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2 Things I Learned About Sexism While in a Mental Hospital

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March 4, 2014

In 2013, I had the very interesting experience of spending five days in a mental institution. I’ll be really upfront and say that it extremely different from what movies and TV make it out to be like. I mean, there wasn’t even a Native American trope to rip a sink out of the wall.

But I did learn some really interesting things while in that hospital. I learned a lot about myself, and the causes I fight for. I learned a lot about how people see women in conjunction with mental wellness. And I learned that even though a bunch of people are in a mental hospital, some will still find time to be sexist dickbags.

2.) It’s Really Subtle (And It’s Everywhere)

I was one of the younger patients. By far. The oldest person in the adult wing was 72, the youngest was 18 and was only born three months after me. So the aggregate of people in this hospital was immensely diverse. It was a tossed salad of minorities, including people of different races, sexualities, faiths, economic backgrounds, and ideologies.

As one of the younger patients, I felt a bit more at home with the other young patients. One of which was named Carl.

Okay, no his name was not really Carl, but you understand. Carl was a student at my university who was forcibly admitted to the hospital. Carl was young, funny, smart. But there was a thing Carl did. Often.

At the hospital we would all just talk about what brought us to the hospital in the first place. It wasn’t like we had much in common with one another; the makeup of the hospital was basically half a subway car of people all coincidentally headed in the same general direction. And when we spoke about why we were brought there, Carl’s commentary was consistently derailing toward women and women’s issues.

In one specific instance, a female patient who was admitted for an eating disorder was sharing a little bit of her story with us when Carl stopped her with a very solid and decisive statement: “But you’re pretty.”

I mean, I’d only known Carl for a day or so, but I couldn’t imagine he meant any harm by it. But watching the woman stumble for words, for validation, after Carl’s comment was a vivid reminder of the subtle and creeping nature of sexism and misogyny. He was being genuine. He was, at least trying, to be kind. But instead what came out of his mouth completely invalidated the pain this young woman was experiencing. What he’d said was that her looks outweighed her health. As long as she was attractive, her problems held no water.

But he’d said it with a soft smile and a reassuring tone that made me really wonder how often sexist language and tendencies get excused because the person saying it is nice.

1.) It’s Really Blatant (And It’s Everywhere)

One of my least favorite patients at the hospital was a man I’ll call Dick. Dick was one of the older patients. He was charismatic, outgoing, and loved to talk. Oh, and he was obscenely racist and sexist.

Now, Dick loved me. Adored me. He walked down the hall singing my name, winking at me. And I wanted nothing more than to watch him choke on his own cereal.

Dick arrived at the hospital two days into my five day stay. Upon first meeting him, he shook my hand and asked if he could give me the “secret to a long life”. Of course I said yes. Are you kidding me? I was being offered my own personal truth bomb from an old war veteran. But what he said was not anything near what I thought he’d say: “Honey, there are pretty n****rs and then there are plain n****rs. If you wanna be one of the pretty ones you should lose a few pounds.”

I went on to spent the next three days with this man. Which doesn’t sound like a lot in real world time, but in mental hospital time it might as well have been a month. We aren’t allowed to close our bedroom doors, and the whole of the adult ward exists in one hallway. So Dick and I saw a lot of each other.

That was only our first interaction. Our following interactions included when he offered to pray away my depression, tried to teach me floor exercises in the middle of the hallways, and asked who I was having sex with because I was on birth control. He also took to calling me “Mammy” near the end.

To one Filipino woman named Pearl, who was five months pregnant, Dick commended her on deciding to keep her baby “when so many Orientals kill their babies”.

I was floored. Genuinely and actually floored by this man who I realized was only a shave and a pressed suit away from being a legislator in the deep south. I couldn’t believe the things he said, not just to me but to all the women in the ward. He used racial slurs openly and proudly, and made his position on women clear. In his eyes, we were just people he had opinions about. We were not people with opinions or thoughts, and we didn’t seem to have the ability to made decisions about our own lives without Dick insisting on giving us his thoughts on the matter.

He very vividly embodied the anti-choice manner to me.  We weren’t women, we were “broads”; he even called us “baby makers” one afternoon. Our bodies and decisions about our bodies were not our own but were public domain for Dick to comment on and approve or disapprove of.

I can’t put into words how disheartening it was, not just to be in this hospital for five days, but to be in the hospital with people who thought me subhuman. And that some of those people had no qualms about reminding me that I’m still not worth the white, straight man’s respect.

Blatant misogyny is everywhere, written into our laws, histories, music, and medicine. And my own experience with such blasé hate is something I carry with me into the fight for reproductive justice from now on. What I learned there drives me to make better changes locally and statewide. I want to see men do better because I know they can and I want to see women treated with respect and competency because we deserve it, even when we are at our lowest. That’s what my time at the mental hospital taught me.

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