. 

And it says a lot about the rape culture that we live in that no one talked about this. That most of our male co-workers either didn't notice or didn't care that we were being sexually aggressed against by customers. That it was noteworthy that one guy, with a little bit of privilege and a little bit of power, did care and did help us, and didn't ask or expect thanks in return. That this one guy tried his best to get out of our way afterward, so that it wouldn't be awkward, and that he seemed to sincerely want to not make these events about him or about his actions. That he would "save" us from something unpleasant without making it into a big Knight Savior fantasy for himself. That, when I think about "male allies" in the workplace, he's the guy I think of, even though I haven't seen him in years and even though the sexism he wielded his privilege against was the most Obvious Kind of sexism. That all says a lot about our culture, and about the work environments I (and many other women) move through.

I don't think this guy thought about himself as a Good Ally to women. I'm not sure, but I always got the strong sense that his only emotions about these events was disquiet about the fact that they happened with such frequency and with so many different creepy men. I think he was sad and frustrated that the world was so hateful towards women, and I think he felt a little defeated that he wasn't able to do more to help us avoid being aggressed against. After all, by the time he could come up to the register to relieve us, the damage had already been (partly) done: we'd been reminded of our status as second-class citizens, not only in the eyes of our customers but also in the eyes of most of our co-workers and management--the people we were ostensibly friends with, yet who didn't care if we were sexually aggressed against by the most obvious of creepers.

But I valued that in him most of all, that instead of making these events about how he was So Much Better Than Those Other Men, he instead seemed to think of these events with discomfort--that he couldn't do more, and that our management in specific and society in general wasn't doing more. When he saw how little help we received from other men, he didn't see himself as better--he saw society as fucked up. And, to me, that was allyship: That he used his privilege to protect me from what sexism that he could, but that he didn't pretend it was more than a teaspoon dishing out an ocean of oppression. And that he didn't think himself better for the act, but instead seemed truly concerned about how he could do more.

I've worked in dozens of jobs since then, and I can count on one hand the number of times male co-workers have leveraged power to protect me from sexism. Just today, I sat in a room where a habitual creeper creeped on me, and another asshole invited me to engage in homophobia against gay men, while yet another asshole tried to prod me into endorsing his misogynoir against Michelle Obama. And there are some nice men in my room, good guys who are happy to chat with me about rooting cell phones and the best Android OS versions and all the geekery fun you could want.

But not one of these guy-friends will lift a finger to try to change the subject when their creeper co-worker friends creep on me, even though I know they could see how uncomfortable I am, if they would care to look. I don't know why they don't look, nor why they don't make the barest minimum of effort to use their privilege to redirect the conversation. Maybe they're misogynists themselves and privately enjoy seeing others oppress me. Maybe they're unwilling to acknowledge my oppression and their relative privilege. Maybe the patriarchy is so ingrained in their thinking that they don't know how to help me. Maybe a lot of things.

But intent isn't magic. And these guys at my work?

They may be my friends, but they're not my allies.


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