The Vespa came up alongside me yesterday at a busy stoplight. A young woman was driving with a guy sitting behind her. She was short and compact and it was obvious that the Vespa was hers and she was giving him a ride. He had his hands clutching the sides of the seat and his long legs jutted out like big handles on an old-fashioned tea cup. He seemed too tall to be a passenger, as if any Vespa should have a passenger, and I wondered as we moved forward in our double left turn lane how she would maneuver the turn with all that weight and height on the back. She motored through very slowly, no risk-taking here, finished the turn and drove on. Now ahead of me, the guy looking back at me every few seconds, seemingly worried that they might be going too slow.
I was impressed to see a man be a passenger on a motorcycle driven by a woman. I was impressed that he appeared to trust her.
Driving on the freeway, I often see young couples on motorcycles. Sometimes the bikes are those that are made to look like racing bikes with flames painted on the sides and a raised rear seat. A passenger in such a seat is often sitting higher than the driver and there is usually no sissy bar. Gunning up the on-ramp, the driver hunches down and accelerates and the passenger leans in, arms wrapped around the driver. It is always a man who is driving and a woman who is holding on.
I’ve been a passenger on a motorcycle, in this case a Harley Sportster, wedged between my then-husband and a sissy bar with a helmet on. My fear was always in dumping; him taking a turn too fast or low and the bike falling over. I never worried about falling off the back because of the sissy bar. I didn’t worry about much because I trusted him. He knew how to handle a motorcycle.
But I didn’t know that the first time I got on. I didn’t ask him how long he’d been riding, where he had learned to ride a motorcycle, or if he’d ever wiped out. He handed me a helmet and I got on the bike. No questions asked. I didn’t hesitate for a single second.
Somewhere, in my head, in my subconscious mind, oh, maybe in my genes, I just assumed that he was a man and he knew what he was doing.
In this case, my reflex was right. In so many others, I’ve had the same automatic response, the same actualized assumption of a man’s superior competence, and I’ve not been so lucky. As those situations unfolded, I’d gradually recognize what I should have remembered all along – men are not innately superior. Men are not born knowing how to handle a motorcycle. It’s something that is learned. It’s something that I could learn.
When I see a young woman, her hair flying in the wind, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, wearing just sandals, looking like she’d just gotten picked up at the beach, and she is holding on to a guy gunning his bike on to the freeway, maybe going 50 or 60 miles an hour, and there’s no sissy bar, I say to myself, ‘what is she thinking?’
But she isn’t thinking. She was in reflex mode when she got on that bike. She may have known him 30 minutes. She may have never been on a motorcycle before. He may have a dozen speeding tickets and wiped out three bikes before. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t ask.
That’s the ground zero of sexism. She doesn’t ask.
If she cruised by the beach and stopped to pick up the guy, said, ‘hey, get on, we’ll go over to my brother’s across town for a barbecue,’ would the guy get on the back and hold on while she zoomed on to the freeway? Probably not. Because his reflex is thinking that she can’t possibly handle such a big machine with a man on the back.
Sexism doesn’t always wear a big sign. It’s in what we do without thinking.
That’s why the guy sitting behind the woman on the Vespa will stick in my mind. What was he thinking?