The Most Difficult Word in the World

by Rebekah Frank

When I was a little girl, I was an asshole. I was headstrong and opinionated and completely unreasonable. I wasn’t spoiled but I knew what I wanted and, by extension, what I didn’t want. I wanted to watch Inspector Gadget (which happened to come on during dinner time – TV during dinner was a huge no-no growing up), I wanted to play with my friends at all times and I didn’t want to wear a dress or tights to temple on Saturday mornings. In fact, I didn’t want to wear anything to temple on Saturday mornings because I didn’t want to go to temple on Saturday mornings. Ever. Temple was boring and tights were itchy and besides, most of the service was in Hebrew and I had no idea what was going on. But since my parents were mean and horrible (not at all true) and would force me to go to temple (entirely true), I would make it a point to excuse myself to the bathroom but would instead head to the “wall of death,” as I thought of it, and count the number of Fannys memorialized there. If I remember correctly, there were 7 Fannys on that wall which always seemed to me like an awful number of women to be named for a part of the body that was the butt of all my jokes back then,* pun 100% intended. But I digress. Since I was a girl who knew what she did and did not want, I figured out quite clearly how to best communicate that to the people around me, namely, my parents. I would get overly excited and do handstands when I wanted to do something or I would utter the word which at that time seemed so easy: no (and then I would go hide under a table for emphasis).


It’s crazy to say but those were the good old days. The days before I became overly susceptible to cultural and societal norms. The days before I understood that, as a woman, my value necessarily went down every time those two letters –  N O – escaped my lips. Those days before I realized that sometimes, and especially when it comes to dealings with the opposite sex, it is easier to acquiesce than to fight. I wish I could say that I could count for you on one hand the number of times I made out with a dude, let him touch my breasts, allowed his finger inside me or had sex when I didn’t want to because it simply seemed easier, safer even, than speaking my mind. It would take more hands than I care to admit to myself to count all those experiences and, truth be told, I’m sure I would forget a few. The girl who said no so much as a child grew into one who in certain circumstances didn’t say anything at all.


If I could I would draw you a neat little map; a map that would demonstrate for you all the experiences that brought me from point A to Point B to Point C, which is a where I live now. Point C is somewhere in between the incredibly outspoken tendencies I had during my youth and the fear of disapproval that I developed in my late teens and held on to for over a decade. I can’t draw you that map because there are just too many stops and diversions along the way, too many things that I would miss in the process. Things like the children’s books that reinforce social norms; the catcalls that make me feel less than human; the never-ending string of legislation that takes reproductive rights out of women’s hands; the men who have groped me on the street and jerked off to me while on trains; the sheer number of rape kits untested, rapists unjailed and rape victims made out to be the perpetrators; and the fact that I have to keep asking the same dudes over and over to please wear a condom and, truth be told, eventually I just get tired and stop asking. Sometimes this world, this fight, just wears me down and the only thing I can do is keep quiet and cry about it alone in my room because my inability to say no, my inability to be strong all the time, is a source of intense shame. I should be better than this by now.


The thing is though that rejecting social norms, rejecting the foundation of the society in which we were brought up, is something we cannot each do alone. I cannot one day wake up and decide that I am equal and then expect the entire world to fall in line with that. Things like the laughable sentencing of Brock Turner, the condescension directed at April Ryan and most notably the election of Donald Trump reminds me and other women daily that we are not deserving of the same level of respect as our male peers. And after a lifetime of being reminded, it can be challenging to muster enough self-respect to balance the scales. But I think maybe that the first step to getting there is to take back that word that at one point seemed so easy. Let’s start saying no again. No to the catcallers; no to the men who pressure us, oh so gently, into doing something we don’t want; no to this bullshit sham of an administration; no to the sexist school dress codes; no to the victim blaming. I mean, we’ve got to start somewhere, right? And to me, no seems as good a place as any.


*This has not changed. Butts are still funny.




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