SWEARING ALERT: If you are sensitive to any particular arrangements of letters, don’t read the conversation bit at the end.
If push came to shove I would identify as “feminist”, but I am very wary of some of the ways that term gets used by both other feminists and by anti-feminists. The only reason I would use it is because to say you’re not a feminist is tantamount to saying you don’t agree that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. And that would just be plain stupid.
So, I am a feminist, and ‘feminism’ to me is the idea that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Nothing more complicated than that. So that’s the standpoint from which I am writing this blog entry. It began when I happened to click on this link.
The article is about a Twitter project where women can record the instances of every day ‘sexism’ they encounter in their daily lives. When this was published, the group had just received its 20,000th entry.
At the word ‘sexism’, my Radar of Dubiousness starts whirring. I’ve started to feel an unbidden bubbling discomfort with words that end in ‘ism’. A lot of what I read around these isms nowadays seems divisive and combative and I frequently wonder if what were once useful terms are now so loaded with dogma that they are almost completely counter-productive in terms of successful debate. It seems that whenever someone is identified as a something-ist (Feminist, Humanist, Nationalist, Marxist, etc.) then everyone starts making assumptions about what the speaker/writer is saying based on what they think they know about the ism in question and not listening to exactly what is being said. This results in profoundly frustrating debates where pretty much every contributor is punching a straw man the whole time and nothing is achieved except frustrated rage and a deeper embedding of dogma on all sides.
The unlikeable term ‘sexism’ is usually used to denote male-on-female prejudice, but as a mother of two splendid sons and the spouse of an excellent man, I also cringe at least once a day at female-on-male sexism. Indeed, it’s perfectly acceptable in the media to imply that men are basically dribbling halfwits without the wherewithall to clean baths properly or know when to buy their sardonically critical wife flowers (that stupid rabbit thing advertising air freshener in between sections of Emmerdale). Perfectly lovely and intelligent women I know crack jokes about man-flu, men always being wrong, a bit stupid, useless and generally in need of the guidance of women. Even those who have great spouses do this because it’s just become part of everyday banter. These women are not being evil, they’re just not thinking how this might make men feel because there’s an assumption that men are so confident in their patriarchal power that you can’t really hurt them. Even if that were true of fully grown men (it’s not), is it also true of our small sons? Are they all born with the power to feel ok about themselves in a culture where it’s acceptable to constantly say men are a bit shit just because they are male? Is it only girls who are damaged by the repetition of negative gender stereotypes?
I was working with a group of young mums a couple of weeks ago and this conversation happened.
S: … yeah, well all men are twats aren’t they?
[general agreement from all present]
Me: Didn’t you say earlier that your boyfriend gets up with your son to do the night feeds so you can sleep?
S: Oh yeah. Well, yeah he does…
Me: So, not all men are twats then?
S: Well, no, but you know what I mean…
A: Mine does night feeds too, and he makes me breakfast before he goes to work…
These young women were perpetuating the stereotype of men as useless, when evidence in their own lives points to the very opposite. It’s sort of like phatic talk about the weather – nobody really thinks about what they’re saying, and nobody picks up on how damaging this could be because it’s socially acceptable to mock men.
So it was with a certain amount of dubiousness that I went to explore the everyday sexism project http://www.everydaysexism.com/ Apart from being bugged by the question, ‘if we are going to tackle sexism shouldn’t we tackle it from all sides rather than just one?’, there was the nagging feeling that many of the annoying things people say are down to basic stupidity rather than sinister sexism. There are a hell of a lot of stupid people out there, and to be honest, some of the things posted on the everyday sexism site could be shrugged off as just the spoutings of the intellectually deficient. I’ve never been certain that explaining identity politics to dribbling morons is a productive way to pass the time.
What really struck me as I read through the contributions, though, was that the majority of them were about inappropriate touching and sexually intrusive language. Comments to do with getting back in the kitchen, etc, while irritating and puerile, can often be fairly easily shrugged off, but when someone feels they have the right to touch or comment on parts of your body it feels incredibly invasive. And it seems from the site that this stuff goes on ALL the time. I’m a bit too middle aged and confident to be a victim of this kind of thing nowadays but I have some stories from my less confident past, so I showed some friends the site and asked what their experiences were. The following (edited) discussion ensued and includes anecdotes from three friends and myself. I’ve used false initials for privacy.
P: Ok, I’m reading the everyday sexism site. I hate it when boys say their shit comments are “banter”. Using a friendly word to justify being an absolute COCK.
I had one today. I might add.
J: What happened?
P: Nylon wearing man on the Underground asked me where I was getting off and if I was “the lucky girl who would be dealing with his erection tonight”. He touched my leg and I thought my gut was going to explode. Things like that scare the SHIT out of me.
S: I hope you were HORRIBLE to the disgustoman.
P: I was too scared to. Just walked away, and left the train at the next stop before boarding another. Shouldn’t have to.
S: Understandable. It makes my skin vibrate with angry. The casual sexism makes me angry. Yesterday we saw a bloke that was at a training event we went to. He was horrible to me there (and ignored us yesterday) because when he made a sex comment to me I reacted with some overt disgust. He got a bit nasty after that because I showed him up.
P: What thing did he actually say?
S: I can’t remember exactly, something about my arse, I think. But his aggression in response was visible.
P: Did he do that “you can’t take a joke”, “calm down” response? Fucking HATE that. It’s NOT a joke, I don’t know you, you’re a COCK.
S: I can’t exactly remember, but that sounds likely. He is one of those men whose pupils go too big too quickly. It makes me so very angry.
P: I get really scared when people are suggestive. I REALLY don’t like it.
S: It can be horribly intimidating. It makes me turn into the incredible hulk a bit.
P: I’m not brave enough to do Hulk. I don’t feel like I do anything to be victim of men being horribly explicit and suggestive. It’s horrible. Especially when they’re inebriateds.
S: It’s just_too_horrible.
P: Don’t really know what the answer is.
S: Eugenics. It means staying away from places. Which is EXACTLY the problem.
P: I don’t know if it’s getting worse. I think there are just more mediums to be sexist on, and information is more accessible.
J: What do you think of this?
S: It’s a pointless thing to say.
P: Dislike the possessive pronoun more than the actual implication.
J: I couldn’t decide whether it was funny or not. Part of me agrees with her, and then I think ‘am I just being humorless’. But the comments under the article are horrible.
Yeah, the possessive pronoun. But is it funny? Someone wrote, “imagine if it said, give this to your black maid…”
P: Fucking Hell. Never read the comments to anything on the internet, ever. Misanthropy.
S: Yes. Fucking stupid people. Someone take their keyboards away. It’s not massively offensive exactly, but it’s not funny. It’s old hat. It took EFFORT to make that label. Effort for a shit joke. Pointless.
P: Some years ago I did a presentation on Neurophysics in front of my class (which I was graded highly for). And at the end of it some boy from the back of the room shouted
“Yeah, that’s great and all, but get back in the kitchen” and all of the boys laughed.
Sort of, an attempt to devalue everything I had said.
J: That IS the same sort of thing. Everyone knows it’s a joke, but. I suppose it’s like all irony, it’s only irony if you know it’s ironic. If you don’t, then it’s true. I used to think that about that comedy programme where they played up all the Asian stereotypes. Funny if you know they’re being ironic. But if you don’t then it just backs up stereotypes.
S: I know what you mean. It’s quite complicated when you start thinking. People should be nice to each other. But sometimes it’s hard to tell when they aren’t.
J: Yeah! And sometimes they’re not even sure they’re not either.
S: It’s just thickness that jeans thing. Really. Even just in terms of humour. Unoriginal. If you can make me laugh and the offensive is for that actual purpose then ok, but when the offensive is real and joke is shit then fuck off and die.
[topic moves back to everyday sexism site]
S: Thinking about it, I’ve never particularly experienced the ‘get back in the kitchen’ stuff. I’ve experienced people thinking I’m stupid because of being a young/girl. But mainly it’s sexual. Actual touching and/or repulsive words.
J: Yeah. You’re right. I haven’t experienced the kitchen type stuff either, I think. Only sex stuff. There was the rapey man on the beach when I was 16. Who didn’t even speak to me when he was doing it. Or after. And once a bloke tried to put his hand in my knickers and when I protested he said “fuck you then” and walked off leaving me alone in the dark somewhere scary.
P: That made my nose tingle.
S: Christ. That idea of being disposable if you aren’t willing to shag is hideous.
P: ACTUAL touching is worst. Hate.
S: I have grabbed their hands and actually screamed at them more than once when they did uninvited touching. One time I grabbed a bloke’s hand and explained to his girlfriend what he’d been doing. He did it when she was stood NEXT TO HIM. AND another time when that happened and I grabbed the bloke’s hand and did anger, he apologised to my boyfriend not me!
P: I mostly just cry and then hide under my duvet for a day with a swiss roll.
J: That apologising to the boyfriend not you makes me want to kill. My friend’s boyfriend wrote ‘slag’ all over my walls because I started going out with someone and wouldn’t shag him. And a bloke told my boyfriend he was lucky because I had good tits. I was embarrassed enough to hide under my duvet with a swiss roll.
S: Thinking it’s acceptable to say that to say that is so weird.
J: Yeah, it’s all about ownership.
P: A few weeks ago when I found myself in that horrible night club a boy came up behind me outside and picked me up from underneath with one hand. And I was wearing a dress. Then when I did some struggling he started making shushing noises so I went home.
J: Fucking hell. He was a total stranger? Was he young
P: Yes. Completely. He practically lifted me via genitals. Puke. He was about 27/28.
S: my friend’s boss, the big MD of the company tried to kiss her at the Christmas party. She refused and he did that typical ‘if you tell anyone then I’ll ruin your career…’. He got married a month later.
Someone I know was sexually assaulted by a bar tender when she was drunk and when she reported it to a policeman they said it was her fault for being drunk.
Oh, and the fact I get paid less than every man in my department despite the fact I am a manager and they are not.
J: I was sitting with a group of ‘friends’ once and a perfectly harmless bloke came in and said, “you’ve got to listen to this!” and it was (I think) a NWA song about a policewoman being raped. It had her screaming and crying for ages. Everyone thought it was really good because it was a policewoman and the police were bastards.
S: Someone put his hands down my pants on a dancefloor. Another bloke was doing repulsive finger/tongue movements right in my face, but my boyfriend headbutted him. Another man put his hand up my skirt once, I turned around and punched him in the head and he pushed me. My friends went for him and he got kicked out.
J: Our friend’s daughter was raped by a bouncer at a night club, and all the other bouncers enabled him to do it.
S: And he got away with it.
P: This all makes me feel HORRIBLE.
J: Sorry, P. Remember it depends where you hang out and there have always been shit people, but there are plenty of lovely.
S: There are LOADS of fucking brilliant people. There are. I have been in situations where people could’ve taken advantage and my lovely friends who are boys have looked after me and kept me safe.
P: Yes. There definitely are. I know that. But even ones who are potentially brilliant think with their penises when they’re my age. Learnt that shit people congregate in certain places and it’s best to just avoid them.
S: That’s true. It’s a fucking infuriating shame. But it’s true.
P: I’m under my duvet. Confused as to why it’s so difficult to accept that I’d rather strangers didn’t attempt to touch my vagina/anything without consent. I might wear a sandwich board saying so.
S: You have to put that stuff in a box and put it away. The only way it can be thought about is objectively, in a different context, in a trying to work out why people are broken way. There isn’t a simple explanation.
And eating makes the universe better. Brian Cox said so. Or something.
J: It would be funny as fuck if you did wear a sandwich board. But people would call you a crazy uptight feminist.
P: “Don’t touch my vagina please”. (I’d put “please” so they wouldn’t think I was uptight).
J: They’d think you were a lesbian.
S: I think there’s a ‘don’t touch my vagina face’ that can be developed a bit.
J: We could make Don’t touch my vagina face masks.
P: It should just be a regular face. I’ve eaten a six pack of Mars Bars since we started this.
J: My friend L just shared these joyous anecdotes:
” A bloke suggested he should carry me like god had intended – like a 6 pack of beer. That’s why women have 2 holes. When I told him to fuck off he said I had a fit body but a bad attitude. I should sort myself out.. Told him to go fuck himself. It made him even more outraged. Other girls actually said I should be pleased he fancied me because he was good looking…
….Oh, and Mr Day who stuck his fingers down my top every time I got a Maths question wrong and gave me an irrational hatred of Maths. Cheers for that!”
S: Fuck SAKE! I hope someone shot Mr Day in the fucking face.
So. Yes. Just four random perfectly usual well(ish) balanced women, and they’ve experienced all this stuff between them. It’s quite disturbing.
There really is a serious problem here, and I don’t know how it should be addressed. But this conversation made me realise that the everyday sexism project IS doing a useful thing. I may wriggle a bit at the terminology and wish it could be a bit more inclusive of male experience as well, but this stuff needs to be talked about. I don’t want our daughters and their daughters to continue going through this shit. In fact, I can feel the latent angry feminist rise in me as I type. Time to log off.