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.

“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.

Sexism in Cambridge

TW: Mention of sexual violence, victim blaming, sexual harassment, homophobia, sexism, mental health mention

I’ve thought a lot about this blog post in the last few days. In my head, I’ve been running through my time at Cambridge, which has, on the whole, been incredible. I’ve spent it in the cold on the river, in the heat of Cindies, debating with supervision partners and laughing with friends. And yet, the more I’ve reflected on my time here as I come up to graduating, the more I have realised how sexism has coloured my time here.

Some of it has been run of the mill, barely-needs-to-be-mentioned sexism. It has been men staring in the street when I dare to wear a short skirt. Being shouted at out of car windows as I walk to the boat club. Being groped in Life. Wolf-whistled as I walk home from a club. And once, memorably, a fire truck pulling over and the fireman driving commenting on my arse before speeding away.

It has been supervisions with supervisors telling me to “write like a man.” It has meant being gently mocked for an interest in gender studies, as though that is less of a valid interest than global politics, or political economy, or history of theory. It has been my dissertation supervisor, one of the women I admire above all others, telling me “street harassment doesn’t happen anymore.” (Perhaps I should send this to her with the above paragraph highlighted?)

It has been arguing with – overwhelmingly male – students, who seem to believe that feminism is no longer necessary, that I am just being “shrill” and “overbearing” for expressing my opinions. I have explained my dissertation to men who clearly think they know better. I have been told “asexuality isn’t real.” I was once forced to remove my roommate’s friend from our shared set after he claimed that “most rape victims are lying.” I recently sat in the hall of my college and spent two hours listening to the guy next to me explaining that “gay marriage isn’t necessary” and that “women are just not as suited to law as men are.” Needless to say, I drank rather a lot that night.

Much of the time, I have walked the thin line between calling out the people who are sexist, and keeping quiet. As I said in my first blog post, my feminism and womanhood do not need your justification. I am a person before I am a woman, a woman before I am a feminist: and sometimes I get tired of arguing with ignorant men for my right to be recognised as a human being. Part of being a feminist is walking that line, weighing up whether it is worth your time to engage, or whether you should just let it go. Sometimes, the consequences for speaking out can be difficult to deal with.

One of the most shocking instances of sexism that I have encountered in my time here came from within my sport. Until recently, I was part of a nearly all male sports team. Overall, they were a lovely bunch of guys: witty, smart, fun to be around. However, being the only woman in a male sport’s team can be tough. Being a feminist in a male sport’s team can be even tougher. Sexism wasn’t a regular occurrence, but when it did happen, I mostly kept quiet. I was new to the team, and I wanted their respect and trust: I didn’t want to be “the angry feminist” or to cause resentment.

Two times I broke that tenant. Once, it was a member of the team who posted a video to our group Facebook chat showing multiple young women dancing, barely clothed. I felt uncomfortable, and the next day, I raised it with him. Although he was very amicable about it, I felt thrown off, on the wrong foot: as though I had done something wrong by calling him out. Nevertheless, he graciously accepted my criticism, and refrained from posting anything sexual in nature.

The next incident was harder for me to handle. Again, the incident happened online: perhaps showing the way that men feel somehow bolder posting their sexist thoughts online. We were having a team discussion on critiquing each other. Several of the guys were enthusiastic; a few were reluctant as to how effective it could be. Then, to my shock, a member of the team (a different one from the video poster) waded in and commented something along the lines of “we’re all men, we can call each other out without our tampons falling out.” I was horrified, and this time, I couldn’t keep quiet. I told him that what he had said was offensive and unnecessary. He told me to stop being so sensitive. I told him that I wasn’t going to discuss it any further, and I turned off my phone and fell asleep.

My alarm went off at 6am the next morning, ready for a training session. As I got dressed, I talked to my sleepy, half-awake boyfriend – of how nervous I was going to meet the team, how I was worried what the atmosphere would be like, how I was hoping not to get into another argument. In the end, I didn’t need to worry: no one mentioned it, until right at the end of the training session. Another guy raised the point that it had been inappropriate (not because it was sexist, but because it could call our team into disrepute if the college found out) – I kept quiet in much of the ensuing discussion, unable to make my voice heard. Comments like that weren’t rare: that was just the most shocking one.

Even writing this, I feel ashamed. I feel as though I am betraying my sports team, the men who made me laugh in the midst of my depression and gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I feel as though I am in the wrong for calling attention to this. But I also feel like it is precisely this kind of shame that stops women from speaking out. We don’t want to be called “irrational.” We don’t want to be called the “angry feminist.” But maybe I do. I am a feminist, and I am angry, and I am tired of your patriarchal bullshit invading my time at this university.