Optional

*Harassment *Misogyny 

I pull my shirt off over my head, arms high, underarm hair on full display. Next comes my sports bra, the tight elastic smashing my breasts then releasing them. I unbuckle my shorts and they fall easily. I wonder if I look self-conscious. Then I change my question: I wonder if I am self-conscious? I turn around and smile at the dozen or so people already in the soaking tubs. I see two bikinis, a pair of swim trunks, and other than that all skin. A few pleasant smiles in return but honestly, most people don’t seem aware of me. My near-nakedness feels irrelevant– even to me. I am not self-conscious. I am powerful and safe.

I choose a tub and slip in, T settling beside me. I love that I know he is proud of me, loves my power and comfort in my own (exposed) skin. I love that I am safe with him– but not because of him. I want him beside me enjoying our evening, but I don’t need him to defend me or my right to opt out of clothing in this consensual space.

Last week I came to rest on a phrase that so encapsulated my footing on the complex relationship between sex positivity/ body positivity and push back against harassment. It has been echoing in my head and smoothing away the last barbs that have been keeping me from relaxing into my own beauty:

You can find me attractive without making me feel unsafe.

Chatting comfortably with my fellow hot tub occupants, I lift myself half out of the water, elbows resting on the ledge behind me. Having lived in this body for a while now, I know this presents my breasts. You know what else it does? It helps regulate my temperature and allows my arms to support me, giving my thighs a break. It also exactly mirrors the posture of the two other men in the tub. I am mid-sentence when I rise from the water and I see their eyes follow… my eyes. With conversational ease they continue our chat, looking at me, each other, the sea and sky.  It is natural, safe and lovely. Of course they see my body, and I see theirs. Maybe my breasts enhance the view for them, but then, the moon enhances my view. Beauty is nice. We are all happy.

“All you fuckin’ hippies and your nakedness! I’m not used to all these naked bodies!” In the tub next to ours a loud, disheveled man holds court. He stands squarely in the center of the pool, hands on hips, penis on display, somehow violating everyone’s personal space simultaneously. He’s been there for nearly an hour, his abrasive voice never quite fading into background noise as he lectured a young couple about their relational fate. She’s planning to break his heart, this random man confidently warns the boyfriend. She should appreciate what she’s got, some day she’ll realize. He should be careful. He should watch his back… The young couple has given up attempting to respond and has long maintained the frozen polite smiles of those trapped but needing to earn their Good Human badges by never disengaging or seeming uncomfortable around the apparently less privileged. With this abrupt shift of topic they try again to make this a conversation.

“Oh, is it your first time here?”

He doesn’t bother to answer as his gaze locks on a naked woman emerging from the shower and entering their tub. “You are fuckin’ beautiful.”

She chuckles uncomfortably. “Thank you.”

WHY do we thank people for uninvited editorial comments? Why do we humor the absolutely inappropriate? WHY does he get to continue unchecked, while the rest of us pretend we aren’t miserable? No. We don’t have to be polite. No. NO.

I meet eyes with a woman in my tub– she looks ready to vomit. She covers herself with her arms and pulls her knees up to her chest.

NO. He cannot have our safety. This space is not his. She doesn’t have to disappear so he can remain large. NO. 

“Excuse me,” I abruptly interrupt my conversation and hoist myself all the way out of the water. I walk directly to the loud man, who has not slowed down.

“All these fuckin’ naked women! I just can’t even–”

“HEY.”

He looks at me and I realize for the first time that I am naked. I am confronting a bully in my panties. Standing on the side of the tub I am towering over him, and he is seeing my face through the curves of my breasts. And I don’t care. My nipples do not make me vulnerable.

“Hey,” I say again. “One of the courtesies of places like this is that we do not comment on each others’ bodies. We do not talk about nakedness or stare at each other. It makes us feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”

“Oh, it was just a compliment.

“This is not a place for comments on other peoples’ bodies.”

“Fine, I won’t compliment a beautiful woman,” as if it’s our loss.

“Don’t. It makes everyone feel unsafe.”

I slip back in beside T and he squeezes my shoulder. I’m shaking, but taking deep breaths and begin to thaw. The other woman mouths thank you and we cringe together. “I’m tense in a hot tub,” she whispers.

Clothing is optional, harassment is not.
This is not his space.
I don’t have to be polite.
I don’t have to hide my body.
I don’t have to leave.

I am powerful.

I curate my own safety.

Purity Pt. 1

*This story is not implying nor leading up to any instance of molestation. I was not touched. Any damage done was as described overtly in these snippets. 

“Daddy, why can we wear shorts that are above the knee, but skirts have to be to the knee?”

It was a day away with Dad, a long drive in a big white van to deliver or collect something work related. Details didn’t matter, and my sense of direction was so lacking I didn’t even bother with what state we were in. Road trips were fun. Dad was silly, he liked his music loud, and we always drove with the windows down, wind making rats’ nests of my hair. The Midwest is a breathtaking place for road trips.

“Does it make you uncomfortable to wear shorts?”

“No, I just thought that if seeing my knees in skirts was bothersome, why is it okay in shorts? Wouldn’t it be the same?”

I think my parents’ philosophy was that if I was old enough to wonder I was old enough to know. Mom was always more reticent and subtle, but Dad was all about answers. Thorough answers.

Forty-five minutes later we pulled into a gas station and for a moment we sat parked next to the pump while he finished his response. “In the end it’s just because that’s the way a man’s brain works. He’s always going to start at the hem and follow it as far as he can. He’s going to wonder what’s underneath. Skirts have a different effect then shorts. It just is. But if you don’t want to wear shorts you don’t have to.”

I shook my head vehemently. In no way did I want to lose my favorite shorts. I was absolutely not asking for more modesty in my life. I may have even been hoping the hem length rule would be lifted once the silliness of it was pointed out. I hadn’t quite learned that a rule challenged due to inconsistency was a rule tightened. Dad was one for tidying up hypocrisy in those earlier years.

“I’m not uncomfortable, I just wondered.”

Dad climbed out of the van and pumped the gas, then disappeared into the station to pay. I sat in the tall, tall passenger bucket seat, pointed toes not touching the floor. I thought of what he’d told me. Forty-five minutes covers a lot of ground. I kept wanting to say “I don’t want to know all of this.” I even practiced the phrase “I’m not ready to know this,” but I hadn’t quite articulated it. I felt so grown up being trusted with such details. I also felt stupid for not realizing that my question would ruin our day. The answer was too long. Too full. I replayed what I’d been told.

I thought of breasts and cleavage and my own tiny little nubs. I thought of hemlines and thighs and men’s eyes. I thought of curiosity and “lust.” I thought of farm animals mounting each other and that’s where babies come from for people too. I thought of all the men I knew at church and wondered what they thought when they looked at skirts and shirts and breasts. I looked out the window, across the parking lot– a man leaning on a wall was looking our way. I crossed my arms over my chest and sunk lower in my seat.

I was 7 and my body was no longer safe.

**************************

“Let’s go for a drive.” On a typical day that would be ominous, as Dad sought company mostly in his darkest moods these days. But I knew what this was about: purity ring time. I was 13.

The car pulled onto the rocky river beach a mile from home. This was our favorite family go-to for swimming, picnics, a break from home and farm and work. It was a sweet setting, I thought, but I also thought all the ceremony was silly since I’d known this was coming for the last 5 years, since Saturn had turned 13.

“Do you know why we’re here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Um… my ring?” I flushed. Had I misread? What if I was actually in trouble after all? Dad laughed a little. He enjoyed these set ups. He enjoyed the look of worry that he could then dispel by not being harsh. “Yes, your ring. Do you have any questions you’d like to ask me about sex, or anything related?” This time I laughed. “I’m pretty sure I’ve asked everything I know to ask at this point.” My mind returned to the exhaustive lectures I’d received on my body and men’s lust. I wasn’t about to ask him any more questions. I saved those for Saturn, who knew how much information I actually needed.

“Alright. Do you want to promise to save yourself for your husband? To wait until you’re married?” I tried not to look at him like he was crazy. “Of course,”  I said with a quirked brow. What did he take me for?

The ring caught on my awkward, bony knuckle, then slid into place on my left ring finger. It felt funny against my skin.

*****************************************

I roll over and rest my hand against his chest. I love the color of my skin against his dark chest hair, my slim fingers against his broad frame. The gold ring on my left ring finger shines an inorganic contrast in the moment. I look at it quietly. Should I take it off? We didn’t have sex, by any means, but… No, I decide. I love what we’ve done together. I love the choices I’ve made. And I love my ring. I don’t feel impure. I feel more beautiful. I feel amazing. I touch myself– my breasts, my hip, then his chest again. He opens his eyes and looks at me. 

“Hello.”

“Hello back.” 

This is pure. This is beautiful. This is exactly where I want to be.