On Being Woman

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Since the recent shootings I’ve seen this being passed along the internet. It crops up every now and then when we start hearing from MRAs (men’s rights activists.) I wanted to post it. I’ve seen the quote attributed to Andrew Sullivan.

“We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, “That’s disgusting.” We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him. The lightbulb went off. “Oh,” I said. “I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you.” The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.“But,” I continued. “As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time.” The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked. “So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn’t actually want you to.”

I think this is a pretty shocking quote that can, quickly and rather effectively, provide some comparison for men. I have two problems with it. The first is that not all men are going to feel uncomfortable around advances from other men. If they are comfortable around other men, or gay men, there is no other cultural message telling them that they should be afraid. In fact, the only real message that I can see is one of the fear of homosexuality itself. That doesn’t have much to do with the fear of assault, rape, battery. It doesn’t have much to do with the fear of not being able to escape.

The second problem I have with it is that girls don’t necessarily walk around all the time afraid of being raped. I would say, however, that most women (perhaps particularly if they have been assaulted already?) are consistently aware of their gender and how their gender influences their place in that environment.

I am not constantly worried about being raped, but I am constantly aware that I am a woman. I am constantly aware of who is around me and how close they are to me. I am aware of who is looking at me and who chooses to talk to me. I am aware of what I am wearing, and where I’m wearing it. Not because I feel like there is anything wrong with what I’m wearing, but because I know if something did happen to me, it could be blamed on the clothes I chose to wore that day. I know that where I choose to go out and when I choose to go out will influence how much of a potential assault was my fault. Never mind the fact that sexual assault often happens at home, in places you should be safe to begin with.

It can make you feel unsafe when the only way people interact with you is to hit on you, catcall you, or try to get into your physical space. It can dehumanize you, and make you feel like an object, when people do not want to interact with you in ways that aren’t sexualized. I’ve encountered a lot more of this as the weather has gotten warmer. One man went so far as to walk up to me with his arms out asking me for a hug. Another walked up to my car when I was parked at a stoplight. I’ve been shouted at from windows and stopped on the street. People will tell you to smile, look happy, come on baby. 

Not all men are crazy sex-zombies who think women don’t have any personal space. Not all men assume that women are theirs to reach out and pluck when they look delicious enough to do so. I have personally known very few men who think these things. Most of the men I know are not these people. And, certainly, a few bad men do not speak for all good men.

The problem is that we live in a culture where lots of men do believe these things, and they exhibit that belief in the way they behave around women. So while we can’t blame all men for the actions of one. We can reach out to men and ask for their help. We can show them their place in the system that makes this kind of behavior okay. Because, even the nicest, respectful men, have a place in that system. They benefit from the privilege of being a man. While men do get assaulted and abused and raped just as women do, we should still be able to have this conversation together. The system that allows men to believe that women are theirs to take is not necessarily the same system that leads to the assault of men. We should not use “but men get raped too” to remove responsibility from this problem. We need to understand that all assault is bad, but there is something particular, something very specific, that allows some men to believe that women are theirs.

There are lots of better, more informed posts on this issue. Seek them out and read them. There are too many for me to keep up with. Why are women so fired up about this? Why are men so fired up about this? Why are people talking about it? Not because these are your sisters, mothers, daughters, but because these are human beings. And they deserve respect.

One Comment Add yours

  1. “Even the nicest, respectful men have a place in that system.” Yes, indeed! Being one such man, I have had to work many, many years just to STAY nice and respectful, and to constantly learn just what nice and respectful MEANS, from one situation to the next. On the other topic, I have, in my younger years, been hit on by gay men. There, being respectful meant making it clear, as politely and firmly as possible, that I was not interested, that I am comfortable with my heterosexuality and that I wish them well, with OTHER love interests.

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