Why the microaggression I encountered at my gym still haunts me

When a spin teacher joked about masturbation during a class, I was left feeling vaguely skeeved out
By Elizabeth Wallace    Published on 01/04/2019 at 11:00 AM EDT
Illustration by Britton Korbel

At Smashing Pumpkins ’90s grunge spin class a few weeks ago, my (white male) teacher played “Vasoline” by Stone Temple Pilots. He said (paraphrasing from what I heard): “This song came out when I was a junior in high school. Every morning I did exactly what this song is about.”

Not remembering the lyrics to “Vasoline” (they were hard to hear in spin class!) I googled them right after I dismounted my bike to make sure I wasn’t jumping to conclusions—and I didn’t actually assume the song was about masturbation, but I still assumed that’s what he meant. The song played in the middle of the class and I spent the rest of the class feeling icked out and thinking about my spin teacher jerking off every morning at age 16—not the way I wanted to spend my 45 minutes at the gym.

I also spent the remainder of the class deciding what to do: approach him about it? report to management? do nothing?

I’ve been reading so much about privilege and silence and complicity, and how important it is to use our voices to help heal the rifts in our country right now. I decided to approach him. I said, “What did you think Vasoline is about?”

Masturbation, he snickered, kind of playfully.

Me: “That’s what I thought.” Pause. “Do you really think that’s an appropriate comment in spin class?”

“Were you offended,” he asked? I told him I wasn’t exactly offended, just that I felt, honestly, kind of skeeved out, and didn’t want to think of my spin teacher masturbating every morning of his junior year when I just came here for cardio. He apologized immediately, and said he was just making an off-color comment, but then proceeded to go on a tangent defending himself, saying he thinks it’s a natural topic and that he thought everyone could relate to it because we were all in high school at one point, how it wasn’t meant to be a sexual comment, wasn’t directed at any of the women in the class, and how it’s something we all do in the privacy of our homes.

Me: “Right. And we’re not in your home. We’re at OUR gym. Look at the state of the world right now. Read a newspaper. Women feel disregarded, unheard, and often unsafe in the world today. Think about the things you say in public, with both men and women listening to you, when you have a [literal] microphone.” I didn’t say that last clause but wish I had.

He continued arguing with me, which shocked me. I finally said, “I told you it made me uncomfortable, and you’re telling me all the reasons I shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable. I am leaving now. Thank you for listening.”

It was very awkward, and I was then more flummoxed than before. ATTENTION, PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY WOMEN DON’T REPORT harassment, abuse, groping, assault, etc.: When I simply told a stranger, in a very calm tone, that he had made me uncomfortable, he spent five minutes telling me all the reasons he was right. As open as I was to dialogue, I didn’t feel he really heard me on this microaggression.

I continued internally debating whether to report to the manager. I asked my wife, who was also eewwwwed out, and said, “Would you have been offended if a woman had said it?” I couldn’t honestly answer because in the literal THOUSANDS of spin classes I have taken in 22 years, I have never had a woman teacher say anything remotely as creepy as this.

When I simply told a stranger, in a very calm tone, that he had made me uncomfortable, he spent five minutes telling me all the reasons he was right.

I approached a woman in the locker room who had been in class with me, and I knew she works for the gym in some capacity. I told her my concern and asked her for a gut check. She said, basically, “I think he was trying to be provocative, maybe, and isn’t a complete asshole, but your point is well taken and I totally hear you, and I will handle it. It will be a needed conversation point and a teachable moment.” (She’s a membership rep at the gym.)

In case anyone isn’t sure: SHE did make me feel heard, first of all by saying I HEAR YOU, and second, by saying, I UNDERSTAND YOU, and third, by saying SHE WILL HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT IT.

I went home with mixed emotions, though: Pleased that I had spoken up about a moment that weirded me out, uneasy wondering if I had overreacted, and concerned about what might happen to the teacher if my informal chat with the membership rep escalated.

And then the teacher emailed me. I’m not sure how he got my email. He wrote me 250 words, explaining that he didn’t say what I thought he said. He said his actual words were, “This song came out when I was a junior in high school, and believe me every boy that age knew what the song was about,” and that he never would have said what I thought he said. He said that he knows I spoke to the membership rep, but that she and three other people in class would confirm the words he did say, and that he could give me their phone numbers if I wanted to fact-check that. And he said, “I wish you would have told me what you thought I said so that we could have discussed it. I was defending what I actually said, and not what you thought I said.” Then he emailed me a second time, 15 minutes later, to instruct me that “the song is not actually about that, it’s just what many teenagers thought it was about when it first came out.” He concluded by saying if I still found his joke to be offensive, he is sorry.

I was bewildered and not sure what to do next. Again, a swirl of complicated emotions. I felt terrible that I might have misheard what he said, and also suddenly really uncomfortable that he got my email address and was emailing me these stream-of-consciousness missives. Also a red flag went up for me, like when an email exchange with a coworker hits you not right and you sort of want to call HR. It felt like he had chosen to escalate the conversation I had in a locker room—which was not a formal complaint!—in a way more personal and defensive way. This became for me not a he-said-she-said about his actual words, but about his response to me when I voiced an objection to him. Perhaps if this had happened at a different time, I would have let it go without another thought, but witnessing so many women voice objections publicly in the last year, in so many venues, and to have so many of them remain unheard or be punished for it, I just could not. I thought it best to keep any further emotions on my part out of it, though, and for me not to directly respond to him. I also didn’t want him to continue emailing me, and I now felt weird about encountering him again at the gym, when he clearly felt misunderstood and defensive. I also resented that he needed to send me a second email, mansplaining what the song “Vasoline” is about.

I forwarded the email to the general manager at the club, and asked to discuss it with him. The GM responded quickly, and we met in person the next day. He apologized, told me the teacher had violated a couple of codes of conduct, and that the situation had been handled. I was satisfied with that, and I even made clear I had not requested that the teacher be disciplined, but that I wished for him to understand my POV and also needed him not to rogue email me directly.

A few more weeks have passed now, and I still feel strange about the encounter. I’ve seen the teacher at the gym a couple of times, and we’ve avoided each other. There’s a discomfort that keeps coming up for me, and I don’t see much choice but to sit with it. It’s a good metaphor for discourse about microaggressions—and discourse about differences in general today, racial, political, socio-sexual, economic, cultural—it’s uncomfortable to talk about things that make us feel weird or bad, it’s uncomfortable to confront people and be honest on those occasions, and it’s uncomfortable to really try to listen to other people when we are struggling to understand their perspective. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had a do-over, or what he might have done differently either. But I do know that conversations must be started even in the tiniest ways, around the tiniest moments, for us to find any common ground and a way forward.

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