I was once told that there is strength in admitting defeat. Today, I am admitting defeat when it comes to the challenge of educating men about sexism. Perhaps ‘educating’ is overstating my ambition. I am not an educator with a platform, just a quiet feminist hoping to be treated better by the men in her life. I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to understand that his apathy towards the patriarchy and failure to acknowledge his everyday male privilege is negatively impacting my ability to exist safely in the world. It took being sexually assaulted, but I’m finally done attempting these conversations.
You can bang your head against a brick wall/attempt difficult discussions with men, over and over again, but sometimes something happens that crystallises why you might be better off simply abandoning your quest. For context, the arc of my feminism has followed what I would guess is a fairly normal path for a white, middle-class gender-normative(ish) woman in the UK. I went to school in the '90s and '00s and conformed to the feminine norms that allowed me the easiest life possible. I benefited from doing so, or so I believed at the time (short skirts = free drinks) and I quietly allowed sexism to derail my first choice career of sports journalism after I failed to develop a thick enough skin to cope with the everyday micro-aggressions, negging and subtle workplace sexual harassment and diverted to a career in lifestyle journalism. I have spent most of my life failing to speak up for myself and others when we are interrupted by men in meetings, groped by strangers in bars, objectified while on the school run (yes, really, and often), paid less, raped, abused, attacked and killed by men. But each incident read about, witnessed, experienced, marks itself like a tiny smear on the formerly clear lens through which I view the world.
Over the last year, since the outside world has been so scary, I’ve done what many others have done; I’ve looked inwards. I’ve been getting help overcoming traumas and abuse from my past. I’ve been working on self-love and reading more and more about feminism and the power structures holding women (and other groups) back, the damage that toxic masculinity and living under the constraints of a patriarchal society does to both men and women. I’ve been trying to work on my relationships with men so that I don’t feel angry and defensive, but open to understanding our differences, and determined to have difficult conversations. But these conversations never go well. Discussions about objectification are always countered with "just playing devil’s advocate here, but don’t women objectify themselves, when they wear make-up and nice clothes?"
Attempts at explaining the genuine fear that women have when walking or running alone, or when they meet a potential date for the first time always seem to lead to, "I do get it but it’s not easy for men; I had this one friend who was accused of rape and it nearly ruined his life." Of course, there's the also the victim-blamer's response of choice, "but what were you wearing? Did you flirt with him?" By the way, the next time a man makes this false rape accusation comment to you, you should inform him that he is 230 times more likely to be raped himself, than falsely accused of rape. The men I have these discussions with don’t seem interested in genuinely understanding the female experience and how it is made more difficult by men, instead they are concerned only with convincing me (or themselves?) that they are one of the good ones. I can see the defensive hackles rising the moment the F word (not that one, feminism) is even mentioned in passing. There is a barrier of denial and often attempts to tell you, the woman, the person who is experiencing sexism, that you've got it wrong. For men to listen, look inwards and learn is to accept that a woman's opinion is as valid and equal as their own.
On Boxing Day, while out for a run, I was sexually assaulted by a man (on a busy walkway, in broad daylight, no I didn’t flirt, no I wasn’t wearing provocative clothing, sir). I fought him off and reported the assault and he was found and arrested by police, who informed me that he had also assaulted another woman that day. Once I’d overcome the shock and distress caused by the assault, I became angry. This was what I had tried to voice to men time and again. This was what women faced every single day, and worse, so much worse.
Every single woman has experienced this or knows someone who has. The world is not only set up in a way that culturally and financially benefits men, it is genuinely dangerous to be a woman, even here in the UK, one of the most progressive countries in the world. However much I read about gender, feminism, the patriarchy, however many conversations I attempt to have with men; as a woman, I am at risk of harm at the hands of men, over and over again. And yet, even with things like this happening time after time, the mere suggestion of a discussion around the patriarchy, society’s power structures, the media and how all of the above reinforce dangerous stereotypes and messaging around gender roles and the male’s right to ownership of women and our bodies is met with at best defensiveness and at worst, complete denial. Women do not have the privilege of such emotional disconnection.
I will continue to live my life as I always have, endeavouring to treating everyone as an individual, and I will continue to love the men in my life, (sometimes too much,) and attempting to raise my own little boy to be a feminist. But I hereby resign from trying to make men understand what sexism means, day to day. How it not only means that women have more obstacles to overcome, but that it puts us at risk, too. Because for every man I give the benefit of the doubt to, there is another ready to objectify me, blame me for being abused, asking me what I did to deserve being treated in such a way. There is one ready to sexually assault me.
Victims of sexual assault can receive support at victimsupport.org.uk
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