Knee Jerk

When Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be proposing women-only train carriages this morning, I reacted the same way as many women did: knee jerk. In a bid to end sexual harassment of women in public places, Corbyn had actually said that he was proposing to consult with women’s groups on the right way to raise awareness and tackle the problem. Fair enough. All good with that. Just maybe don’t even mention segregating us as we’re not the ones at fault here.

Just last week I decided to record it on Twitter every time I was harassed in public. On the first day, during a two-hour walk from north-west London to King’s Cross, I was hassled four times, the first occurring eight minutes after leaving my flat. I could see that decent chaps on my Twitter feed were a) horrified and b) surprised by the sheer regularity of it. Why don’t women talk about it, they ask? I say, because we’ve been brought up to keep it quiet. It happens mostly when we’re on our own. We’re told we’re making a fuss or attention-seeking if we mention it, and should accept it all as the most glorious compliment. It’s worth listening to Everyday Sexism‘s Laura Bates on the subject – it’s a near-universal female experience.

I think the only reason we’re talking about it now is the rise of the female voice on social media. For the past few years we’ve slowly begun to record instances of harassment and have other women say, ” that happened to me” back to us. Laura Bates’ project has aggregated that experience into a global phenomenon, with women and men of all ages, going to her website to record the things they’ve witnessed or been subject to.

Predictably the press jumped on the women-only carriage concept as a stick to beat Corbyn with, as he’s a controversial candidate and there are many who want to see him go down. But like many men, he’s principled and is trying to work out what to do about the problem whilst simultaneously not being quite able to believe how enormous it is.

I think it’s laudable to want to work closely with women’s groups on how to tackle these issues, but really, the conversation needs to start with men. They’re the ones doing the harassing, they’re the ones we’re being advised to protect ourselves from, holed up in women-only spaces. As Everyday Sexism on Twitter puts it, “this puts the responsibility to deal with harassment/assault onto the victim instead of the perpetrator where it belongs. It plays into victim-blaming culture of ‘why didn’t she keep herself safe’ rather than ‘why did he harass/assault her’.”

Immediately my mind went to what would happen if we implemented women-only carriages – some men finding it hilarious to get into one and hassling the occupants like a collie with a pen full of frightened sheep. The emergence of Platform Pests as these men realise that they can find a whole bunch of us herding together, waiting for our carriage, and surely one of us will take them up on their advances. And so on.

If you have the conversation with women only, then you’ll learn something about the experience but you’re preaching to the converted. We know what street harassment is like – most of us experience it every day of our post-puberty lives. It’s like a sidebar of commentary that we’ve learned to roll our eyes at, walk away from, look on in bemusement when a guy is gesticulating wildly at us but we are wearing headphones so can’t hear what he’s saying. (That’s actually my favourite, depending on the appropriateness of the soundtrack.)

What compounds the experience is when we’re told we should take it all as a compliment or when men (and some women) think we’re just making a fuss over nothing. They’re only hearing about isolated incidents, but we now know that this is an endemic activity. If we mentioned it every time it happened, you wouldn’t hear about anything else (even I got bored with my Twitter feed last week as I recorded the incidents).

So somewhere along the line, this conversation has to start with boys and men. It’s a conversation about a sense of entitlement to a woman’s body, personal space and attention, and about how that is not the birthright of a male. Part of me thinks there’s no hope of even starting to say anything. It’s too late. I could start to sound like generations of women before me who shrugged or laughed it off and said, “it’s just how things are.”

Or I could continue to say, “this is how things are” in a bid to bring greater awareness to my small corner of the world. To keep mentioning the unmentionable things until the stream of all the mentions becomes too big a thing to ignore or disbelieve.

So, Mr Corbyn, I’m asking that should you become a leader and consult with women on this subject, that you will at least attempt to start the conversation with boys and men. You’ll probably find that this is the biggest challenge you’ll ever face in politics, but I’d respect you for trying.

 

 

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Awareness is All

Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my take on feminism. It informs most of my blog posts, and indeed I started this blog (in part) to retain a public ‘voice’ when I was being silenced in a very male environment. I generally don’t use words like ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘women’s rights’ in my posts because I know they can attract unwanted attention and put some people off what I’m trying to say, but all of those things inform my writing, and I think about them every day.

But today I’m saying it out loud. My name is Lisa and I am a feminist. I haven’t always been, but it’s become an important part of my life in the past few years, with the rise of the female voice, particularly in social media.

Last week I went to the launch of Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist book in Waterstones Piccadilly. She is a journalist I really enjoy keeping up with, both in her Grazia magazine column and her Twitter feed. She is a strong voice in contemporary British culture and I’m interested in what she had to say. I’d heard her on the radio the day before and been surprised when I found myself disagreeing with her stance on feminism – and it took me a while to process it. She is in favour of a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ take on women’s rights, stating that she’s quite happy to let a bit of manspreading, all-male panel shows and wolf-whistling go by, in order to concentrate on the ‘big’ issues of rape, the pay gap, female genital mutilation (FGM) and abortion rights. She states that she loves fashion, beauty and staying skinny, but maintains that these are things entirely for her own love of them, and nothing to do with doing them for men. At the same time she says she loves being sexy and fanciable. Hmm.

This is where she and I part company on the subject. To me, all of the small stuff that objectifies and demeans women gives rise to the big stuff like rape culture, and there is no doubt that an urge to be sexy and fanciable to men comes from socialisation among women to do so from a young age. Fashion, beauty and body-consciousness come from the same source but Vernon is unable to see the connection between these elements. She has rebadged them as her own desires, seemingly completely unaware of where they came from.

This is when I realised what sort of feminist I am – one that advocates awareness. I am all in favour of women doing exactly what they want – whether it’s being a housewife, making a living in sex work, living for fashion or a being a glamour model – as long as they know WHY they have the urge do those things. We’ve been socialised to want to please men, be sexy and beautiful for them and be their homemakers while they go out to work. If you decide to turn that into a way of life or a way of making a living, then that is your right, but just know why you’re doing it and be happy. Like Vernon, I want to be sexy and fanciable too, and I love the odd ‘hello beautiful’ comment, but I know why I want those things. I try not to need them, as a way of managing my expectations, but the urge is there and I know where it comes from. I’m not going to pretend that I want to look sexy purely for myself.

Similarly, men have been socialised to objectify girls and women, to see them as something they are entitled to comment on, touch and have sex with. Relatively few men are aware of that fact, which is why there is a such a backlash from them when we refuse to accept their comments or have sex with them or when we say we want Page 3 removed from our papers and more women on panel shows. We’re rejecting a thing that is so ingrained in our culture that many people, men and women, refuse to believe it’s actually there. They think we’re making a fuss. In fact, the main reaction I’ve had from (mainly male) friends when they’ve asked about my feminism is a questioning whether what I’m saying is actually true. I believe that the scale of it is so massive that they’d rather deny it’s even there or that they might be party to that male sense of entitlement to women.

I usually point them in the direction of Laura Bates’ excellent 2014 article: “10 common comments on feminist blogposts”. The very first comment, that ‘this is not an issue specific to any gender’, cites the statistical evidence (from 2012) that floors any argument to the contrary. Women are not yet equal to men in any sexual, political, or economic arena and yet Twitter is filled with people arguing with feminists to prove that what they’re talking about is real with yet more facts and statistics. We certainly have them, but why should we keep having to prove it? To me it feels like the science vs creationism argument – the science behind feminism is so obvious to me that saying that it doesn’t exist feels like I’m arguing with someone who maintains the world was built in seven days by a man with a beard in the sky. I might as well give up. But I’m not going to stop believing in it.

I can understand why men feel under attack from feminists because we are directly attacking the male bias in our society – otherwise known as ‘patriarchy’. It’s not their actual individual fault that it’s there, but many men feel as though we are saying it is. We’re not. They’re a victim of it too – does no one think that there is a correlation between the high rate of suicide among young men and the pressure on them from a young age conform to traditions of masculinity? I’m fascinated by the subject, and Shakespeare was too. His tragedies are littered with men who fail to conform to the norm and are angst-ridden and suicidal because of it.

If you’ve grown up in a culture of male privilege and entitlement, where you are the privileged one, then you’re not really going to have a clear counter-view you, are you? Just accept that, and be aware that this social system has an effect on you, as well as all the women around you. If you’re a young woman who thinks there’s no need for feminism because ‘we’re already equal’, just know that we’re not. Yet. If you’re a young man who says he has a ‘problem with feminists’, stop and think about what you are saying. You are saying that you don’t approve of equality for women. Most men I’ve met who’ve said that clearly don’t believe in inequality.

Awareness, awareness, awareness. That’s all I’m saying.

This is my feminism.