The Price of Smiling for the Photos

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Photo: Caiaimage/Robert Daly/Getty Images/Caiaimage

Years ago, I won a literary prize. At the ceremony, I was nervous, trying hard to access any sliver of pride or happiness; I drank too much, my palms sweating. An older writer introduced himself. I imagined, for a moment, that maybe he saw me as a fellow writer. When someone gestured for us to stand together for a photograph, the writer put his hand on my back, then dropped it lower to grab my ass; how swiftly I was returned to my body, to the fact of my youth and gender. Whatever flush of pride or happiness I’d tended was immediately replaced, unwillingly, with sex. I smiled for the photo, though I could feel the strain in my face, the falsehood; it was more like a grimace.

Another night, the head of a literary organization jumped into my cab, heading back to Brooklyn after a party. He edged closer to me across the back seat, as I looked studiously out the window, flipping my phone open and closed, texting no one. He pressed me for my phone number, slurring that he had friends at many magazines that could get me published. I had been published in the magazine whose party we had just come from — why would he know that or care? I gave him a fake number.

On a book tour for my first novel, years later, I fared no better trying to transcend the female body. No matter that my novel dealt with the myriad ways women and girls are objectified, I was asked to lie on any number of surfaces to be photographed. A French photographer pressured me unrelentingly to pose on a hotel bed, asking over and over again with such steady insistence that I finally started weeping. I apologized to him. A writer profiling me alluded to nonsensical gossip that I dated “powerful men,” implying, I suppose, that whatever success I had was due to other factors than my actual work.

I read the reports of the women assaulted by Harvey Weinstein with a thrum of anxiety in my stomach — or maybe it’s a feeling closer to fear. Fear is easier than anger. Anger demands action, some kind of aim, an expectation of justice. And I have not felt for a long time that my anger would find a resolution. This isn’t the first time I’ve written an essay about gendered violence. I wrote a whole novel about it. But here I am, again. And even as I write this, any anger I feel ebbs into weariness.

Why don’t women talk about this more, why does it take them years to come forward? There are too many reasons to keep quiet — men like Harvey Weinstein and his lawyers know this, and understand how to wield either direct or implied threat. It’s just as easy to weaponize a woman’s success as her failure. If you’re successful, you have more to lose by speaking out, if you’re starting your career, you’re just seeking attention. Your vulnerability is a weapon, your emotions are a weapon, as are whatever efforts you make to humanize the people who harm you — by continuing to try to work with them, by continuing, in some cases, to love them.

It’s ludicrous, in 2017, that we’re trotting out these old tropes: shaming women for remaining friends with men who victimize them, shaming women for not speaking out right away. When word came out that attorney Lisa Bloom had planned to release photos of Weinstein with his accusers looking happy, looking friendly, I would’ve been shocked — except that a version of this was already happening to me.

When I was 22, the 36-year-old man I was dating choked me during a fight. He’d looked at my text messages while I slept and saw a flirtatious text from a male friend. I woke up to him holding me down on his bed while he choked me. I was in a state of shock, unable to move, unable to do anything but freeze. His face was close to my face. It was the face of someone I loved, someone I believed loved me. When he finally let me go, I gasped for air. I was half-crying, half-laughing from hysteria. I told him I would call the police. He said that if I did, he would tell my parents I had sold underwear on Craigslist. He said the police wouldn’t believe me because I didn’t bruise. I’m sure it’s no surprise at all that the police weren’t called. I was a kid, easily cowed, desperate for love — it was easier to squint, to let something pass.

I remained friendly with that boyfriend even after what happened. When I contemplated writing about the incident — corroborated by 2012 chats with a friend, multiple emails to multiple different people, an essay that mentioned the choking that the boyfriend had read — his only comment that “our fight” “lacked context” — I was informed that I wouldn’t be believed because I had stayed friends with this person even after he had choked me. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because in the same chat where I confessed my fear, anxiety, and confusion about my boyfriend’s violence, I also made sex jokes. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I’ve looked at pornography, written a sex story, dated older men. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I said I loved the boyfriend. I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I hadn’t called the police. When I found out that the boyfriend had been arrested years before I knew him, for screaming at his then-girlfriend, chasing her, and shaking her on the street, I wept out of pure relief that my experience had official precedent.

I tell this final story to show how efficiently it happens, how quickly a woman, like myself, can be catapulted back to the feelings of powerlessness that kept a 22-year-old girl quiet. Of course I stayed quiet. Of course women attempt to appease men who’ve abused them, or try to transform the pain into friendship, blur the sharp edges in their minds into the shape of something manageable. It’s like teaching someone how to play a game and then punishing them when they follow the rules; women would act differently if we believed there was any other way to escape unharmed from the whims of men. We’re navigating a society defined by them, and suffering for it. Yet we’re blamed for our attempts to survive within those parameters. Until the world proves it doesn’t hate women, the silence will continue. I hope it’s changing. I don’t blame my younger self, but I do wish something different for her. I wish for it without knowing whether it is truly possible.

The Price of Smiling for the Photos