Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I worked as a mover for a few summers. At the time a pretty huge computer company was downsizing, and I spent most of my days moving equipment and boxes from abandoned offices into new, smaller offices. 

The people I worked with seemed pretty OK. There were a few fathers and sons, the younger guys would sometimes fly off the handle, but mostly everyone just wanted to do their jobs, go home, and get drunk, usually in that order. I saw a few explosions of violence around perceived pecking order that shocked me, but they were rare and the older guys usually kept it in line with merciless teasing of both parties for about a week after any incident.

Then we spent some time moving things around in an actually-occupied office building. I wasn't at all surprised when talk turned to loud, frank and obscene evaluations of the fuckability of any given woman who strayed into the sight of the movers. This happened, I knew, especially when a group of poorly-paid and disempowered male laborers comes into contact with comparably wealthy, white collar women, many of whom are giving them orders. It's about power and asserting dominance and so on and while it made me uncomfortable and there's plenty to address there, this isn't really about that.

This is about the day the sex talk became violent sex talk. I think what set it off was that a cocksure young mover got rebuffed by a secretary that he thought was "in his league", but I was never altogether certain. Because all I heard the rest of that day from the young guys were a bunch of horrific, cannibalistic rape fantasies. Serial-killer-level descriptions of what they said they wished they could do to the bodies of the women in the building, laughing about how they would violate their corpses, graphic depictions of how they'd team up to dismember and behead and fuck. This was pre-internet for me (Mosaic was the state-of-the-art browser), so maybe I'd have been less shocked if I'd grown up in an era where that kind of imagery was just considered online bravado.

I was shaken to my core. I'd thought of these guys as basically decent, and I kept running over the things I'd heard them say in my head. Maybe I was just sheltered, and this was just a breed of intentionally shocking humor I was unfamiliar with. Maybe this was a class issue and I didn't understand the kind of steam that you had to let off in a job like that. Maybe my humorlessness about fantasy sexual violence was a result of a puritanical upbringing. Maybe I should be embarrassed that I was so disturbed. I derided myself for being so easily shocked, I tried to take the perspective that it was silly to worry about this when people were really dying and raping and butchering elsewhere in America, not to mention the third world.

But really, if I was honest, what it felt like (what it still feels like) was that my previous fellow-feeling was an illusion. That these guys actually really hated women, viewed them as less than human, saw a day of loudly describing the graphic rapes and deaths and of every woman in the building as an appropriate reaction to a single "no," as something that was funny rather than abhorrent. Nothing I could muster could mask that simple fact; whatever else these guys were, wherever else they came from, whatever blind spots might have arisen from whatever cultures or subcultures they were raised in, whoever might have just been going along with it to fit in, every one was willing to openly and jovially express and elaborate on the fantasy that they could physically reduce a woman to her lifeless body parts and thus derive sexual gratification.

I spent the rest of the summer requesting assignments with the old guys. I didn't go back the next summer. I unsuccessfully tried to write about the sudden alienation I felt; the sense that suddenly I found myself among cackling sociopaths.

I've had echoes of that schism manifest themselves many times since, in casual bigotry or misogyny in conversation, online, the threats I see people receive when they speak out on women's issues or gay issues or race issues.

Today a game company pulled a PR stunt where they offered a figurine of a sexualized armless, legless, headless corpse as a collector's item bonus. Repulsive. And most of the predictable contrarian reactions to people's outrage were grotesque-but-boring semantic games or "maybe it's YOU who are inappropriate" kind of crap. But the ones who mustered that chill of alienation for me were the ones who started in with reactions like "sex sells," who immediately and fully recognized the violence, dehumanization, and sexualization in the figurine as of a piece with one another, and didn't see it as problematic. "That's society," they shrugged, and I find that reaction horrifying.

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