Naming Names

I am sick of protecting people.

Midway through my college freshman year, I interviewed an Important Man for the school paper. He was a big donor, a tycoon, one of those money-coming-from-his-pores men whom universities dub “generous benefactors,” “pillars of the institution,” or, simply, “Christ Himself.”

He was brusque at the beginning (light-filled restaurant; silverware tinkling off glass) but soon loosened up.

At the end of the interview, after I turned off the recorder on my hot pink laptop, he asked me about myself.

“It’s freshman formal tonight,” I told him.

“Do you have a date?”

“No,” I said, turning, at least internally, red. New boyfriend, the blush of fresh sex. “Dances aren’t really our thing.”

“Any girl whose bra matches her laptop deserves to have a date to freshman formal,” the Important Man said, looking at the hot pink bra pressing through my white sweater. My breasts.   

Then: “Don’t print that. My daughter goes to school here.”

I didn’t print it.

At the time, I didn’t think much of the comment. It was the kind of thing I had learned to expect. In those days, I was let loose like a slingshot, newly free of my small, conservative town. Eighteen, I’d spent fall semester wearing red lipstick and heels to class; crying hysterically in the spare corners of full weekends; and giving merciless freshmen men blow jobs. I thus filed away the comment in the folder labelled “shit men do to me,” where it became an anecdote, scandalous. The man who kissed me on the street in New York and wouldn’t let me go, haha. The fancy donor who told me, teehee, that I deserved a formal date because my bra matched my laptop.

Then I let it rest.

I didn’t revive it until three years later, when my rage had condensed into something solid, unrelenting. By then, I had become obsessed with cataloguing the connections of money, misogyny, and power that made the institution run. I understood the comment clearly: An abuse. One small anecdote that summed up the entire big, frightening way the system worked. I found the interview in the depths of my still-pink laptop, and I listened back.

In the recording, I speak with a sweet, light voice, feminine and persuasive. I giggle. I rib him. I am young and unsure, and he is big and scary. So I use the only tool I have been taught I have — flirtation. The recording cuts off before he mentions my undergarments. 

Which is the parable of the situation: That it was only the moment after I stopped recording that he said what he said. How he must have known it, how I must have even said it, that I was weaponless. Even here, years later, without the lifeboat of that recording, I can’t write his name.

Women are nothing without evidence.

The powerful demand the protection of the powerless. They coerce this protection with ideology, with threats, with structural, physical, and spiritual violence. When oppressed people realize the immense power we have to refuse a situation we never consented to in the first place — to organize, to act in solidarity with each other, to protest — we can change the world.  

We’ve seen it recently, from movements against sexual violence to Black Lives Matter protests — the  willingness to name names.

Even the now-decade-long project that is the feminist internet — isn’t the work we do, after all, the willingness to name names? The willingness to say patriarchy, to say racism, the willingness to say rape? Isn’t the magic of what we do in our recognition that there is no recording that will make them listen to us, no bruise and no video of death, no record of a voice, that the system is structured so that we are left without proof, so ultimately we need no more, no better evidence than ourselves?

Certain acts of violence are a pact coerced by the aggressor. I will do this to you and you will shut up about it. The manufacture of consent. The sacred duty of people of color to protect white people, of women to protect men. The sacred duty of the poor to protect the rich. We are forced to sign this bargain. We sign it out of self-protection.

There are people I protect.

There are people, like that Big Important Man, whom I protect from fear, from lack of evidence, from being backed into a corner by their bigness. There are people whom I protect because it is a small thing, really, my fuss, because I have come out unscathed, and wouldn’t I be disruptive to raise it, wouldn’t I slander them, wouldn’t I (not their actions; certainly not their actions) ruin a life?

There are those whom I protect, or try to protect, through a sense of deep love.

That is okay, too — to protect out of love for those who have harmed us. That is not because we are weak, that is because the world is brutal. Brutal to us. Brutal to those who hurt us, if those who hurt us are also oppressed. It’s okay to not do so, too — to refuse the love-script. That’s where the unfair accusation comes from, the unfair guilt — if you speak up against another marginalized person; Why would you do that to them? Why would you subject your community to that?

Because justice is scarce: When you seek it against the Big Important People it flits from your grasp, delicate as a butterfly, yet crashes down — a hammer, an atomic bomb — on a trans woman using the bathroom, on a black woman with a parking ticket.

What if we had structures of real and sustainable justice? Both for the humanity of the victim and the perpetrator. What if we had culture shift; comprehensive, radical change in the way we think about, treat, exist as marginalized people; eradication of white supremacy; eradication of poverty; eradication of rape. What if there were a way for every harasser and assailant to come genuinely into the wholeness of human community; what if those who committed violence because they have been crushed under society’s heel were given not jail but food, therapy, jobs.

I am sick of protecting people. And by that I mean, I am sick of a world that runs on the smothered compassion of the hurt.

Dear Big Donor, you did not know it, but you only sat there making me feel small and female because of my mercy, because I did not publish it, because you had my protection, because I expected more from the world than your bullshit, because my hopeful body was abundant with largesse. Dear Big Men, Rich Men, Men with the World in your Bank Accounts, you may think of yourselves as the donors, but you only continue to rule the world because you are in our debt.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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