“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.”–Margaret Atwood
Glossophobia: the fear of public speaking. It’s derived from the Greek word glōssa, or tongue. This is the closest phobia I can find to “fear of speaking up.” I’m not talking about eleventh grade speech and debate, imagining your audience in their underwear. I’m talking about the fear every woman has experienced when she knows something wrong has happened but she’s too afraid of the consequences for opening her mouth.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy Titus Adronicus, Lavinia’s rapists cut out her tongue so she cannot report them. The tongue is a powerful weapon. A person who wishes to silence a woman knows that and uses their own weapons to hurt it: their power, their threats.
Sometimes on darkened sidewalks, I negotiate with my tongue, willing it to stay still. There are moments when I can speak up, and there are others when I become acutely aware that the tongue is just another part of my body, and bodies have a way of bringing trouble to a woman.
I wish for just one day, a man could know what it feels like to exist in a woman’s body. To know how hard it is to unknow it. We never for a moment forget it’s there because there is always a man nearby to talk about it or touch it, to deem it worthy or unfuckable. Women do not have the privilege of having a body in the public sphere that goes unnoticed. As soon as we step outside our front door, the world forces ownership onto our bodies. I observe it every day when I watch men stand too close to women on the trains and tell strangers they’re beautiful as they pass on the sidewalk.
There are times when I have responded: when a ‘roided out gym rat got into an argument with me over the volume of the TV and I told him never to call me “girl”; when a bus driver walked behind me in broad daylight during my afternoon run and told me he wanted to rub sunscreen all over my body. When I turned around, pulled out my earbuds to better hear him and said, “What did you say,” he repeated verbatim the thing he wanted to do to my body. Before I opened my mouth, I had mere seconds to process my surroundings, my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and judge the safety of it before concluding I did have a voice, that this was not the silent sidewalk at night where my tongue goes missing. I wager this man spent no time rethinking his initial statement before opening his mouth and using his words to reduce all my hopes and thoughts and experiences to nothing more than a body for him to desire and consume as he saw fit.
What is the phobia name for the fear of not speaking up? Not the fear of others’ silence but of your own? I have been my own Lavinia, tongueless at my first publishing job in New York, unable to share my complaints beyond after work drinks with the other female employees. We were all harassed by a boss who still treated publishing like it was the misogyny playground of the seventies and he got a free pass to introduce a woman in a meeting as “pretty.” But for all the shit we talked about him, all the Nine to Five fantasies and even the occasional moments of clarity knowing that this man was going to die soon and few people would mourn that, we never spoke up to him. We were collectively afraid of a Pandora’s box made of our mouths.
At my first job at the law firm, where we had a group gym pass, I did not speak up when my boss commented on my gym clothes at the office. At another job, I did not speak up when my boss told me how nice it was to see me in a dress, only moments before I sat in a meeting with him and two other male employees who did not speak up when he started making jokes about exotic dancing.
My experiences are not special, rare. Each harassed female is harassed in their own way. It doesn’t matter our age or our race or what we’re fucking wearing. We are all dealing with this and we have been since puberty, some even earlier, when our bodies began to suggest themselves more and our angles smoothed to curves. We don’t have the privilege of having bodies that are allowed to play and jump and run and walk and recline and drink and dance—and not be harassed for it.
There are so many stories about women’s voices going unheard for so long until they hit a critical mass–more than 50 in the Bill Cosby case, and even then it took a male comic’s stand up routine to bring real attention to it. Harvey Weinstein’s harassment went unchecked for decades. Bill O’Reilly left his job with a million dollar payout. Only later did we find that Fox paid one of his victims 32 million to cut out her tongue.
So much of why harassment and assault goes unchecked is the power. It’s a chorus of women’s voices being drowned out by one powerful man. One powerful man backed by an entire system meant to support him and silence others. And they love the power, you know they do. When a man calls you something or says something that has crossed a professional line and he knows you’ll keep your mouth shut, that’s the money shot.
I recently had a woman approach me in a professional setting and tell me about a powerful man within our community who had caused women to quit their jobs and leave the industry because of his words and actions. She told stories of the way he talked to his colleagues that were decidedly unprofessional, but I knew and so did she that too many people would make excuses, say boys will be boys. Can’t we take a joke? What I feel is always missing in these justifications is the understanding that when my boss jokes about exotic dancing or this guy tells women he’s glad they have partners because then he won’t be tempted to sleep with them, that these aren’t just words. Sexism is not simply saying shitty things, it’s having the systemic power to say shitty things.
When she told me about this man who keeps moving up the ladder within our community at the expense of silenced women, I did not know what to tell her. I heard her voice pleading to me like a Cassandra cursed to speak a truth gone unnoticed. Her warning: “This is not a coincidence.” How many times has she prophesized that it will happen again, and nobody listened? What about the fear of speaking but not being heard? What’s the phobia name for that?
In the last year alone, three different women have shared with me stories of sexual assault. Not one of these stories ended with repercussions for the man. In some, the men made the women feel like their stories didn’t matter; when the women tried to talk about it, it was like the men were saying, “No, no you’re telling it wrong.”
I fear how much misogyny I have internalized. I fear the voices in my head repeating that my body is not strong enough to fight back, that my words aren’t important enough to be heard. I fear for our rights and for our safety, fear for our trans sisters and the ways they are being silenced. I fear that we are marching and speaking and organizing, yet we’re still being told to be quiet on the Senate floor, and our “You Can Do Anything” administration is having more say over our bodies than we are.
What we say and don’t say about heterosexual interactions is a problem that extends itself back to adolescence. We teach girls to speak softly and not to make trouble and boys not to speak about their feelings at all. What do we expect when we teach boys to hate girls up until it’s time to fuck them?
I don’t know how to uncurl my tongue on days it has recoiled in fear. I don’t know how to calm the fear that wonders what blade a man will use to cut it out so I cannot talk about my period or abortions or my queerness, hell even talk about my own pleasure and joy.
Last year, I finally met with an attorney to take out a protective order against the ex who stalked me for half a decade. When I learned that stalking qualifies as domestic abuse, I froze and was unable to move forward with filing the petition. I was not prepared for that label, especially when getting it meant I had to stand before a judge and name myself as such. I couldn’t say the word “victim”; “domestic violence” burrowed itself into the back of my throat and refused to leave.
A year later, I have still not gone through with it. I fear the sound of my own voice when it names the brokenness inside me.
I recently had to explain to a man why I love horror movies so much: Women live every day on a spectrum of fear, wondering if this will be the day that they become a campus rape statistic or a Jane Doe or a #Metoo. When I watch a horror movie, I have a brief window of controlled fear, like some sort of exposure therapy to help me process the goddamn stress of it all. That’s not a clean and simple answer, and plenty of people will argue that watching scary movies only feeds my fear. But I find myself heartened by all the women directors naming our fears through the act of feminist horror films: Jennifer Kent addressing the fear of motherhood (The Babadook), Kate Shortland exploring the complexities of abusive relationships and heightening the concept of the woman who stays to a intensely frightening level (The Berlin Syndrome), and Julia Ducournau dissecting the gruesomeness of becoming a woman (Raw).
These women are telling our stories in new and necessary ways. Women are speaking up through storytelling, running for office, using social media, and marching down our streets. They are saying, yes we’re afraid, but more than that, we’re tired of being silent about it.
Our fears are real and they deserve to be taken seriously. Name them; listen to them.
Kait Heacock is a Pacific Northwest author. She likes to think of herself as a literary organizer; she builds community around books. Most recently, this has happened as the Pacific Northwest editor for Joyland, on the Advisory Board for the Mineral School artist’s residency, and on the programming committee for the Seattle Lit Crawl. Her debut short story collection, Siblings and Other Disappointments, is available now. Her writing has appeared in Crab Creek Review, DAME, Esquire Russia, Joyland, KGB Bar Lit Mag, Largehearted Boy, Literary Hub, The Millions, Portland Review, Tin House, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her work has received support from the Montez Press summer residency at Mathew Gallery and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.