When I was younger, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything wrong with the advice given to me by my parents, friends, teachers, community, television show characters, the lyrics to pop songs, etc.
Don’t be out alone after dark. If you have to be, carry your keys and don’t have your earphones in.
Don’t dress provocatively. Don’t be a cocktease. Don’t lead men on.
Don’t leave your drink unattended.
Don’t have sex before marriage.
If you’re not interested, tell him you’re not single.
Don’t drink too much.
Just ignore him, he will go away.
Don’t complain. You’ve got it better than women in the <insert other country here>.
Sit like a lady. Smile. Be polite. Pretend to be interested.
Laugh when a man tells a joke. Listen to others. Don’t speak too loudly. Don’t share your opinion.
Women are a prize for men who deserve them.
It was only a few years ago that I gave any of these ideas a second thought, thanks to the emergence of a few strong, outspoken, wonderful women and men I’ve met.
It was nothing short of an epiphany, realising that these simple ideas framed women and men in particular ways; women as objects who must act to protect themselves, men as victims of strong uncontrollable desires. The serious consequences of these frames are that women who are victims are held responsible, and all women who are attacked feel guilty and ashamed as a result. In these frames, men who attack women are excused. By extension, men who don’t attack women are heroes. I’d been given this advice and learned these social rules, so I would be held responsible if anything happened to me, and it was imperative that I find a hero who could protect me from the other men.
I wasn’t held responsible when the terrible things happened to me, when I was only a girl and I’d orbited the sun less than ten times, but I was given the message that “boys will be boys” and that I needed to grow up and move on. When other things happened, when I was older, when I was teased or I was groped or I was hit on or my personal space was invited or I was called at from a car or pushed into doing something with a man who bought me dinner or followed by a man in the street or when a man sat beside me on the train when there were empty seats everywhere and when I received feedback on student evaluations that was sexist or objectified me, then when any of these things happened again, or, or, or… all of it was excused away. I must have been wearing the wrong clothes, or said the wrong thing, or not smiled enough, or, or, or… Next week when something else happens it will be swept away again. Boys will be boys.
In some ways, the invisible ways in which these frames affect me as a woman are just as insidious. I don’t run at night when it’s dark. I hold my keys out when walking home from the train station. I make it obvious that I have a boyfriend. I lock the door when he’s not home.
I question whether or not to use the term feminist, because even though that really just means seeing all people as equal, regardless of gender, it attracts the attention of men who see a threat to their comfortable lives. I question whether or not I should even be publishing this post, because it could attract negative attention from men.
I used to laugh at men’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny. I used to watch what I say. I still watch what I say, really, but for different reasons now. I used to plan my night around staying safe and call my parents or housemate when I got home. I used to buy my own drinks so that I wouldn’t owe a man anything.
I hoped that men wouldn’t notice me.
And men don’t see any of that.
It needs to be recognised by all of us – women and men – that there are ways in which women are far worse off by these frames than men. Women are being socialised to be afraid. Men don’t always see that. Men are socialised to dominate, but in positions of power they still have the choice not to.
Looking through the #YesAllWomen tweets of the last few hours, there are recurring themes. There are plenty of stories of unreported rape and abuse, of domestic violence, of unwanted attention and taken liberties (even that phrasing – taking liberties – excuses such acts). There are strategies women use to protect themselves against men, many of which I’ve already listed. There are self-serving #NotAllMen tweets, part of the narrative of men who don’t treat women as objects as heroes. There are far too many stories of women’s legitimate complaints being dismissed by others. There are many tweets by both men and women dismissing the complaints of women. There are many sexist and misogynistic tweets by men, and women. There is anger. It makes me angry. There is sadness. It makes me sad.
There are great tweets from men acknowledging the ways in which they behave, too. “#YesAllWomen because I cross the road at night rather than walking behind a woman” tweeted one man. There are lovely tweets from women and men acknowledging the experiences of women around the world, and vowing to stand up when they next see a someone in an awful situation. There is hope. It makes me hopeful.
I strongly believe that there are cultural shifts that need to be made before all of us – women and men – can be emancipated from these frames which shape us all in dangerous ways. A hashtag won’t change the world, but maybe it could start the conversation. I hope that there are people – men and women – listening.
Many excellent pieces have been written about the events of last weekend, when Elliot Rodgers went on his awful killing spree in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, fuelled by his own misogynistic views. There are valid arguments that he was socialised to be this way, some of which I’ve already put to you. My heart goes out to the victims of his actions, living and dead, and their families too. All of the pieces below were written by people far more thoughtful and eloquent than I am. Please read them and tell me of any others you’ve appreciated.
An important note
I’m a cisgender white woman who lives comfortably. In this post I’ve talked about men and women, but gender is not dichotomous. I’ve also talked about straight men and women, and sexuality is not easy to define either. There are other factors that impact on the way we are socialised: race, location, religion, etc. We need to consider the stories of all people. I would love to hear from you in the comments if you have had different experiences. For me, there’s a message about both equality – that we need to be equal regardless of what’s between our legs or how we identify – and equity – that at the moment, because things aren’t equal, there are particular people that need to be given opportunities in order to achieve equality. And also that I believe equality can help all of us, regardless of how we identify.