Men, shut up and listen

I can already hear the men clicking on this and getting outraged. “It’s not all men!” “That wasn’t even sexist, it was just banter!” “Why are you so upset?” “Telling men to shut up is sexist in itself!”

A week ago, I gave a speech to nearly a hundred people on my graduate scheme. The theme was public narrative, and we could choose to talk about anything we wished. I talked about street harassment. I talked about two weeks ago in Clapham, when a man gave me a red rose, the spines pricking against my hand, and then proceeded to follow me the not inconsiderable distance to the tube station. I told them about how, after boarding that train and travelling across London to my boyfriend’s nearest station, I was harassed by two men, their faces shadowed by hoodies as they crowded up against my body and asked where I was going that night. I got home, angry, afraid, shaking. Angry because I should be able to walk less than 30 minutes through my own city without being made to feel fundamentally unsafe. Afraid, because I didn’t know those men. They were all taller than me, more solid, probably stronger. Coming home should be a sanctuary. The room was full of my boyfriend and his (male) flatmates, men I have come to care for, who I see as friends. I told them, and then “women never hit on me in public!” in that tone of voice that says “what are you complaining about?”

My speech touched on that, the idea that men need to listen. I was afraid, that night in Clapham. I was afraid in Finsbury park. I have been afraid in Oxford, and Cambridge, and now in London. I have been angry at men who shout at me, furious that I can’t even go and buy milk in peace. I have been humiliated by wolf whistles and car horns honking, as people nearby turn their head and try and see what I’ve done to deserve it. I have been reduced to tears in public by a man who followed me in a car honking his horn until I turned around and told him to fuck off, at which point he released a torrent of horrific abuse before speeding off. As I cried, another man approached me, and I flinched away from him, before he kindly asked me if I was alright. I had expected more abuse. The most extreme example of this I wrote about here, when a man in a balaclava masturbated at me in a deserted public park. I have never been more afraid in my life than in that moment.

I wrote a while ago about #notallmen, but it clearly bears repeating. Not all men are rapists, are harassers, are abusers. But all men benefit from systemic sexism, and all women bear the damaging effects of it. There isn’t a tiny subset of men doling out this abuse, and if only we could root them out we could achieve equality. Sexism is pervasive, it invades every facet of our society, and we all need to examine our privileges and assumptions. Rapists and street harassers are not weird outliers, waiting to harass women at the slightest opportunity. They are someone’s son, brother, boyfriend, date.

Rewind to many years ago. I was 16 or 17, awkward, gangly, desperate for male attention and utterly unaware how to get it. I went to a friend’s party one night, where I was introduced to a friend of a friend. He was tall, dark haired, not especially handsome but not bad looking either. At the end of the night, he asked for my number. I was giddy. I went to a museum with this boy, and then lunch, and he kissed me at the bus stop and asked to see me again. The next time, I went to his house, and we played Mario kart and had pasta and then went to watch a movie. It was Hot Fuzz. I remember that to this day. After the movie, he rolled on top of me and started kissing me. I kissed back for a while, and then I started growing uneasy. His hands on me were painful. He was pressing against me in a way that I didn’t like. I couldn’t breathe, and I tried to push him away. To this day, I don’t know if he didn’t notice or just didn’t care. He kept going. And in that moment, for the first time in my life I think, I was terrified. No one else was home. He was taller than me, at least 6 foot if my memory serves correctly. I seem to remember he played sport, hockey or something of the sort. And I knew that if I screamed and said no, and he didn’t listen, I wouldn’t have been able to stop him. I kept struggling, trying to push him away, and eventually he stopped. I left, and I never heard from him again.

That boy grew up to study PPE at Oxford. We have friends in common on Facebook. He has a girlfriend. I don’t know if he meant to scare me like that. I don’t know if he realised that I was trying to push him away. I just know that that moment of fear is etched into my brain. I looked him up on Facebook before I wrote this, and even the sight of him again made me shiver. Just a little bit. He’s a normal bloke. He has a degree, and a girlfriend, and yet in that moment when I was 16, I was so so afraid of him. And I bet he doesn’t even know.

Men, you need to listen. These experiences are not outliers. They are not unusual. After I spoke to those people on my graduate scheme, I had a score of women come up to me afterwards, telling me about their experiences. As women, we need to share these stories. They help us to build a sense of collective identity. They help us consolidate our experiences, to stop men gaslighting us and telling us that our experiences aren’t valid. Most importantly, they tell us that we’re not alone.

Men, you need to listen. When I say something is sexist, when I talk about misogyny on the television or sexual harassment at work, or catcalling in the street, why do you dismiss my experiences? Is it your arrogance? Your privilege? Do you think we’re having a nice little debate about feminism? We’re not. You are actively and aggressively denying my lived experience as a woman. You are gaslighting me and telling me that my experiences aren’t real. You are part of the problem. You don’t believe you are sexist. In that moment, you are. I implore you. Shut up and listen. And I mean really listen. Don’t just sit there, waiting to come up with a “witty” comeback for me. Don’t laugh and make jokes. Just fucking listen. You might learn something.

And to end on a positive note, I said all of this last night to my boyfriend. We were huddled together under the covers, our faces in shadow, but I could feel his eyes on me as I talked. I was angry, and sad, I ranted and I raved and I spoke dejectedly, and he laid there in silence until I had finished. One of the things I love about my boyfriend is how quietly principled he is. He thinks about things, long and hard, until he’s reached a position. It’s a nice balance to my angry passion.

When we met three years ago, he didn’t know anything about feminism. I remember going with him to the fair, a few months after we started dating, and pointing out all of the pictures of half naked women on the side of the rides. He told me he’d never noticed before. I remember him asking me what kind of birth control he should go on, and me laughingly telling him that the pill only existed for me. I was touched that he cared. There have been so many nights like last night, when I have been angry and sad, and he has just listened. Sometimes he pitches in with his own experiences as an ethnic minority. He tells me about his experiences of having parents who were immigrants, what it feels like to be part of two cultures, but not fully part of one, and I try and stay silent and let him talk. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for me, as a white person. That’s just tough though, it’s not his job to make me feel better about my privilege. Last night though, he just listened to me. And then, for the first time in the three years we’ve been dating, he told me that he would now call himself a feminist. I don’t think I’ve ever loved him more.

Advertisements

Failure

CN: sex, pain, mention of medical conditions

I’m curled on my side, my body hunched and small in the foetal position. I can feel him behind me, hovering an inch away from my back, but he knows better than to touch me. Every inch of me feels wrong, my skin feels too tight, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m such an idiot. I thought this time would be different.

It never is.

I wrote a month ago about the pain I’ve been getting in my abdomen. That’s hard enough to talk about – how do you drop “oh yes, I missed work on Monday because I was in A&E with agonising stomach cramps that so far remain unexplained” into polite conversation? I’ve had some scans now; they’ve found nothing, which means that I’m clear of something like ovarian cysts, and I’ve taken a strong course of antibiotics, so if it was anything like PID, that would have been cleared up. The stomach pains are becoming more infrequent, and my period passed this month without pain out of the ordinary. The pains in my stomach are going, but I know that I’m not better. Not by a long shot.

The first time it happened, we were in my room at Cambridge. It was second year; my door didn’t have a lock; and my roommate could have come in at any moment. Classic student sex, rushed in between studying and essays and being caught. I remember the pain building and building, not wanting to say anything, and then crying uncontrollably after he was done, while my partner held me close and apologised over and over again.

We thought it was a fluke, a one off, a dodgy position. We wrote it off, and for a while, everything went back to normal. And then it happened again. And again. And again. Infrequent enough that I barely paid it any attention, thinking that maybe we were just rushing and needed to slow down. It got slowly worse. There would be nights when having sex would leave me in agony for hours afterwards, sitting in a hot bath to relieve the pain and brushing away my partner’s apologies. It stopped being “something that happens every now and again.” It started to happen more often. Soon, it was nearly every time we had sex. Then, it was unusual when it didn’t hurt. Now, I can’t remember when it last didn’t hurt.

As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex. We listen to songs with racy lyrics, we watch music videos with scantily clad women, porn is more watched than ever, TV shows like Love Island put sex in our living room, every night of the week. We love to talk about it, who did what with whom. Games of truth or dare and never have I ever, giggling as you reveal that one night stand you had in college. When we’re having it, it’s great. Sex is exciting, fun, something to laugh over with your friends in the pub while you hold your partner’s hand under the table and give them that look that means later.

On a more personal level, I love sex. I’m usually the loudest in the pub, making my friends blush and shush me. I spent my first year at Cambridge bringing home as many men as I could. I’ve reviewed sex toys for online blogs, and written erotica, and defended watching pornography at the Cambridge Union, and written academic essays promoting female masturbation. I love talking about sex.

It’s just so much harder to talk about when it’s going wrong.

So I put off saying anything to anyone. I hid it from my closest friends. I hid it from my partner. I would tuck my face into his neck, grit my teeth, and then smile at him afterwards, huddling in to his chest and trying to ignore the ache between my legs. I avoided going to see a doctor for so long. When I went, a middle aged woman with a quiet smile examined me, ran tests, told me that there was nothing wrong with me. She was kind, but I felt like a failure.

In Kingston, I met with my new GP. I ran through my prescriptions, that I would need to be set up with my contraceptive and my anti-depressants (thankfully, I’m no longer taking the latter) and then, at the end, I mustered all of my courage, and said in a small voice “when I have sex, it hurts. Like, it really hurts. It’s been happening for over a year.” And that GP smiled at me, and told me that it didn’t matter. I left, humiliated.

Six months later, the stomach pains bought it all back in to focus. Sitting in A&E, the doctor asked me if I had any other symptoms of endometriosis. I hesitated, and then I told her. Now, I’m being investigated at Kingston hospital for any physical issues that might be causing this, and going to see a specialist at St Mary’s in Paddington to see if its an emotional issue.

It’s hell, that’s what it is. I know that I should brush it aside. It doesn’t make me less attractive or less of a woman. Sex involves more than penetrative sex. My partner loves me, and he would never leave me over this.

But I do feel less attractive. I feel less comfortable in my own skin. Sex is more than penetrative, but I would like that to at least be an option. And as much as he loves me, why wouldn’t he walk away? There are plenty of women out there without this problem. He’s a great guy; he’d find someone else.

Every time it happens, I die a little more inside. We talk about it, agree that we just won’t do that, we’ll do everything else. And we do, and its great, and then I go and fucking ruin it by suggesting that we try it. Just once more. I’m ready. It will be fine. And then searing pain rips through me, and I find myself curled up crying, again. I’m such an idiot.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because I feel like a failure.

I sent the first draft of this to my partner to read. “You’re not a failure, and I’m not going to leave you, and I love you.” He’s right, of course. We’re a team. We’ll deal with this like we deal with everything. Together. Next tests are in September, so we’ll know more then.

I can and I will

CN: Sexism, use of the c-word, workplace sexism

“You’re just not a leader.”

“I went to a better university than you.”

“Women just aren’t suited to that kind of thing.”

“Why is the Chief Executive meeting with you – isn’t that a massive waste of his time?”

“I think you’re a vicious cunt.”

Well, I think you mean nothing.

You want to tear me down? Fine. Try. You will fail. I don’t need your validation. I don’t want it. It means nothing to me.

You’re not special. The world is full of insecure men unable to keep up with the world as it changes around them. If you are a woman, you will spend your life fighting against their assumptions, their prejudices. You will spend a lifetime being called “darling” in the office. You will spend a lifetime being catcalled in the street, and groped in bars, and abused by men who are not worth the dirt under your shoes. Think about it. Think about all the men who have tried to tear you down, to tell you that you are worthless. Or, almost worse; that you’re not quite good enough, not quite what they were looking for. We all know what they mean.

We don’t talk about it, far too often. We carry these silent burdens. We shrug it off. What does it matter that someone senior to you at work slipped his arm around your waist at that Christmas function? It was just a joke when that man hit on you at the end of a meeting. You shouldn’t be offended when someone mistakes you for a waitress at a work event (bitch I’m running this thing.)

Fuck that. We have been silent for too long. Next time a man looks at you and finds you wanting, you laugh right in his face. It’s far too easy to let those assumptions slither in. They are poison, creeping through the veins of every woman. You are enough. You are smart. You are beautiful. Your hips are gorgeous. Your smile is contagious. You got that job because you earned it. You can lead. You can follow. You can do, and be, whatever the hell you want to be, because this is 2017 and we will not be held down.

There will always be people to tell you that you can’t do that, you can’t achieve everything you want them to. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that they’re wrong. I’ll say it again: you are enough. Have that confidence in yourself. Whenever I come up against comments like the ones at the top of this post, I take a deep breath, and I list myself.

I am smart. I am ambitious. I am driven. I work hard. I am loved. I can do whatever I want to do.

And then I remember this, and I feel again the solidarity of thousands of women who have held themselves back because they didn’t believe in themselves. We are enough.

“Asking for it” – rape culture and misogyny

CN: Graphic description of rape, rape culture, alcohol, drugs, victim blaming, consent issues, rape.

I heard a story today. I was sitting on a train, a train that would take me in to London, to the place where I would begin work, to visit my boyfriend. Usually I would read; today I forgot my book. A couple of seats behind me, on the other side of the aisle, a couple of men were having a loud conversation. I had nothing to do; it’s over an hour into London from where I live. I sat and I listened to them, first in amusement, then horror.

They started talking about a night out – whether it had been themselves or someone they knew, something they had read about in the paper, perhaps even a legal case they were working on – I couldn’t say. I don’t know.

I know that the story was about a group of men. Men, that was the word they used. And this group of men had met up with a group of girls. Girls, that was the word they used. They had gone drinking. By the sounds of it, they had all had rather a lot to drink. They had taken some cocaine. Most of the females – females, that was the word they used – left, while the men and one of the women went back to the office to get some champers (their words.) There, the woman – girl, they said – had continued drinking, until she fell asleep on an office table. When she woke up, several hours later, still drunk, she found one of the men one top of her. Raping her. While she had been passed out.

They laughed. They laughed as they said this. They didn’t use the word rape, of course. They said “what could she have expected?” They said “it was her own fault.” They said “no court would convict him.”

Several seats away, I shook in silent anger. I cried. I cried, thinking of that woman, waking up, realising what had happened to her. What has happened to so many women.

This is what victim blaming is. It is telling women not to walk home alone in the dark, not to drink too much, not to take drugs, don’t go home with men you don’t know, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t flirt if you don’t want to follow through. Our bodies, our actions, policed constantly by ourselves and society to keep us safe. Safe from the men, the rapists, who are the real problem. And if we don’t follow these rules, right to the letter, being raped is our fault. Even if we do, rape is our fault. It is our fault.

One night, in my first year at Cambridge, I got drunk. Really, really drunk: possibly more drunk than I have ever been before or since in my life. I had recently had my heart broken, and I wanted to forget. Naively, foolishly, I thought that alcohol was the way to do that. I went out clubbing, losing my friends quickly. I stood on the dance floor in Life, spotted a man, grabbed him and kissed him. I don’t remember what he looked like. I never knew his name. I took him back to my college, and we kissed for a bit… and then I promptly ran to the bathroom and threw up. Then, I passed out.

I woke up the next morning, naked and lying in my bed. I panicked. I assumed the worse. There was no sight of the man, I couldn’t remember anything past throwing up, and I was naked. I found out later that nothing happened. My roommate, thankfully, had been home. He had heard the man carry me from the bathroom, put me into bed and then leave immediately.

I could have been raped that night. I wasn’t. I was lucky. The man I took home acted with decency and did the right thing. But how many men don’t? When we live in a society where grown men can talk about rape so flippantly, so openly, in public, we teach boys that women can’t say no. We teach boys that women are there for their sexual pleasure. We teach them toxic lies, about sexual worth and virginity and consent. We tell them that if no one says “no”, it’s consent. We tell them that if the woman is drunk, or passed out, she was asking for it. We give rapists like Brock Turner six months in prison, and then let him out three months into his sentence for “good behaviour.”

The whole cultural conversation surrounding rape is fucked up. We tell men they can’t control themselves, and make it easy for them to get away with sexual assault when they don’t. We tell women that rape is their fault. We have one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe. We talk about how much the woman was drinking, what they were wearing. We give rapists light sentences, and then let them off early.

I waited until we were nearly in London. Then, I stood up and walked over to the men. My heart was hammering in my chest. I could feel the eyes of the surrounding passengers on me. I felt, already, the familiar shame of speaking up, of saying something that no one wants to hear. The men were older than I imagined, maybe late fifties. Made no difference to me.

I had imagined what to say. I had run through the curse words, the anger, the pain. Instead, I stood before them, calmly.

“I heard what you were saying about that woman. Earlier in the train ride. And I just thought you should know that what you said was disgusting, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Most men argue back. These ones were stunned into silence. I left the train, heart still hammering. What difference does it make? Maybe not a lot. But leaving that train, saying nothing, would have been worse. I hope they think about me tonight. I hope I threw a spanner into their nice little commute into London. I hope I forced them to think about their words. If nothing else, I hope in that moment I made them feel like the victim blaming, misogynistic wankers that they are.

“Provocative” dressing and the female body

CN: Burkini ban, racism, rape, transphobia, street harassment 

A few months ago, I bought a new top. It’s a denim crop top, lace on the sides, Hollister, second hand for £4. I fell in love with it; how comfy it was, how well it fitted me, how it looked hugging my ribs. In spite of that, it took me months to wear it. Why? Because it is easily one of the most revealing tops I own (which, for me, is saying something.) I was worried to wear it in public.

Why be worried? Because, as the burkini ban (more on that in a bit) has illustrated perfectly only this week, clothes are never simply clothes, and women’s bodies are battlegrounds. Women are judged much more harshly than men on the way we look; the clothes we choose to put on our bodies speak for us before our mouths can open. Our bodies become public property; what we wear, how we dress, becomes something that the world feels able to comment on (see: any article on the Daily Mail ‘sidebar of shame.’)

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 19.43.49.png

The Daily Mail, reporting on important current affairs

There are so many rules to follow: personal, professional. How short can a dress be? How much cleavage is too much? Can you show your legs and your chest at the same time? Is it ok to wear a backless dress without a bra? Is it acceptable if your nipples show through your shirt? Should your bra straps show? What if you’re plus sized? Are the rules different? (To the last: no, they shouldn’t be.) Work wear becomes even more of a nightmare – heels, not too high, dress, not too tight, skirt, not too short. Always thinking about what to wear, how to present yourself, while silently screaming “I’m a goddamn educated woman, look at my ideas, not my tits.”

As a woman, navigating these rules is, at best, an inconvenience and at worst, the difference between life and death. Rape cases have been dismissed based on what the victim was wearing (as though that should make any difference.) Trans women face pressure to “pass” by wearing female clothing, and are often murdered for failing to do so, or doing to “too well.” I know the fear of walking home, feeling male eyes rake over a bare shoulder, an exposed midriff, a shadow of cleavage. Or the shame of having a friend point out that they can see your nipples through your shirt. Hearing men shout in the street, commenting on any part of your body they see fit. Dress codes in certain parts of America have spiralled out of control, placing male sexual desire above female education. We degrade our men by assuming they cannot control themselves, and we shame women for dressing as they feel comfortable.

Covering up is not the answer; we are not the problem. When I wore that denim crop top, it was because I liked it, and it was a warm day. I should have the right to show my legs, and my cleavage, and my arms, and any part of myself that I feel like. Incidentally, a reason why I am a supporter of the Free the Nipple campaign; I am incensed when I see a man, shirtless in the summer sun, while I sweat into a tee-shirt. I digress.

Covering up is, for some women, not the answer; but for others it is. Our bodies are ours, to cover or reveal as we see fit. The rules that call women “sluts” and “whores” for wearing a short dress, the rules that say that the rape victim in a short skirt was “asking for it”, are the same rules that objectify and exoticise ethnic minority women for covering up. Of course, for women of colour, the sexism and misogyny of dress codes and clothes rules come layered with xenophobia, racism and, in the case of the French burkini ban, Islamaphobia.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 19.41.06.png

Obviously a key part of winning the war on terror

It is humiliating and wrong to force women to undress in public to fit in with Western, colonial ideals of how a woman should dress. No one should make me cover up; no one should make a Muslim woman undress. Do we honestly believe that all Muslim women are oppressed? They’re not – but even if, even if they were, on what basis do we think that we as white people ought to intervene? Women of colour don’t need saving by the rules of white men.

The truth of the matter is, we can’t win. If we wear too little, we are sluts. If we wear too much (if we are white) we are prudes. If we dare to be both a woman of colour and wear too much, we are oppressed. Clothes don’t oppress us in of themselves. What oppresses us is the mindless and numbing rules, the what to wear and how it impacts on our lives. We are not the problem. We have the right to wear what we like, be that string bikini or burkini.

A Patriot on Brexit

A few days ago, I flew home from a family holiday in Croatia. I love travelling; I love the adventure, the new food to be tasted, clear seas to swim in, unexplored dusty roads to walk. And yet, at the end of every holiday, I find myself sitting in the window seat of the aeroplane, watching with eagle eyes for the lush green fields and scattered houses that will tell me I’m home.

To be a patriot is, perhaps, unfashionable among my generation. We are, more than ever, children of the global age. We are connected through the Internet to thousands of other people, with the same shared interests and ideas. Travel has never been cheaper or easier, and we can hop on planes to far away destinations at the drop of a hat. We grew up in a more multicultural society than our parents and grandparents did, taking new languages and skin colours and ethnicities as a given. I remember a girl at school saying to me once that she didn’t feel British; she had lived all over the world, moving around with her parents, and she felt more than anything to be a bit of everything, a citizen of the world.

I’ve never felt that way. I feel British to my bones. I couldn’t tell you what it is, exactly, without resorting to trite stereotypes. A love (addiction, my boyfriend says) of freshly brewed tea, so hot it burns the tongue. A desire for order, queues, structure. A straight-laced sense of humour, a sarcastic quirk. A knowledge of Britain’s history (both good and bad), and a sense of belonging when I hear that distinctive Oxford accent. Of course, this feeling has changed and developed. In many ways, I feel less British now than I did when I was younger. Meeting and falling in love with my boyfriend showed me – intimately, in a way my small town girlhood never had – what it means to be between two cultures, to be both British and Other. Travelling, reading, exploring; these are the things, I think, that expand our horizons and make it harder to call oneself simply “British.”

All of which leads to the EU referendum, just a few short weeks ago. I voted of course; I voted to remain in, as did nearly everyone I know (certainly nearly everyone of my own age.) That night, my boyfriend and his friends were set to graduate; I sat up until late in the night, drunk on life and cheap wine, watching the results roll in. It looked positive, it looked in our favour, and I fell asleep confident that we would survive this.

When you have a nightmare, waking is the only relief. But the next morning, the nightmare was my new reality, and I couldn’t wake from it. My boyfriend and I sat in bed for hours, reading as many news articles as we could, both in shock.

As the news sunk in, the shock got worse. I didn’t expect Brexit to pass; I certainly didn’t expect to feel as I do. I feel heartbroken. I feel scared for my future, and the future of people I care about. I feel angry. I cling (desperately, foolishly, bleakly) to the hope that I might wake tomorrow and the result will have been reversed.

I am angry at the politicians who manipulated the public perception for their own personal gain. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage; I believe, with everything that I have, that these men lied and wormed their way into the leave campaign for political gain and then, when they won, quit rather than face up to the disastrous consequences of what they’ve done. I am angry with the people I know who voted for leave in the referendum. I’m not the only one; such is the depth of feeling among my contemporaries, many have removed pro-Brexit friends from their Facebook feeds. My own grandparents voted to leave. Of course, I still love them; I have always, and will always love them and do everything I can to make them proud. But knowing that they were complicit in what I see as the ruin of my country and the narrowing of my future chances in life is hard.

Sitting in the sun in Croatia, in amongst the wine and food and swimming, there were moments of heartache. Every time I saw an EU flag, I flinched. My passport – EU and British – was a stark reminder all the way through Gatwick of what my country had done. One night, I sat in the harbour of the town we stayed in. There was live music, English songs crooned with a slight foreign accent. Stopping to listen, you could hear Croatian, German, Italian being spoken. I wanted – I want – to be a part of that. I believe, more than anything, that we are stronger united than we are divided. I believe in the greatness of Britain; but a Britain working within Europe, with the people who – after all – are not that different from us.

We cannot know what the future holds, and I pray that it will not be as bad as I fear. But the day Britain voted to leave the EU, I became less proud of my county. I became, for the first time in my life, ashamed to be British.