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.