So, about a week ago, a psychopath killed a number of people – ironically not all women, as he had intended – in California. Many words have been spilled over him, his motivations, his mental health. I’m not going to talk much more about him. He’s less of the problem and more of a symptom of it. A number of excellent articles have also been written about the reaction to the forum that women all over the world participated in, not to hate men or claim that all men were terrifying misogynists, but to illustrate, just briefly, what it’s like to be a woman. I wasn’t going to talk about that either. Many people have said pretty much everything that I wanted to say about it more eloquently than I could.
And then, on the way home from the gym this morning, I pointedly avoided eye contact with three separate groups of young men. I didn’t decide to do it, I didn’t think about it, it just happened. I did it because I knew what would come next – something as small as looking me up and down, catcalling, lewd comments. I’m not “flattering myself” – it happens and, yes, it happens to all women.
I live three minutes walk from my gym. THREE. During that walk home today, men whose eyes I purposefully avoided turned around to look me up and down, leered at me, whistled at me and called me “baby”.
The problem that I have with this isn’t that it makes me feel threatened or helpless or violated (which it does), but it’s that it’s so common that we take it in to account. It’s so common that my automatic response to a group of men walking toward me is to avert my eyes in case they notice me; I consider changing in to my gym gear at the gym because walking three minutes in tights or shorts apparently means that you’re looking for attention; and instead of ending an evening with friends with a “goodnight”, I end it with “text me when you get home.”
This is the society that we live in and it makes me sick. Not men, not boys, not the lewd comments, but a society that has so normalised the objectification of women that we are regarded as territory to which every man is entitled. It’s the sort of place where deflecting unwanted attention is easiest when you say “I have a boyfriend”, as though another man’s claim on you is more valuable than your own decision. A society where the way women dress is blamed for the way men behave. A society where fairly regular guys think it’s okay to turn around and watch me walk up the stairs or think it’s okay to whistle at me on the way past on a weekend morning. And then think it’s flattering. It’s not. It’s violating.
This society created the monster that targeted women in California because he felt like less of a man for not having a woman. How have we allowed masculinity to be defined by ownership of women? Why have we taught every nerdy kid in every movie that the whole world is rooting for him to “get the girl” – like a prize at the end of the day – irrespective of whether she was attracted to him to start with. We teach men that women are the “reward” for being a nice guy, doing something cool, being a sports-star; rather than that women have a choice and it’s not really about what the guy does through the course of a movie. (I love an underdog story as much as the next person, but does it really always have to be about “getting the girl”? Can’t we… I don’t know… give the girl some agency in the situation? Give her a personality, let her undergo some character development, don’t just put her in there as a “prize” for our “deserving” young hero.) This type of toxic masculinity alienates any men that don’t conform, and I’d go as far as to hazard a guess that most men don’t conform. It’s not fair to any of us.
I cried when I read #YesAllWomen, not simply because the stories were so very distressing, but because it means that we’re not alone; it means that every single woman has experienced being afraid in a way that most men have never really considered. A lot of men have responded with cries of “not all men are like that!”. We know. We aren’t trying to say that all men are, but some men are and if we don’t know you, we really can’t tell the difference. Listen to what we are saying, rather than trying to defend yourselves against it. We’re just trying to tell you what it’s like. We want you to understand, but we also want you to understand that we don’t deserve a voice because we’re someone’s sister/mother/daughter, we deserve a voice because we are people and we deserve to be heard. Heard without being challenged on every point, heard without being threatened for talking about our concerns, just heard.
I wasn’t going to talk about any of this, and then I realised that I experience it in some way every day. Whether it’s avoiding eye-contact on the way home from gym, or texts to make sure everyone got home safely, women have to take into consideration the entitlement that some men feel to our bodies. Elliot Rodger was one of those men, but there are many more like him who don’t take it as far as shooting sprees.
So, of course, #NotAllMen, but definitely #YesAllWomen. All of us. Every day.