The Personal is Political: What I’ve Learned from a Lifetime of Rejecting

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas, 170 × 119 cm.

Courtesy of the Luti Collection, Schloss Weißenstein.

When I was in tenth grade, a male friend of mine told me he would kill himself after I said I wouldn’t go out with him. The next day, he confronted me in the hallway and told me I was, among other things, a terrible person, a tease, and a slut. Later that year, a senior who I was too shy to talk to approached me and told me he really liked me and wanted to go out. He tried to kiss me at my locker, in front of a teacher, and I pulled away. Later he told his friends that I wouldn’t have sex with him and that I was obsessed with playing hard to get; that I loved the attention. Of course, this was news to me—I’d had a crush on him and was baffled when he stopped talking to me after the attempted public kiss. Later I learned that the two of them—I’m-going-to-kill-myself guy and kamikaze-kiss-guy—circulated a list detailing which sexual positions would best take advantage of my body—which, as was noted in the list, “would be really great if she lost 5 pounds.” There were other incidents that year, and many more throughout high school.

By the time I got to college, I was so used to deflecting male attention that even when I wanted to date, I inevitably decided that it was better to just say no. My experience up until then had taught me something very important: when I rejected a guy, I would deal with their anger, then deal with my own overwhelming feelings of guilt. My guilt over saying “no” was never something that I questioned; it was, after all, my fault for making these perfectly nice guys feel bad. And maybe that’s an important note: absolutely none of the guys who reacted violently toward me were macho studs. They were almost all seemingly nice, nerdy boys who I had thought were my friends. They were boys who were told all their lives to “be persistent!” They were taught that if they tried hard enough, they would “get the girl.”

Needless to say, it took me a long time to date anyone seriously. It wasn’t until I graduated from college, free of a campus community who knew the details of my personal life, that I felt comfortable enough to have a boyfriend. And oh, how wonderful that post-college time was! I avoided hurting men’s feelings or getting yelled at by lying about having a boyfriend and giving out fake phone numbers in bars. This, as so many women have learned, works like a charm: tell a man you have a boyfriend, and he’ll go away. You might get another comment or two, but he’ll rarely turn on you or refuse to leave you alone. To many women, this isn’t news, this is just how we get by.

In April, after 16-year-old Maren Sanchez was killed by a boy for declining to be his prom date, Margret Atwood’s words about male violence started circulating through social media: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” I’ve spent most of my life worried, guilty, and intimidated by the potential reactions of men I wasn’t interested in dating—perfectly nice, terrifyingly entitled men who could never quite understand how I could stand to be without them. Then last weekend, when Elliot Roger’s killings and manifesto unleashed a flood of fury and grief from women across the country, the miraculous Twitter movement #YesAllWomen was born. Before #YesAllWomen, I never once realized that my experiences were disturbing, damaging, and unacceptable. It was the first time I recognized that my stories, which I had for so long brushed aside, were part of a larger narrative of history and culture. #YesAllWomen demands that men be held accountable for what they do and say, and empowers women to act in solidarity and with less fear. I say “less fear” because it is still scary to share these very personal stories, even as other women come forward with their own. But without #YesAllWomen, I would never have had the courage to write this post.

I hate that I find such relief in giving men fake phone numbers. I hate that I walk around with pepper spray attached to my keychain. I especially hate that no one—not the media, not a teacher, not a friend—has ever told me that these experiences should not be normal, or that I am not to blame for a man’s embarrassment after “putting himself out there.” #YesAllWomen is starting important conversations by sharing women’s stories. Now what matters most is keeping this issue at the fore and continuing to recognize it as important and worthwhile.  How can we keep these conversations alive after they leave the headlines? How can our stories make change? Real change? I’ll leave you with a quote by civic leader Esther Leah Ritz (1918-2003), whose advice to stay “active and angry” is relevant today more than ever:

I am convinced that if injustice is the product of humankind, so are justice and compassion, and that they can be mobilized as change agents. . . . All any of us can hope for is that the bit we do, combined with the efforts of many, many others, can add up to solutions that go to the root. To that end, I pledge myself to continue active and angry; and I urge upon all of you, the divine discontent—the rage, if you will, that will produce a better world.
Topics: Feminism
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I just read this, thanks for sharing your experiences. I think people our age are just starting to realize how unacceptable it is that American women and girls have to deal so much with the entitlement that men and boys have. This article - people sharing their experiences - is very important to bringing this issue fully to light. I hope this post inspires others to share their struggles, and helps to hasten the cultural shift we are just beginning to see.

I'm in my 60s and I just have absorbed so much guilt about not being "pleasing" enough. Thank you for helping me sort it all out and see the nonsense for what it is.

Wow, and here I thought being in the US I'm safe from coward males attacking me; growing up in Iran in the 60s I hated walking in the street because invariably I'd get pinched either on my breasts or my butt. In fact one time I was in tears and my mom chased the idiot who got such pleasure out of idle harassment of women

Thank you for writing this and adding to this critical conversation. Would you consider adding it the tumblr http://whenwomenrefuse.tumblr.... It was started by my friend Deanna Zandt.

In reply to by barbaraglickstein

She's on Facebook, Twitter etc. You can email her at (feel free to use my name in subject line)

Thank you very much for writing this. It is both personal and explains very well the power of this social media moment, which is real-world strong. Something has changed.

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Anonymous. "The Personal is Political: What I’ve Learned from a Lifetime of Rejecting ." 29 May 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 22, 2024) <>.