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Gender, Sex, and Power

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Recently I got a hug from my yoga teacher and I felt myself stiffen, even though I knew that the hug was affectionate and not the first move in the direction of sex. I was sure of this for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that I am 75 years old. Nevertheless, I still had the hypervigilant reaction that had been ingrained in me over most of my life. I was never raped or beaten. I never even had my career threatened by men. I just had the usual stuff: Between the ages of about 12 and 50 I would regularly be on the receiving end of unwelcome overtures, fortunately not from employers, but from pretty much everyone else-- from doctors to auto mechanics to the husbands of my friends. I'm sure I was not exceptional--I was attractive but not a great beauty, and I know I was not giving mixed signals.

Here's the thing that was so crazy-making: Except for the husbands of friends, who were easy to deal with, I could never tell them the truth. The truth was that in most cases I was not physically attracted to them; I did not feel any "chemistry;" or as the Brits say, I did not "fancy" them. I was always afraid that if I told the truth their minds would snap and they would become violent. So I made up excuses. When I was very young I tried telling them that I was frigid or a lesbian, but I soon found out that those excuses did not deter them. The only thing that would usually work is to tell them that I belonged to another man. There were times I couldn't do that--for example, I would sometimes accept a date from someone who looked interesting but for whom an attraction did not develop. So I had to figure out strategies to parry any overtures until I got safely home. I don't mean that all men were wolves, but I do mean that I felt I always had to be on guard.

Once in a while I received overtures from women, but that was not the same kind of problem at all. I could simply tell them that I was not attracted to women, and that would generally be accepted with no hard feelings.

I wondered if this problem was a generational thing, so I asked my 30 year old daughter if she and her friends felt safe telling men they were not attracted to them. She said no.

There is a moral in this story having to do with the imbalance of power between women and men. I had a friend once who had a gay male couple living in the apartment upstairs. Sometimes when they would argue they would end up in a fistfight, and I felt almost jealous. I did not want to fight, but I did want the satisfaction of knowing that I would have an equal chance of winning.

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