Enough is enough
#metoo shows it’s time for everyone to call out the bullshit
Making the choice to not be a victim means denying bad experiences. I refuse to be a victim, but through this denial, I enable other people’s shitty behaviour and thus become part of the problem.
But speaking out every time is exhausting. This past week has been exhausting. It’s brought up dozens of awful memories. Memories of all the times when I didn’t say something. Those moments when I lost self-respect because I was too afraid to speak up; when I chose the path of least resistance and let someone get away with objectifying me, or using my body in ways that made me feel disgusting despite the fact that I had said no.
That choice was always made because I’d weighed up the options and decided it wasn’t worth the fight. I’d rather just leave. And in order to leave, I had to let people do things I didn’t like, wasn’t comfortable with, and made me feel lesser than I should have. And I stayed silent. I buried the frustration and hurt deep inside, because that’s how I’d learned to cope; to keep smiling, to act like everything was just fine.
I’ve always considered myself an intelligent and strong woman and yet…
My earliest sexual experience took place with someone I met that day. We were 13. Neither of us had fun (as far as I can recall) because neither of us knew what we were doing. Touching for the sake of keeping up with the in-crowd. Our friends had hooked up with other friends the weekend before so we were just joining in the peer pressure crucible of private school in South Africa. I wanted to be like everyone else, so I gave up my autonomy to be a sheep. That feeling of doing something despite knowing it made me feel bad has never left me.
I was a pretty girl as a teenager. What that translated into was a lot of unwanted attention. All I wanted was friends, yet I got in trouble over and over for “leading guys on” or “being a cock tease” because I didn’t always pick up that when guys wanted to hang out with me it wasn’t necessarily because they thought I was smart. I was harassed by certain boys on a daily basis who continuously told me I was pretty and/or asked me to marry them. When I finally cracked, got visibly angry, and told them to fuck off (despite having asked them to stop numerous times), I was told not to be such a bitch and had rumours spread about me.
This continued into my 20s. I went through phases of intense frustration about the fact that no one ever took me seriously. My high school drama teacher recommended wearing ugly clothes and getting a bad haircut. I recall thinking that she wouldn’t understand: she was old and fat, and clearly not valued only for her looks.
This only started to change once I was married and had children and was no longer considered a “threat” because of my sexuality. Except that it still comes up over and over again, even in professional settings. When I go to events, men routinely comment on how attractive I am. Would that same man tell another male attendee that he looks great and that’s why he remembers him? Not likely. And yet, I’m supposed to feel grateful for the compliment. I’m supposed to be pleased to have men stare at and objectify me?
I believe that this behaviour — the inability of a lot of men to see women outside of their physical sex — is because many of them were never taught as boys how to communicate with girls as equals. They were never taught that when they have sexual feelings it’s their responsibility to keep them in check; if they want to speak with women in a sexual way they need to ask permission first.
And even once you’re in a physical relationship with someone, you need to continue to ask for consent. If you have a particular kink, discuss it with your potential sexual partner. Some girls don’t like having their butts touched, others (probably most!) do not like semen in their faces. Would you like a girl to suddenly shove a dildo up your ass? Probably not. Ask permission before you do anything to any person that you might not like having done to yourself. In fact, ask permission before you touch them at all, even if they’ve said yes before.
We need to start having open conversations about sex and sexuality much earlier. We live in a capitalist system where we sell everything using images of sexualized bodies, but we don’t have real sexual education in schools (or rather, we used to, but it’s been chipped away at by ignorant people who think that speaking about sex will make children do it earlier).
It’s still taboo to talk about pleasure, about promiscuity, about experimentation. We police girls for wearing tank tops and shorts shorts, but don’t explain to boys why it’s inappropriate for them to touch or harass girls when they wear these clothes (or anything else for that matter). How are young people supposed to figure out what is appropriate behaviour when the messages we are giving are of women policing themselves so that boys and men don’t react to their innate sexuality? Why is nobody teaching young people how to talk to each other about sex in a way that isn’t awkward or embarrassing? The only reason discussing sex is uncomfortable is because we haven’t normalized it.
I still feel unbelievably lucky that in my mid 20s, I met a man who values me for who I am. While he thought I was beautiful, it was our conversations that made him certain I was the person he wanted to spend his life with. In fact, he surprised me because he didn’t pursue me in the aggressive way I was used to. He waited until he was sure I was interested. And once we knew we really liked one another, we took our time getting to know each other intimately in ways I had never imagined possible.
He helped me embrace feminism. He taught me that I didn’t have to use my body to get attention. He asked how he could possibly have a right to care about or comment on the hair on my body because look at him: he’s covered in it. He told me that he never ever wanted me to have sex with him when I wasn’t “in the mood,” because he never wanted me to go through the motions for his pleasure.
We are equals in our relationship and have taken turns being the breadwinner. This has enabled me to climb to where I am in my career. It’s also given him the opportunity to grow and choose what he wants from life. This does not make him a “cuck” or a “beta male”. He is not a subpar man because he doesn’t “put me in my place”. He is not lesser than because he is currently a student and I am the breadwinner. We are a partnership and in that partnership we make decisions together, we respect one another and our boundaries, and we are teaching our daughters every day that a strong relationship is built on foundations of trust, hard work, and of a mutual appreciation for what each person brings to the table. There are no expectations: there is dialogue. When we have problems we discuss them. When we want to make decisions, we do it together.
To all the men who think that the way to be a big strong man is by degrading others, I pity you. If you think that your moment of climax is pure bliss, you are sadly deceived. You will never know the transcendent joy of connection. You’ll never know how it feels to climax with your partner, to feel that you are one with another human being and part of a universe in which everything in that moment is perfect. It may sound like spiritual bullshit, but unless you’ve had it you’ll never know. And unless you respect other human beings as your equals, you certainly won’t ever have the chance to.
To the men who think that other men who identify as feminists are “beta males”: I pity you too. You’re modelling your behaviour on that of the biggest strongest animals? Well, I’m sorry to break it to you but we live in a society where it’s not okay to go around beating others up and raping women because you’re big and strong. You’re not a tiger. You’re not a bear. If that’s what you emulate then you are a sad pathetic excuse for a human being.
To the men who think that your strength is what gives you respect, then you don’t understand what respect is. Respect is earned, not demanded. The current president of the United States is a dismal example of this. If you think that bullying people into doing what you want is the best way to accomplish something, then guess what? You’re a bully. You’re not stronger. You’re not more virile. You’re not better. You’re a bully, you’re pathetic, and you don’t belong in a society.
But my anger isn’t going to help even things out. It’s our action and words that will. It’s behaving like my husband, standing up to the ignorant assholes and forcing other straight white men like himself to acknowledge their bias and prejudice even if it means he sometimes gets into (verbal) fights. No matter how exhausting or difficult it is, we’re all responsible to call people out on their bad behaviour. I know that it’s not going to be easy or fun: this is centuries — millennia — of patriarchy and rape and ownership of female bodies that needs to be dismantled, but if we continue to “let boys be boys” and force girls and women to stay silent, then nothing is going to change.
We need to reassess the way we speak to children, to change the messages we send girls about the need to be perfect, while pushing our little boys to be heroes and daredevils. It’s noticing the gendered language we use: bossy versus strong, smart versus brainy. It’s being brave and calling men — and women — out on their unconscious sexism. It’s taking those moments, even with men you know aren’t actually assholes to say, “I’m not sure that you intended to be sexist, but talking about my body/women’s bodies is not appropriate.” It’s standing up for others and listening to them without judgment. It’s making sure that we take a second before we speak to figure out if what we’re saying could be hurtful.
We all need to do better. Something has shifted this past week so now we need to keep pushing until the dam breaks, until women are no longer afraid to speak out when they feel harassed or diminished. Change is slow but it can happen. I’ve resolved that I will no longer accept the crap that I’ve put up with for so long. I will cut people out, and will call people out. I will not stay silent because it’s easier to brush it off. I live a privileged existence where being brave and standing up for myself won’t lead to physical harm from those closest to me. Because of this, it is my duty to amplify my voice and that of the millions of other women who wish they could say something, but can’t because of fear.