I want to offer an individual experience to make a point and to shout at the sky about the bigger picture. In the wake of the murder and rape of Eurydice Dixon, my concern is about violence towards women and the more systemic, and often less visible, sexism that comes from being socialised in our world, a society traditionally led by men. This is the environment I grew up in, a society that allows violent and aggressive behaviours against women to be normalised. The potential for harm is well understood, as a woman I was raised with a narrative that told me to take care and be wary, to be responsible, to try and not attract unwanted attention. Thirty women in Australia have been killed so far this year, more than one a week, most by men they knew and a few by men they did not know. I am putting my thoughts together in this piece, as arguments are being defended and rebuffed with claim and counterclaim of #notallmen and #allwomen. The many voices who rose to chorus #metoo have given me impetus to speak to the status quo, particularly to those who say #notme.
I wrote a few comments online recently about some of my experience in the world as a woman, and received quite a backlash from (you probably guessed it) men. Good men, I want to to say before being dismissed or further argued with, good men who want to be known as good men. The experience I refer to is one of not always feeling safe, good men argued that I should not feel unsafe out in the world as they mean no harm. While good men do not intentionally inflict harm, they also have no real sense of the inadvertent harm a man can be responsible for. The type of threat of a man that comes from failing to know life as a woman and the precautions I, as I woman, have to take to try and stay away from harm.
We live in a culture of violence against women, all women. Men do at times, by virtue of nothing more than being male, make me feel unsafe. They don’t do it on purpose, they don’t even notice how different a woman’s experience can be to their own. I struggle with those good men with the rank and privilege to say “not all men”. They are the ones I want to implore to listen. When a gender minority tries to tell you of their hurt and fear they do it in the hope of being heard. I am raising my voice now…
It’s earlier than 7am and I am in bed, someone is pounding on the door trying to wake me. I feel vulnerable and at first pretend I am not home, the pounding persists. I start imagining emergencies, neighbours in trouble, I feel alarmed that someone is trying to wake me. Help me. My feet are bare, my pyjamas are – well they’re pyjamas and not intended for door step confrontations. The pounding goes on. I don a thick dressing gown, push down my vulnerability, put on a flinty, sleepy, dopey face and open the door, all the while wishing I had a big dog standing just behind me. The aggressor is a stocky young man with a coffee in hand. He’s visibly thrown by my appearance, he sees someone not expecting a tradie on their doorstep and shouts an address at me. I take an involuntary step back before correcting him, it’s not my address. He is at the wrong house, the wrong door, he has woken the wrong person. He backs down my front path sheepishly, but without apology, and I can breathe again.
The incident was about power, some of that was the imbalance of our relative physical strength and size. More powerful was his perceived right to demand attention, with relentless and forceful knocking. Underscoring the scenario in addition to his aggression were social attitudes around power and vulnerability. He had door opening power and I had open door vulnerability. This was a gender issue. Had our roles and situations been reversed, he from inside the house (most probably) would not have experienced my door opening fear. Here I have to say yes, yes, to the well-intentioned advisers who want to pipe in and make helpful suggestions about what I could have done. I could have left the door closed, I could own a big dog just for mornings like that. There are a lot of things I could have done. I should have a security door, a locked gate, there are many ways to fortify and keep the out intrusions. That is not how I choose to live, do I really need to?
This situation involved two individuals, and there is no doubt he was other than a good man. There’s little evidence apart from his self righteousness, a good thoughtless pounding man. Like I said up front I see the issue of sexism is a systemic one. Men are used to holding power in institutionalised ways, and are socialised to be bold in ways that support beating on doors and demanding of attention. That’s my everyday reality, men can be threatening and they have no experience of the same threat. They often don’t see a problem. Good men and not-good men do not really know what it is to live under a patriarchal system that encourages the sort of entitlement that expects doors to open – they do, by and large, live happily under that system and are rewarded for being men by generally having the upper-hand. The experience they do not know is what it is like to live here as a gender minority, albeit a minority by a slender margin, as the second best and often more vulnerable gender.
The confusion about where the threat to the physical safety of women comes from is mostly thanks to our social conditioning. It’s the way things are and it is in the air that we breathe. One way to glimpse what I mean by social conditioning around gender roles is amplify just how everyday and insidious some of the messages are. I’ll illustrate with a song, my example is a little over twenty years old. I grew up humming tunes like this. It is, by and large, still considered harmless fun. I hear the words these days as oppressive, satirical and oppressive, to put what ‘he’ wants first, to show you care by doing whatever you do “just for him”. “Wishin’ and Hopin'” was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. What were they thinking? Reflecting the values of the day? What were they wishin’ and hopin’ for? A good girl? A good wife? Someone who will run to open the door when it is knocked upon? Just for him…
The song was first recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1963 and revived when it featured over the opening credits of the film, My Best Friend’s Wedding. This subversive version was produced in 1997 and is sung by Ani DiFranco and choreographed by Toni Basil.
Do it for him, you will be his. The messages are familiar and are embedded in all sorts of settings and contexts. This delivery is the closest to a tongue-in-cheek rendition that this song gets, that’s something that has happened over time. Today it’s a less serious message than when it was first released and even so it serves to reinforce the nature of traditional, and I mean poor, gender roles. Entitlement is learned we’re all complicit and often in ways we’re not fully aware of. That’s the nature of systemic sexism and it is scary, this is where change is needed to address our culture of violence against women. All of us.
The author Margaret Attwood succinctly sums up what is at the core of the safety of women, “It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different — men and women live in different worlds. I don’t remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”