So, as I biked in this morning, I was composing in my head the post that I planned to write today. It concerned a criminal harassment case in which I was recently involved (as the complainant), and some of the lingering effects on me of that experience. But that post will have to wait because something crazy just happened.
As I walked down the hallway outside my office, I bumped into a (male) undergraduate student whom I’ve taught twice before, who is not currently in any of my classes. We began chatting about stuff and the conversation turned to evidence, especially types of evidence besides seeing something with one’s own eyes. I was in the middle of uttering a sentence about electrons when the student interrupted to ask, “Wait a second. Are you wearing a bra?” I was utterly astonished. (Well, strictly speaking, I was utterly fucking astonished.) All I could think to do was to say “That’s an inappropriate question.” His response: “But it looks like you’re not wearing a bra.” Me again: “That’s an inappropriate question.” (Ok. I grant that his response was a comment, not a question, but cut me some slack here. I was kind of stunned by the whole exchange.) He said “Ok.” I turned on my heel and walked away, went into my nearby office and closed the door.
Two weird things about this (apart from the obvious weirdness of a student asking his professor this question, and moreover, interrupting an academic discussion to do so):
1. Part of me really wanted to tell him that I was (am) wearing a bra because I didn’t want him to think that I was the kind of woman who would come to work without one. (WTF, right?)
2. After I walked away, I felt guilty about embarrassing him and almost turned back to tell him that I wasn’t mad at him.
But I was mad at him.
And I was mad at myself. Why? Well, for starters, for feeling so strongly the urge to tell him that I was wearing a bra, but also for thinking even for a second that it makes any goddamned difference whether a woman wears a bra to work or not. And for not having a better strategy for dealing with the situation.
And mostly for failing to elaborate to the student what exactly was so inappropriate about the question — for failing to make clear to him that when I’m talking electrons, there’s no reason for him to be checking out my breasts. That even though it’s just a biological fact that human beings see and think about each other’s secondary sex traits, those whose relationship is professional must not reveal to each other that they’re having these thoughts. That, in particular, when a man draws attention to a woman’s secondary sex traits in a workplace setting — while she’s fucking talking! — he is, intentionally or not, conveying the message that her body is more important and interesting than her brain. And that when he, as an undergraduate student does this to me with my umpteen degrees, he sends the message that no matter how smart I am or how well educated and accomplished I am, he will always be in charge.
And, he probably didn’t mean any of that. But, after centuries of women being reduced to boobs rather than brains, I’m afraid that what men actually do and say matters a whole hell of a lot more than what they mean to do and say.
So, now I have to figure out what to do. Is it possible that the student has some kind of diagnosable condition that could explain such behaviour? Would it matter if he did? I informally told my department chair over lunch. Should I make it more formal? Should I email the student and elaborate why what he did was wrong?
Sigh. Yet another day sidelined by an asshat (to quote our heros Margaret and Helen) dude and his views on how and where women should be.
Later the same day:
The student came by to apologize to me. I was meeting with another student at the time and couldn’t speak to are-you-wearing-a-bra guy. So, I said, “I’m afraid that I don’t have time to talk to you right now. I’m in a meeting.” He said: “It’s ok. It’s quick. I just wanted to say I’m sorry I offended you.” I excused myself to the student with whom I was meeting and stepped into the hallway to speak with AYWAB guy. I asked him whether he was sorry that I was offended or sorry that he did something wrong. “You know it was wrong, right?” Him: “I could tell you were mad. And, I thought, ‘Oh no, I made Mama Bear mad.'”
Just in case the Mama Bear business sounds crazy — which I guess it fucking does, but… — I actually think this student is very fond of me and feels very comfortable with me and that both the offensive question and the Mama Bear remark are outgrowths of this. Granted, this raises a whack of other issues: Are students for some reason or another more comfortable with female than male faculty? Because we’re not so scary maybe? Because we lack scholarly gravitas maybe? And, are they as inclined to think of male professors as papas as they are female professors as mamas? Gaaahhh!
Anyway, I said, “I was mad because you shouldn’t have done it.” I started explaining to him what was wrong with the question, and he kept saying he was “just joking.” I explained why it’s an inappropriate joke — why people whose relationship is professional rather than personal ought not to joke around in a way that sexualizes each other. He apologized again. “And you won’t do it again?” I queried. He said he wouldn’t do it to me again. “Or to anybody?” I pressed him, “You get that you ought not to ask anybody questions like that?” “Not even as a joke?” he asked, looking genuinely disappointed and puzzled. (Aaarrgghh!) “I don’t have time for this,” I said, “I’m in a meeting. Thank you for apologizing. It was brave of you.”
Ok, Lady Di. I’m sure you disapprove of that last bit. Thanking him for a half-assed apology that doesn’t reflect real remorse, and I kind of disapprove of it too. But I thought it was brave of him, and I was glad that he made any effort at all. (See how we learn to scrape for crumbs after a while?)
I don’t know what will come of any of this. I have an appointment (made before AYWAB guy came to my office to apologize) to discuss the matter with my chair. And I have the nagging worry that AYWAB and I only had half the conversation we should have had, but I don’t really want to have to resume it.