Are you wearing a bra?

by Lady Day

Hey, Lady!

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.

Your friend,

Lady Day

—————————————————

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.

Sigh.

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2 Comments to “Are you wearing a bra?”

  1. Fucking right I am mad about that last bit, but at the same time I understand. This is the social and cultural context in which women negotiate professional roles in which they ought to be valued for their brains, but remained tied to their breasts. You have EVERY right to be mad at him. We call his behaviour sexaul fucking harrassment and it is illegal for good reasons. As women we should not need to go to work armed with strategies to respond to sexual harrassment. We ought to show up at work prepared to deal with our professional obligations. Thus, you should not beat yourself up for not having a clever response up your sleeve to educate an ignorant (woefully ignorant) undergrad about why he shouldn’t be looking at your breasts and why he can’t comment on them. As for the guilt you experienced about wanting to explain that you are indeed wearing a bra, I think you have just tapped into the ideology of womanhood. A profound ideology that seeps into the unconscious even with those who actively work to resist it and in my experience manifests in guilt (and other emotions). I recently had a student who cheated in one of my classes. I caught him in the act and had rock solid evidence. I followed ALL the appropirate steps and he appealed all the way to the end. Eventually he was found guilty (and admitted his guilt in the final hour) and kicked out of a pre-med program. What is my reaction? Guilt that ‘I’ was responsible for ending his med school dreams. Was I really responsible? Hells no. Evidence again of the ideology of womanhood beating down on me and shaping my reaction based upon the social message about what women ‘ought’ to be. With all this in mind, what do about the AYWAB. Let’s start with a big hug for you because this situation sucks and you should not be dealing with it. But, given that you are I think this student should be reported and a formal notice sent to him. I suspect given his reaction and ‘apology’ that this student will continue to sexually harrass women. To stop him, this message needs to be sent in manner that will get his attention. Action on your part could save other women from being harrassed by him or even sexually assaulted. Imagine him hearing “no, I don’t want to have sex with you.” Him: “that was a joke right?” So, I say get this process rolling.

    As for the Mama Bear issue, you raise a really interesting point. I am reminded of a blog post I read recently by an acadmic in which she explores her decision to be called Dr by her students. Her rational is to remind students of her long list of degrees, that she does indeed have brains (not just breasts) and that they need to treat her with respect (which falls away with more friendly, casual relationships as instilled by the use of the first name). I have always been a proponent of breaking down power differentials between professors and students. However, the blog post, the AYWAB, and other similar events (such as emails that read like “Yo Lady Di. I need an A. What can we do about that?”) make me think it is time to rethink my politics of language.

    On another note, at some point you need to post the blog you were thinking of writing on your way in this morning. As do I – I had some disturbing conversations today about miscarriages and tenure. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

  2. Oh, politics of language is VERY important! OMG, you are Doctors, yes? Or Professors? It doesn’t make it harder to be casual (if you are so inclined) with your students if you insist on your titles being used, it makes it *easier*, because the fence is perfectly clear: Here’s the boundary. I’m here, you’re there.

    I don’t know if it’s necessary to file formal charges in order to educate this particular young man, in this particular instance. This is part of teaching and educating, is it not? Would it perhaps be more useful to clarify it in writing (sent, perhaps, via letter – I don’t trust email so much these days), clarifying what he did, and why it was wrong. Because I promise you, if you just punish him, he won’t Get It. It’s like punishing the cat for throwing up; he doesn’t know he did something wrong, and until he knows, he won’t learn anything. He’ll think you’re being vindictive and punishing him for asking a simple question. He doesn’t even know why you were mad – or if you were, really. He was *genuinely disappointed and puzzled*.

    You have, if you choose, part of your response already: He shouldn’t be looking at your breasts and why he can’t comment on them. He needs to know why you were angry.

    Regardless of what he MEANT:

    “When you are talking electrons, there’s no reason for him to be checking out your 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 you with your
    umpteen degrees, he sends the message that no matter how smart you are or how well educated and
    accomplished you are, he will always be in charge.

    This message is neither acceptable nor true. It is also why he can’t ask that question of ANYBODY. Not even
    as a joke. The message conveyed by the question is not appropriate and not acceptable, and is one which,
    moreover, could land him in considerable legal trouble. That’s an element which bears repeating.”

    He IS comfortable with you, or he couldn’t possibly have asked you that question – unless there was some emergency which immediately required a bra in order to cope with said emergency, only a bra would do, and there was no one else whom he could ask for one, and it was a matter of life and death.

    I don’t think he, or other students, would feel comfortable with their male professors in the same way. Legally he may be an adult, but he – and the other undergraduates – are still separating from their parents, of whom they are most likely to have dealt most extensively with their mothers (hence “Mama Bear”). It’s not insulting – but it IS part of the educational process.

    In its way, although you were furious (and had every right to be), his asking that question was as much a sign of his trust in you as anything else. But he needs to be educated, quickly, regarding the inappropriateness of the question – not just that it was inappropriate, but why.

    My advice (free, and worth every penny!) would be that none of your undergraduates call you by your first name, if they have been, not even if you have relatives attending. If you are a genuine Free Soul, and prefer to be called by your first name, I would suggest compromising by being called Dr. Day, or Professor Di (as appropriate). At school, off school, at weddings and funerals (the relatives can go back to your usual name and title under these circumstances, of course). Once they have their own doctorates, if you choose to invite them to “Call me Day!” “Call me Di!”, then they’ve earned the invitation. But you are not their buddies, nor their Moms, nor Aunties. Not even teachers whom they liked a lot in their progressive high schools, and called by their first names. I would urge Professor Lastname, or Doctor Lastname, as appropriate. For short, they can call you “Professor” or “Doctor”.

    I’d send the young man the letter or email along the above lines, with at least the above information, pretty much as you laid it out, because it is very clear and easily understood. And I’d suggest following up with a meeting in your office in private the next day to make sure he understood, and so that if he had any questions, he could ask them.

    This is the last part of their real education. If he’d asked the same question of a contemporary, she might have been just as angry, but not able to explain it. If you are Mama Bear to your students, you’ve earned their trust. College is pretty much the last safe place for them to learn appropriate behaviour, and the “whys” of it, before they’re turned loose upon the world. Here’s his chance to actually learn how to go through life treating women as human beings.

    The bra as teaching tool!

    Good luck with whatever you do!

    Respectfully,

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