This story has been told many times by many voices before mine and has been lived by many lives. And yet, it has unfortunately become the universal story of our society.
Who am I? In this story, I am a white woman living in North America. But I could be anyone — man, woman, girl, boy, black, white, pink, purple… You’re not particularly picky.
Who are you? You are my cable technician, my taxi driver, a group of guys standing by the bus stop at night, or a “friend” in the industry I’m desperately trying to enter.
My offence? Walking alone, wearing a skirt or doing my makeup before going out with you, taking the bus at night, sitting by myself, or simply existing in your presence.
What I don’t comprehend is why any of the above would make you feel like you are allowed to see me as my body instead of a living, breathing human being just like you.
You might be wondering why I’m writing this today when so many have written (better) pieces on this same issue before.
My reason is simple:
For a long time, I didn’t realize it was happening to me too.
I come from a traditional, middle class family. I was taught to speak only when spoken to, to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”, be polite to everyone even when they were less than (do unto others…), etc. I was taught that if a boy pulls my hair in grade school, it’s because he likes me. If a man whistles behind me, it’s because I’m pretty. If a man is rude to me at work, he is intimidated by my success.
So when I asked my friend out for a drink to chat about his work hoping that we could foster a business connection and he got drunk and was touchy, I thought I’m on the right track. He must like me.
But then I took a pause. And on my way home that night I felt disgusted with myself for allowing him to make me feel uncomfortable. For allowing him to feel me up with his eyes for his own fun and pleasure, all this at a business meeting no less. I was angry with myself for not speaking up.
And no, me and my skirt and makeup were not “asking for it.” Faced with the incomprehensible, I simply froze in my seat. I didn’t know how to react when someone I intended to have a business relationship with acted so unprofessionally towards me. I was stunned and shocked and couldn’t believe it was actually happening to me.
Because this only happens to other people, right?
It took me awhile to realize the gravity of the situation. About a month ago, on my way home, a girl of maybe 15-17 years old was approach by a man on the bus. I watched him approach her, asking for the time. She responded cautiously and took a step back, trying to distance herself from him. He took a step forward. He was visibly intoxicated. He took another step forward and leaned in to kiss her. And she froze.
Nobody on the bus reacted. Everyone was watching this show with the corner of their eye, pretending not to see this 50+ year old man assaulting an underage girl. Assaulting another human being.
I tapped the girl on the shoulder and motioned her to sit with me. Why didn’t I do more or act sooner? Because I’m 5’4” and was quite frankly equally afraid of this man as she was.
But the issue is not that the girl herself didn’t react to remove herself from that situation. The issue is that nobody else around her did. And to this day I believe that if she wasn’t removed from that situation before it aggravated, she would’ve gone on to think that what happened to her is perfectly normal and acceptable. Why else didn’t anyone react? She was wearing a skirt after all…
And listen, you might dismiss all this to me being “a man-hating feminist”. But no, my friend, the issue is not me.
The issue is you.
I love men — the kind-hearted, funny, loving, strong, sensitive, workaholic, free-spirited men. I love the men who treat me like their equal and who don’t feel like they deserve a claim to my body in exchange for their friendship or business links. What I hate is men who feel entitled to make me feel unsafe or inferior, men who feel entitled to my body, and men who disrespect or hate me for simply being a woman.
So why am I writing this now? Because I’ve witnessed it happening again and it will keep happening until something is done.
I am honestly tired of having to laugh awkwardly as you ask me for my name on the bus with a hand down your pants, or feeling like a crazy woman when I stand up and walk away telling you that you’re making me uncomfortable. I’m tired of feeling afraid to walk alone at night or having to pretend like I’m on the phone while waiting for the bus so that you don’t try to talk to me. I’m tired of being afraid of you, the taxi driver who asks me if I have a boyfriend and then takes a wrong turn as you drive me home. I’m tired of feeling afraid of you when you’re drunk in my presence or hearing others excuse your behaviour because “He’s not always like this,” or “He means no harm”. I’m tired of apologizing for you. I’m tired.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is, and I’m certain that most (if not all) of the men who are the problem will not be reading this or will dismiss it as another one of those “feminist rants.”
The truth is though, we have to do better as a society to protect one another.
As parents, we have to teach our boys that it is NOT okay to be aggressive towards girls — “Do not pull little Jane’s hair in class. That is not how you show affection. How would you feel if someone pulled your hair/howled at you on the street/cornered you in the office/asked you if you live alone when he’s driving you home in a taxi? That wouldn’t feel very good, would it?”
We should teach our boys that being kind, passionate, loving, emotional is more than okay. We should praise them for being all those things and we should not encourage or allow problematic behaviour. Boys will not just “be boys” unless we continue to teach them that it’s acceptable to be obnoxious, misogynistic, or entitled. And it’s not okay.
At the same time, we should continue to teach our girls to speak up. Teach them to value their bodies as much as their minds and not allow anyone to make them feel inferior or uncomfortable in any way. We should teach them to stand up for one another because we are stronger together.
My heart honestly breaks for all who have or will experience this type of problematic male behaviour, or worse… In the meantime, all we can do is continue to raise awareness.