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Student Center incident makes student uncomfortable

I'm sitting in the Catherine A. Stratton Lounge as I write the first draft of this letter. I like the lounge, especially when I'm really tense about a problem set. So I'm down here to drink some coffee, do some reading and get my head together before I trudge back up to Athena. But tonight I'm not getting any work done.

Over in the next set of couches, there's a group of men working on a problem set. When I walked in with my coffee, one of them looked up. He looked good. I'm 22, so I'm trying not to say that he was really, really cute. He was out-of-bounds cute. I was sort of hopeful. I guess I've still got this "some enchanted evening" idea about "true love across a crowded room." It wasn't that this was him. It was just though I saw something in him that seemed . . . sort of familiar.

But then they started talking about women. Well, it started out about women. Then it was something about a party. Then one of them jumped up on a chair. He was showing them how he danced. Then he fell face-first into the sofa next to him. I didn't really follow the conversation, but I did hear him when he said, "I'm muff-diving."

Funny. A bonding thing. No, not "male bonding"; women talk about sex too. And it's not all sharing our feelings and nurturing one another. In fact, I just had one of those "a woman has needs" talks with a friend of mine -- about men and sex and questions you could never ask a respected health-care professional.

But it hasn't let up. The one with his Delta-something baseball hat just said something like, "It's like food, man, if it smells rotten, don't eat it." The only breaks in it are when they get side-tracked about fat chicks. I'm not kidding. I know it sounds like a really bad, X-rated episode of Married with Children but that's what they're doing. And there's this weird, hard edge under it. There's a way that they're talking that makes me scared. Scared is the only word that really fits here because scared is what I was when I was nine and my parents would turn out the light in my room and make me "try" sleeping in the dark. A lot of words like "frightened," "intimidated," "ashamed," "uncomfortable," and "nauseated" almost fit. But scared is best because suddenly I feel nine again and afraid of a big, shapeless malevolence that sits in dark corners and waits.

I'm the only woman in the lounge. Besides the five of them and me there are three other people in the room. Two of them are speaking quietly in Chinese to one another and the other one is asleep. At first I tried to ignore it, but they're loud.

I had my earphones on for a while, but the earphones are broken and only one side works. So the left side of my brian was getting Yma Sumac -- Bird Woman of the Andes -- singing this ancient Incan opera while the right side was distractedly wondering about the etymology of the word "pun-tang." But they couldn't know about my broken headphones. I was relieved. It was a simple misunderstanding. I would just take the headphones off and they would realize that I could hear them.

They didn't stop. I could only hear them better.

"Yah, he was just standing there with his hand . . .," said the muff diver.

". . . A parcel of air with an initial temperature of 15 @#C and dewpoint 2 @#C. . .," said Wallace and Hobbs.

"Hey man, it's just added lubrication," said the guy with the hat.

I coughed; I cleared my throat. Two of them would glance up occasionally. They looked guilty and it seemed to slow them down a bit. But the guy with the hat never looked over. He sat in his chair and noticed the two guilty ones noticing me. He seemed to watch me by watching them. The more uncomfortable I became, the more guilty they looked. They more guilty they looked, the louder he got. I watched him get almost drunk on it. And it was more than just getting louder: he became more cruel. The two who did not look at me followed his lead.

They named women. They described what they did "to" women (not "with" women). I knew that they were feeding on my reaction to them. So I stopped reacting.

"A parcel of air with an initial temperature of 15 @#C and dew point 2 @#C is lifted adiabatically from the 100-millibar level," said Wallace and Hobbes.

"No way, it would violate my moral code," says the guy in the chair.

"I dunno. It'd be pretty hard not to -- what if you're drunk too?" That was muff-man again.

I decided to leave. Actually, I started to leave before I decided to. I was throwing my books together loudly when I realized that leaving would be a retreat. The lounge would belong to them. I was completely stressed out about my class work and this was exactly the last thing I needed. But right then it was important to me not to give in.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a friend at Texas A&M. They have a group there call The Cav ("Parsons' Mounted Cavalry"). It's a cavalry group left over from the days when the school was a military academy. The Cav's a big deal if you're a die-hard Aggie. They ride at the football games and blow the cannon when the team scores. Four women have been in The Cav. The first graduated. The next two are seniors now. And the last to join, a sophomore, was in the hospital last week. Three men from The Cav waited for her outside the stable, in a parking lot. They beat her up and stabbed her.

Five men being rude to me in a public lounge isn't the same thing. I know that. But MIT can still feel like a men's club sometimes and it makes me angry. When I first got here, I was so proud to be a woman and to be here. I knew that it was an important thing to do. I didn't really understand why. I thought that I was here to do well and to gain respect for myself and my gender by proving our competence. But I've found that even now, MIT is still at the stage of "getting used to" women being here.

A year ago I was sitting in class with a friend of mine. The professor paused for a bit and she started shaking the writer's cramp out of her fingers. The professor asked her, "Do you have a question? Or are you just drying your nails?" She was embarrassed and speechless. The professor followed the awkward silence with, "Now don't report me or anything. . ." She didn't. There were five of us in the room that day.

So it was important for me to stay in the lounge.

But I had to get out of there -- for a while at least. I grabbed my coffee and walked around aimlessly trying to feel normal again. My coffee ran out before my nerve came back, but I went back to the lounge anyway, hoping they were done, willing to stick it out if they weren't. They weren't. But they were almost done with their problem set. In the time it's taken me to write this letter, they have finished their work -- strangely without seeming to spend time talking about it. As they got ready to go, I decided to glare at them. It might not seem like much, but by this time I was feeling pretty awful. Looking anyone in the eye would have been hard. I managed one or two "meaningful looks" as they walked past.

As they walked out into the hall I heard, "I think we were really bothering her."

It was the guy who sat on the floor, I think.

"No way, man, she liked it. She was listening," answered the guy with the hat.

They laughed when he said it.

Andrea Whitsell '92->