Fear

CN: Sexual harassment, flashing, sexism, threat, mention of sexual assault, mention of potential rape

I love horror movies. Some of my favourite films and TV shows – Scream, Silence of the Lambs, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Martyrs – belong to the genre. Some of them, I love for their complexity and their intrigue, like Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs. Some, like Scream, I love for guessing who the killer is. Some I love just for the gore, something thought provoking and shocking (and trust me, I’ve never seen anything as shocking as Martyrs. Saw eat your heart out.) Most of the time, though, I’m just looking to be scared. Like many people, I find it fun, sitting in the dark, not sure who will live and who will die. It’s harmless, and you know (however much it might seem like a serial killer is lurking in your closet as you lie in bed that night) that you’re safe.

Today, I wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a movie, and it wasn’t fun.

It was early morning, and I was walking to my new boat club, excited, nervous, still a little sleepy. I’ve been planning to join for a while, and today was meant to be my first outing with the top women’s squad. The walk from my home is relatively long – about half an hour – but I was entertaining myself by playing on my phone, looking around as the sun rose over the river. The last part of my walk took me through a park, only for maybe the final five minutes. The park was dark, not well lit, and it was pretty much empty. Still, I kept walking. I was worried I was going to be late for my first session. I was concentrating on my phone, when I sensed someone near to me.

I glanced up, and there was a man, standing just a few feet away from me on the same path. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a black balaclava that covered his entire face, leaving only crude holes for his lips and eyes. I was taken aback, and I kept walking. Then, I glanced over again, nervous now, and I saw that he had dropped his trousers. He had dropped his trousers, and he was masturbating himself. And he was looking right at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do. All I knew was that I had to get away, as fast as I could, without antagonising him. I quickened my pace, but kept it at a walk. I lowered my eyes to my phone. I toyed with calling my mother or boyfriend but decided that I didn’t want the man to hear the sound of my voice. I didn’t want to look back. I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I felt sick and embarrassed and suddenly, painfully, aware of how vulnerable I was. My boyfriend wasn’t expecting me back for hours, and no one at the club had my number. If that man had decided to attack me, I would have been entirely vulnerable. As I neared the end of the park, I saw the lights of the boat club, heard the familiar whir of ergs. I dared a glance behind me; the man was nowhere to be seen. I entered the boat club; I met my new crew; I coxed an outing; and I helped the women put their boat away; and I smiled and laughed and said I would see them tomorrow. I walked home, and it was only as I crossed that path in the park again that I remembered what had happened. It was daylight, late morning, the park was busy and full of people, families and children and women. I was still scared.

I was scared as I walked home, and through the park near to my house, and when my boyfriend and I went in to town later in the day to go food shopping. This is a fear that every woman knows. The fact that I could brush aside what happened this morning so easily is evidence of that. I am used to that fear, when I walk home alone at night, or I see men in public and no one else is around. I feel it when a man’s eyes linger on me in public. I felt it, 16, when a boy I had gone on a date with held me down and rubbed himself against me, and I lay there, scared and not sure how to react. I knew then what I know now; that the power was in his hands, that I was vulnerable, and that if he chose to hurt me, there’s no guarantee that I could defend myself. We as women carry these scars, we carry this fear.

I called the police when I got home. I talked to a sympathetic woman, who took down the details of what had happened and tried to comfort me. I am walking that same route tomorrow morning. And I’m scared. But I know that I want to go cox another outing, I want to make new friends and commit myself to my sport all over again. I’ll just have my phone out and ready to call for help. Just in case.

“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.’)

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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.

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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.

Mansplaining, Derailing and #NotAllMen

TW: discussion of rape, rape culture, victim blaming, domestic abuse

In my bid to get away from revision by engaging in kind-of-revision-but-not-as-useful-as-real-revision, I spent a good hour today looking through my old A-level notes. There was a point to this exercise: my A-level politics course covered various strands of feminism in relative depth, and I wanted a quick overview for my gender exam in a fortnight. While looking through my old notes, I found a power point presentation, entitled “The Patriarchy in Modern Britain.” Intrigued, I opened it up and flicked through the slides. It contained many of the depressing statistics that are burned into my brain for my upcoming exam: the fact that there are currently only around 18 female world leaders, the fact that 70% of the people living in poverty globally are women, the number of female MPs (which has risen by 7 percentage points since I wrote the presentation in 2012-3, so that’s something.)

In amongst the presentation, I found this slide (notice the middle bullet point):

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Now, perhaps the word “acceptable” in the middle bullet point was the wrong word to use. I meant to illustrate the idea that we accept rape as a fact of life in contemporary culture: we characterise rape are “just something that happens”, an act committed by monsters which women need to protect themselves from by “dressing appropriately”, not drinking too much and not walking home alone at night. I remember the class discussion after that presentation: every male person in the room was fixated on my use of the word “acceptable.” No one wanted to discuss the far more important issues of low conviction rates for rape, or the still high levels of domestic violence in the UK. Instead, the entire conversation became about one – perhaps slightly misplaced – word.

As I have grown older and become bolder in my feminism, this is something that happens over and over again. Men, taking offence at feminist statements. Men, changing the conversation to suit their own agenda. In this blog post, I would like to go through several of the ways in which men do this, and explain why it really needs to stop.

Firstly, the above example, which is an example of derailing. Derailing is when a feminist (or a member of a marginalised group) tries to begin a discussion about a topic, and someone else (usually a man, but not always) changes the focus of the conversation for their own ends. In the case above, a serious point about rape was derailed by the boys in the room to become a conversation about my use of terminology. It is perhaps most obvious when men’s rights activists attempt to challenge conversations about women’s inequality with how men are disadvantaged in contemporary culture. This is not to deny that men suffer from the effects of patriarchy: they do, and this is something that feminism seeks to address. However, derailers are only ever interested in talking about men’s rights when the conversation is on women’s equality. It is a tactic to distract attention from feminist issues, and turn them instead to what the derailer feels more comfortable discussing.

Secondly, many men engage in mansplaining. Mansplaining is when a man attempts – often in an incredibly patronising way – to explain to a woman something that she already knows, or does not need explaining. It is rife in feminist spaces online, which often include multiple men telling us what we “really mean to say” or why our opinions are, in fact, wrong. Although I did not have the language at the time, the incident in my A-level class was also an instance of mansplaining. The boys in the class felt that the word “acceptable” was the wrong one and, with little interest as to why I had used it, proceeded to spend the rest of the discussion laying out exactly why I was wrong. One of my favourite instances of mansplaining happened around a month ago. I was having lunch with my dad, and conversation turned – as it often does between us – to politics. My dad and I differ hugely on politics, and our debates are usually heated and frustrating on both sides. The abridged version of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m just saying dad, it’s harder to make your voice heard as a woman. Not only are men’s views and opinions prioritised in our society, but women are often talked over and have their opinions dismiss-“

Dad, interrupting: “Now, don’t be ridiculous. No one talks over women or ignores their opinions.”

Me, eyebrows raised: “… you do see what you did there?”

Dad: “…”

Me: “…”

Dad: “I will concede that you have a point.”

And finally, the idea of #NotAllMen. Again, this was utilised in the classroom: how could rape be acceptable when all of the boys in that room were so adamant that it was an abhorrent crime? They would never dream of raping someone, so why was it their problem? This, of course, totally misses the point. No one is saying that every man is a rapist: but part of the fear of being a woman is that any man could be. We have a perception in our culture that rape is something that happens in the dark, by a stranger – a random act of violence. It is not. Most rapes are committed by someone that the victim personally knows, and most are committed within the home. Rape is a systemic phenomenon; one that finds a breeding ground in a culture that objectifies and degrades women.

#NotAllMen are rapists: but that is not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen are potentially at threat because of rape culture. Focusing on men once again takes the attention away from women and women’s problems.

Perhaps you are a man reading this, and you feel defensive. Don’t: none of this is an attack on you. It is instead a plea to recognise your own privilege. You, as a man, are more respected and listened to than we are. You are more likely to have your opinions taken seriously, and you are more likely to be a position of power to have that opinion heard. Next time a woman tries to tell you about her experiences of sexism, listen to her. The same goes for other marginalised groups: if a person of colour is telling you, as a white person, about racism, don’t try and talk over them. Recognise that they are not attacking you personally, but expressing their frustration at the systematic inequality in our society. Who knows? You might even learn something.