Bye Bye Berkeley: Sexual harassment, self-esteem, and social media

Bye bye summer sublet, hello red lipstick.
Bye bye summer sublet, hello red lipstick.

I move home next week. After two and a half months in the Bay Area I’ll board a plane at SFO direct to JFK and start the next, next chapter of my life. I wanted to write a blog post to acknowledge this, to talk about how important and intense this summer has been, but I don’t know where to start. So I’ll start with the good.

On August 25th, I begin a six month social media internship with TED in Manhattan. I am over the moon excited about this—TED is obviously a crazy awesome organization doing important and innovative work, and social media is crucial to how they spread their content. It’ll be wonderful to return to the nonprofit sector where the bottom line is important but not do-or-die, and to have a job I can talk about in bars without running the risk of being sexualized by strangers when they ask about my job (more on that later). And it’s funny—TED is one of the only places I have had the experience of being respected for my sex writing as opposed to it being considered my weakness as an applicant. So yay! Yay for working for TED.

Amazing fellow Cleis interns at the #pubofyearparty celebration.
Amazing fellow Cleis interns at the #pubofyearparty celebration.

It’s funny, really, because I wouldn’t have gotten the TED internship had I not moved to California in the first place. I absolutely love Cleis Press and interning there this summer has been a dream come true. I fully expected to leave Cleis once my three months were up and try to find a more permanent job in publishing. I was surprised to realize quite quickly that my strength is in social media management, in sharing interesting content with audiences and making them want to click that link. Ironically, my mother always used to push me to consider social media savvy a job skill, but I’m not alone in my age group in assuming most of this is intuitive. I am part of the Facebook generation—I figured I didn’t know any better or worse than anyone else in my graduating class. But I discovered at Cleis that I love trying to nail down a voice on social media. I love the challenge of making a company or an organization or a publishing house into a human with a personality on twitter or tumblr or anywhere else. I have so many feelings about Pinterest. I was lucky enough to learn from the formidable Eva Gantz, Cleis’s marketing guru, and to discover I already knew a good deal more than most. And then a little birdie told me about a position in New York (Lily Herman, I owe you my first born), and boom.

More generally, I’m excited to come back home. It’s only by getting some distance that you realize what you lost, and what you want back. I fell in love with Manhattan while I worked for the Feminist Press last summer, and what I at first dismissed as homesickness when I arrived in Berkeley has since grown into a desperation to return to Grand Central. Berkeley and the Bay Area overall has a lot to offer: this is still the mecca of sexuality and I fit right in on the island of misfit toys. It has been an adventure to work alongside some of my sex positive idols, and to get into mildly intoxicated conversations with my erotica-writing heroes at Cleis Press’s publisher of the year celebration. This is somewhere I can be who I am.

Or at least it should have been. Anyone who has recently graduated from college will understand the post-grad drop: that falling feeling that seems like it will never end. Moving somewhere I knew no one immediately after getting my diploma had the consequence of isolating me from support networks during a predictable identity crisis, and I spent much of the summer not recognizing myself in the mirror. I have never suffered from depression, and yet many of my days here were marked by hopelessness, lethargy, and fear. These feelings went away as soon as I got to work, or as soon as my partner came to visit, but it was overwhelming. I didn’t always know how to make myself feel better, as my usual coping mechanisms were no longer available to me (no car to go for a soothing drive, no close friends to collapse in the laps of, no television to numb myself through). And my friends were busy experiencing the same doubts and could not provide a shoulder to cry on. Even though we were all going through the same problems, I was deeply ashamed of my flailing and suffered in whiny silence with those I trusted not to judge. I am forever thankful for my parents, for my new friends here in Berkeley, and for Jack, without whom I never would have kept it together.

A beautiful highlight of my morning commute.
A beautiful highlight of my morning commute.

I would have had a hard time dealing with this summer if I were living with my parents in Greenwich, but there are a few things about the Bay Area that… escalated things. The biggest being there is hella sexual harassment here. I know there is sexual harassment everywhere, and a few of my friends in New York have cautioned me to expect the same difficulties when I return, but I honestly have never felt so unsafe on a day to day basis as I do here. I felt really guilty saying that in the beginning: I am an upper-middle class white girl from Greenwich, Connecticut, so my standards for safety are very, very high. Surely I was just being a spoiled prima donna, right? But I heard the same experiences echoed back from colleagues, friends, and other ex-transplants: the number of stories I heard about cat calling, stalking, threats of corrective rape, actual physical assaults and even basic everyday micro-aggressions was staggering. The Bay Area is unique in that it has a large homeless population, extreme wealth disparity, and a pretty dire housing shortage, but there is also an attitude that permeates everything here. In a place that I had idolized as being so feminist, as being so sex-positive, I never expected it to be such a haven for gendered violence. That was my ignorance, and it has been insurmountable for me.

This is the reality of sexism. This is what sucks about our culture. Living with daily sexual harassment on my fifteen minute walk to work eroded my sense of security and impacted every decision I made: don’t wear makeup, don’t wear knee boots even over jeans, don’t wear a skirt or a dress, don’t have your cellphone out but keep in at least one ear-bud so that you have an excuse to ignore comments, always hold your keys, glance behind you every few seconds, learn which blocks are safe and which aren’t, don’t go out after dark, take the BART but stay toward the center of the platform where there are the most people, don’t my eye-contact, don’t make eye-contact, don’t ever make eye-contact and maybe this will protect you but probably not. With this constant self-policing I forgot who I was, too busy trying not to be noticed. At Wesleyan I prided myself on being somewhat intimidating, someone people knew and respected, and yeah, someone they found sexually interesting. In moving here I over-corrected and almost lost myself.

The more people, the safer you are. Generally.
The more people, the safer you are. Generally.

This blog post wound up going in a different direction than I intended, and for that I apologize. But look, when I told stories of dealing with harassment to my guy friends who visited, they all said the same thing. Thank you. Thank you for telling me. Because sexual harassment is invisible to men. It just is. Until it’s your girlfriend, or your fellow intern, or your daughter. So I’m saying it again: there is a culture of entitlement to women’s bodies in this country and it fucking sucks.

So I’m cashing in some privilege and moving back in with my parents in Greenwich until I feel more like myself. Because in Greenwich I’m considered the threat to society for being a crazy sex writer who wears sheers blouses over lingerie at Stop & Shop. And wearing those sheer blouses over lingerie is a great fucking privilege, until the day it becomes a right.

In conclusion: thank you, Berkeley. Truly, thank you for every opportunity and mentor and night out playing pool with friends from work. I’m not finished with you forever. But I’m going to take a break from California for a while as I explore what’s next for me. Manhattan here I come.

Copyright Andrew Nelson, my photographer friend and occasional bodyguard.
Copyright Andrew Nelson, my photographer friend and occasional bodyguard.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

3 thoughts on “Bye Bye Berkeley: Sexual harassment, self-esteem, and social media

  1. It was a pleasure to meet you Ella! Sorry to see you go, but so very excited about your opportunity at TED! Wow! Good Luck! I have a feeling you will kick ass out there! Hope to stay in touch =) ♥

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