You’re taught shame from an early age; ‘nice girls don’t’ but ‘boys will be boys’.
Your chest starts to swell so you wear baggy t-shirts and cross your arms so that no-one notices. Large breasts, you’ve been led to believe, are a sign of intellectual deficiency and poor moral character. The boys ping your bra straps. You’re supposed to be grateful for their attention, ignore them or fend them off with witty barbs, but you’re sinking into a dark well of fearful shame. They interpret your blushes as an admission of guilt; you did this, you caused this, it’s your fault. You were asking for it, your body betrayed your secret desires. It’s your responsibility to know better.
You learn to roll your eyes and walk on past the catcalls from white vans and building sites. You deflect a series of dismissive jokes and demands for tea-making from a parade of smug, self-entitled besuited male bosses. You sigh at jokes about domestic labour, cross the road when a man walks behind you in the dark, clutch your keys between your knuckles, guard your drinks and watch as your work is hijacked again and again by men who claim it as their own.
On the way to work, the Tube is packed. Too busy for you to see whose hand groped you. Too crowded to move away from the anonymous erection grinding against your butt. Never get into an empty carriage late at night, always find another woman to sit near.
Find a man. If you’re pleasing and useful to him, he’ll protect you from other men.
You read the stories about another rape, another murder, another discrimination tribunal, yet another woman mistreated by people who cannot look beyond her appearance to her humanity, but you don’t read the comments beneath them because you’re so sick and weary of the endless victim-blaming, the excuses, the justifications, the self-righteous indignation expressed on behalf of those who are caught and held to account.
Learning not to take it is uncharted territory. You’re allowed to say no. You’re free to decline. You don’t owe anyone your attention or affection, and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself to earn theirs. But beware; if you choose rejection, you do so at your own risk. Not everyone understands the rules. Not everyone cares to follow them. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way, look what you made him do.
And then a change comes. A movement across the developed world in which women’s voices are finally recognised – first, by each other, in numbers never dreamed of, then by men; enlightened allies who place humanity above gender tropes and can tell the difference between their desires and others’ boundaries. Month by month, the balance of the conversation is shifting, away from ‘it must have been her fault’ to ‘there is a real problem here, how do we solve it?’ The eyes and minds of your men-friends, your menfolk, your male co-workers are opening to what you and the women around you have known all along.
They’re shocked, of course. They would never do anything like that, no way! They hope you’re not tarring them all with the same brush, after all, they’re the good guys, right? They’re uncomfortable that you’d even raise the subject; are you trying to make them feel bad? Should they apologise for the bad apples? How is that fair? You have to be careful, they remind us, not to alienate the righteous in your reaction to the wrongness. Not to give the impression that you aren’t grateful to them for not being the ones spiking your drinks or groping you in clubs and bars, trapping you in the stationary cupboard or following you home. You mustn’t let them feel that your caution is directed at them; that’d be rude and unfair, because it’s not all men you know, and definitely not them. They’re sorry you went through that, sorry to hear that there are such awful people in the world, sorry that the sins of others – a tiny minority, of course – are casting these long shadows. Here, let me fix that for you. This is what you should have done. This is how you could have avoided it. Here is how to protect yourself in future. Here is more work for you to do to avoid bearing the burden of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘some men are just like that’.
You don’t point out that none of their well-meaning advice would have protected you from the man you lived with, the one for whom your consent was a convenience when given, and an irrelevance when withheld. A charming man, well-liked and well-regarded by both fellow men and other women. By you too, when you did what you were told and kept him happy. You could tell them what you’ve learned for yourself; abusers don’t wear badges, rapists don’t all lurk in alleyways, misogynists don’t recognise their own bias, but can always find a justification for it.
But you wonder; how many of these helpful advice-givers have ever wheedled a disinterested partner into reluctant sex? How many have applied guilt, emotional blackmail, taken advantage of intoxication? How many have justified sexist jokes as ‘banter’, reacted with hostility when their advances have been rejected, been puzzled when objectification is not met with welcome, or only finally backed off from hitting on a girl when another man’s claim is presented? You wonder, but you don’t ask because the risk to your relationships, your security, your career, your safety, is too high. You just hope they’re asking themselves, and each other.
#MeToo got the conversation started. Now it’s time for #IsItUs?
A List Of Caveats To Accompany This Rant:
- Yes, men are sexually assaulted as well. Mostly by other men but not exclusively. This unhappy fact does not negate, excuse, cancel out or justify mistreatment of women.
- Yes, in incredibly rare cases, malicious false accusations are made. This awful behaviour does not negate, excuse, cancel out or justify mistreatment of women.
- Yes, individual women can be shitty human beings and this may result in damage or distress to the men around them. Their miserable existence does not negate, excuse, cancel out or justify mistreatment of women.
- Yes, in the earlier days of civilisation; mistreatment of women (also, children, poor people, disabled people, foreigners and nonconformists) was rife. Now, we know better and the acts of our ancestors do not negate, excuse, cancel out or justify the mistreatment of women today.
- Yes, there are places in the world where mistreatment of women is normalised, codified and rewarded by society to an extreme degree. ‘Worse somewhere else’ is not a justification for ‘still not good enough here’ and does not negate, excuse, cancel out or justify the mistreatment of women anywhere.
Read more thoughts on #MeToo at F4FFriday