“I feel like a lot of the Corrections Officers go above and beyond their duty to make your life miserable,” my brother says on one of our weekend phone calls. He’s feeling especially annoyed today, trying his best to stay positive during a weeks-long lockdown. Wildfires rage across the West. Bad air quality makes it dangerous to spend too much time outside, and prisons are shuffling their populations to areas of the state that are less actively burning. Women usually incarcerated at Coffee Creek moved into another part of my brother's home facility last week, and there are extra restrictions on movement to prevent mixing. The men are allowed an hour and a half of yard time every day, but the rest of the time they spend in a large, communal dorm room filled with bunks and dozens of guys hanging around, shooting the shit.
“They don’t just do their job description,” he says about the COs. In the background, I can hear the din of the guys waiting behind him in line and the rest, behind them, hanging around the dorm. There is a constant murmur of conversation, the sounds of shuffling sneakers, the rustle of bodies in motion. At his current residence, Columbia River Correctional Institution, the unit’s 80 guys share three phones and four shower stalls. Sometimes my brother waits an hour and a half to make a phone call.
“They go out of their way to nitpick little things that really have no threat to the safety and security of the facility, or to them personally, even,” he continues.
I am always shocked at his careful and formal vocabulary. He said the COs’ small methods of torture “have no threat the safety and security of the facility.” He says that twice, “the safety and security of the facility,” and it makes me want to protect him by correcting his language. Correcting. You are someone who is wrong at your core, so we are sending you away to be corrected. It is sometimes painful to peel words back, to reveal the cruelty that lurks at their centers.
I want to correct him. I want to say “Don’t say things like that when you get out of prison. You’ll sound institutionalized.” I know the tells from working with so-called youth offenders. Some things the kids said revealed their intimacy with convoluted legal systems and bureaucratic processes. They’d have a mouth full of slang and then say something like “reintegrate into the community,” and I’d want to wash their mouths out with soap. Nobody says facility out here. Nobody says rehabilitation. Instead people say place or building. They say rehab. They say get better. Certain words betray us to our listeners.
In the last aisle of my local discount store, I searched for an item that would help me across the threshold of the $10 minimum required to use a debit card. I looked for something useful and durable, something I actually needed, not wanting to add anything to the mountains of trash already piled on the streets. Passing the lint rollers and belts, I stopped in front of the men’s underclothes and stared. I looked at the packs of A-shirts, commonly known as wife beaters. A red arrow pointing to a hole in the plastic packaging invited me to feel the softness of the fabric. I picked up a pack and stuck my finger in the hole. The shirts were soft. The shirts were three for $5.99. Having just returned from a run around the neighborhood, I knew I really did need some more shirts to work out in. I flipped the package over and scooted closer to the edge of the aisle so I could take my time agonizing over the shirts.
I read the measurements on the back and imagined how tight they would be stretched across my body, the way the cotton ribs would flatten on my tits and crinkle back up at my waist. Usually I wear loose-fitting workout clothes so as not to direct too much attention to my figure. This is ironic because while I do work out to be healthy, I mostly do it because I am vain. I want a body that people crave, a body like buttery pound cake, a body with parts off of which you’d like to bounce a quarter. I want to look good and feel like a firecracker in my plaid pants, my red heeled boots, my silk shirts, even the Raider’s tee and socks I wear around the house at night. But while looking good is its own reward, it is not without its consequences.
I remembered how just an hour before, while I was out jogging, a man turned toward me, assumed a wide stance, and lifted his fingers to his mouth, the index and middle finger separating into a perfect V. His young son, directly in front of him, pushed a skateboard back and forth with his left foot, looking up at his dad for the signal to cross the street. The man locked eyes with me and, for a full three seconds, stuck his tongue out and licked the air. That is, he mimed licking my pussy. I was wearing a nearly knee-length pair of bike shorts, a baggy cut-off Misfits tee shirt, and sneakers. My face was an unflattering red and my hair was wet with sweat and rain. I had done my best to look average. I grimaced at the man. I made a face like, “Are you serious?” but said nothing. His son looked down at his skateboard.
According to a 2018 online survey by a nonprofit group called Stop Street Harassment, 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime. It's fair to say that most women are used to this type of treatment in public and private spaces, and we monitor and censor ourselves to various degrees hoping to minimize the chances of harassment. Sometimes, for instance while jogging around the neighborhood, we throw on baggy gear, eschew makeup, and avoid eye contact. Other times we are feeling ourselves, feeling like a ripe peach, citizens of our bodies and wanting to peel out into the street in some kind of loud glory. We might as well do the latter all the time because it seems that women can actually do little to avoid this harassment. It’s unlikely that any face paint, hair-do, or carefully selected ensemble can so much as incite a nose bleed in a fight against the pernicious narrative that women are for using, grabbing, cawing at, sexing, ogling, and slaking male thirst for lust and attention.
Sometimes I like to think that by covering my body, I can prevent my own objectification. But really, I know that moves like cat-calling and the cunnilingus gesture don’t actually have much to do with how attractive the caller finds his target. It’s more about power. It’s more about masculine power and the way it has grown and atrophied over time to mean carelessness, entitlement, and catch-as-catch-can sexuality. Could the man have caught me if he gave chase? What did I catch from looking into his eyes while he licked the idea of my lips like a steak dinner?
This is my dinner, motherfucker, I thought. Get your salivating snout out of it.
But do I really believe all that? Are men really that horny, dogged, and drunk on masculine power? I actually don’t think so. Most men probably feel as trapped as women do by the game, by having to act out some psycho script of that prototypical hyper-sexed Vin Diesel ding dong. I mean, what was the guy who gave me the cunnilingus gesture really thinking? I doubt he expected anything but what he got. Interesting, too, is the fact that of the men participating in the above survey, 34% had been verbally harassed and almost a quarter had been sexually harassed online. There seems to be no easy way to get us humans to play nicer with each other, not without some kind of revolution.
So I put the wife beaters back on the shelf, remembering my place, remembering how uncomfortable I was the other day when I went to the gym with the wrong clothes and my visible panty lines made me feel gaudy and ruttish. I knew I wouldn’t ultimately want to wear the wife beaters in public lest I garner the attention that everyone would later agree, if something happened, god forbid, that I had asked for.