Yesterday was a heavy day. My head felt burdened with worry, disappointment, helplessness. I went to sleep with thoughts of injustice, disenchantment, the many stories of struggle I read through the day, swirling in my brain. I went to sleep wondering when we will reach a point where things will begin to look up? For Goa as a state, for us as a country, for womenkind, for children to run around and play in peace and safety. No answers. I woke up this morning with a need to unpack it a bit, reduce the weight that refuses to lift. And because sometimes there’s no better listener than a blank page, here I am.
It all started to go down when I found myself in a spot, dealing with a man yesterday. Without going into a detailed backstory, I will say it was the last instance in a string of events that I had just not seen to be threatening or dangerous. You see, I’ve always been very secure in the fact that I am surrounded by good, honourable men. The ones for whom kindness, gentleness, straightforwardness comes naturally. I can’t help but believe in the role models I’ve had growing up – my grand father, my father, some few men in my extended family. Most of my male friends (which up until last year were the only kind of friend I had – the male kind), all my exes and their friends too, to some extent, were good men who’d stand by the right thing. For a woman or a man. It was therefore natural that I picked the kind of husband I did. One that fit the template I had in my head, he ticked all the right boxes. And by right, I mean not just right for me, but right in the sense of the way we see good to be. Generous, understanding, relaxed, trusting, fun, trustworthy, dependable, compassionate, sensitive. Basically, not an asshole. (And I realise as I type this, that the not-an-asshole kind of man is increasingly hard to come by.)
In fact, time and again when I’ve found myself wondering if maybe I’m being a bit naive in believing the general populace of men is not predatory, just because I know a handful of men who aren’t, I tell myself that it is that very handful of men that should give me reason for hope. That’s how I’ve brushed the cynicism away, so far. I have always felt secure in knowing that good exists, and maybe even outweighs the bad.
But here’s the thing, though. There is something to be said about being too secure in that belief — in blindly believing that you’re surrounded by good, honourable men, all the time, everywhere. I’ve learned rather late in life (as recently as last week, in fact), and in a rather unsavoury way today, that the privilege that gives men unrealistic confidence levels to pull off all manners of assholery runs so very deep. It operates in ways we do not understand and cannot be prepared for. Especially if like me, you don’t want to believe every man out there is a threat to your safety.
The cocky confidence to dismiss naturally drawn boundaries. To be blind to a particular response and assume it means the opposite. To assert physical force. To let an extreme kind of chauvinism show at all times. To feel like they have the right to get away with an untoward glance, a comment that was uncalled for, a prickly message, a subtle grope, to use a distasteful label. To in fact be a mild kind of predator, but safe in the belief that you can always couch that behaviour in friendliness, concern or professionalism. That takes serious confidence. And a complete lack of self-doubt. It comes from years and years of a strengthened belief that women are used to it. That they will take what’s given to them – a grope, a comment, a label, a forced uninvited advance.
It takes confidence in knowing that when faced with any of the above, women will always first doubt themselves. That they will think twice, ten times, a hundred times before reacting. Especially if the behaviour is subtle, confusing and hard to call out immediately.
“Oh, I’m just saying this as your doctor.”
“As your boss, it’s important for me to do this.”
“I’m your trainer, your body is my business.”
“I’m a family member, so obviously I’m only doing what’s best for you.”
What that does is blur the lines between what is okay and what is not. It makes us as women question the authority we have over our personal space, our bodies, our work, professionalism, our wellbeing.
Who draws those lines? Who will safeguard them? And try as you might to keep those boundaries safe, what do you do when a man comes trampling in with the greatest confidence, and does something that leaves you wondering if maybe you let your guard down and inadvertently invited him in?
I’ve written before about how so many answers lie in the nebulous grey areas that lie in between right and wrong. And invariably, these are the situations nobody warns you about. We’re always told to worry about strangers, to fear the dark, to take care of yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone. Almost nobody prepares us to anticipate a predator within your own home, or other spaces that you deem safe and comfortable. Nobody tells you your uncle, your boss, your doctor or trainer could be the one you should watch out for.
Back in 2010, when I met that complete asshole of a gynaecologist it took several appointments with repeated small instances of sexism, and eventually a terrible internal exam that was neither medically required not appropriately dealt with, before I realised that was in fact wrong, in every way possible. At the time, I could do nothing about it because that voice in my head told me I was being paranoid. That he was a doctor, and maybe it was part of his job? That I didn’t have any reason or evidence to call out his actions as inappropriate? Instead, I beat myself up over it wondering if maybe I had brought it on somehow, if maybe I should have seen the signs before and dealt with them before things got out of hand.
Years later, at a Christmas party, I was introduced to a fellow guest who immediately took an unnatural liking towards me. Unnatural because from the get go he was painfully stuck to my side, chatting me up with highly inappropriate, questionable conversation, laying the flattery on nice and thick. It felt inappropriate in my mind, but again I brushed it aside given the social situation, telling myself that it couldn’t be what I was imagining it to be. Because his wife was in the same room? Because we were at a party in the home of good friends – his and mine? Surely he couldn’t be coming on to me, not there? But I’ve realised that some men have completely
different non-existent parameters.
My paranoia was legitimate. Later that night, long after the guests had left and VC was winding down for the night, the lout had the cheek to come home, ring my doorbell, and try and converse with me, make plans to grab coffee and get to know each other. Somewhere in between all that, he made an advance. It was then that the penny dropped and I finally believed myself and my paranoia. I had to physically push him away and shut the door on him. Weeks of awkward avoidance ensued, but it was essential and no longer makes me squeamish to meet him and look him in the eye.
And then, remember the time a complete stranger accosted me at a cafe and forced his coffee on me?
More recently, I was at a nightclub with a bunch of girls, when a white man accompanied us. For some reason he was persistent about buying me drinks. Time and again I made it clear that I was perfectly capable of buying myself drinks. Yet, he’d keep showing up dangling a bottle of beer or a glass of whatever it is he thought I wanted to drink, in my face, like bait. I didn’t give. But I didn’t tell him off either. When none of his drink-buying tactics worked, the man finally forced himself through the crowds on the dance floor that we were enmeshed in, and tried to strike up a conversation about how he’d give anything to be married to me. (Yes, cue eye-rolls – multiple, tired, exasperated eyerolls, please) I had to politely, but firmly shout over the music to burst his bubble by telling him there was a small issue of me being already married and completely uninterested in him that would get in the way. One would think that would lead him to just get a hint already ffs! But no, he proceeded to ask me to choose be unmarried for “just one night, please.”
Where do men get this special kind of confidence from? To assume things and act on them? To believe that a girl, out on her own means she must be open and available? That just because a girl didn’t slap you when you came on to her inappropriately means she is open to persuasion? It’s a horrible kind of confidence that makes them believe no = yes.
It’s what makes them act without so much as a second thought. Without worrying about possible consequences. believing they will never be caught. Isn’t it ironic instead that women like me are the ones who resort so often to just hints? Who are afraid to just say fuck off. Why refrain from jumping in and reacting as violently or forcefully as they feel like. And sooner, more directly.
Isn’t it ironic that we’re the ones with the self doubt. We’re the ones with the helplessness and the masochism beating ourselves up. Because of course it must be something we did, right?
There’s only one answer. Because – thoughts. “He’s white, maybe that’s how they do it where he comes from? Maybe he doesn’t know I’m married? Maybe I’m not showing enough disinterest? Maybe this was just his way of being friendly?”
Maybe all of that was true, but the fact remains that it felt wrong. And I have learned very late, to listen to that feeling. Over time, I’ve experienced bitterly that you don’t need any more reason or justification. If something feels wrong, it’s okay to acknowledge it and back off. To tell the man you’re dealing with to back the hell off.
Last week, I was hanging out with a gang of people I have recently met, all men. I’m not too close to them, but had no reason to not accept when they invited me to what seemed like a harmless evening at a local bar. And here’s the thing – I’m beginning to think it is impossible to simply believe that you can have healthy, casual relationships with men and have them take it as just that. But the tragic truth is there are men out there who come loaded with a disproportionate level of confidence in themselves. In their sexuality and their behaviour. And this manifests in a complete inability to just-keep-it-in-their-pants-ffs. I say this now, in retrospect because as I innocently sat sipping beer with a bunch of men who I assumed to be decent men, I was privy to a detailed conversation that lasted over an hour – where 2 out of 3 of them perfectly justified infidelity. Their potential infidelity. The conversation was eye-opening, but even then I didn’t make much of it because well, it was just conversation. It was telling of the many ways in which people who seem educated, well-travelled, exposed, liberal, forward and sensible, actually have weirdly twisted notions about important things, in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
I’ve always been so secure in believing that the circles we end up roaming in, even by extension would be filled with likeminded individuals, for the most part. So when something like this happens, I realise how silly and naive I’ve been. I realise the truth is, one is never too far from someone who has twisted ideas of things as black and white as fidelity, despite coming from perfectly privileged, healthy, good backgrounds.
So I’ve learned, and I’m learning all the time. That maybe I can no loner blindly assume that most men are upright, good, compassionate and gentle, just because the few I surround myself with are. I make the mistake of believing the world at large has more good people than warped people. And nothing shakes that faith at its very core, as much as when those I believe I know at close quarters behave in ways that are so unbecoming. A carelessly uttered name, an unwanted statement, an uncomfortable conversation, an inappropriate touch – it could be anything. It is usually the simplest, most basic things – a conversation, a message or a touch, that can trigger off an unsavoury experience.
I’m learning to listen more closely to those cues. A friend said to me the other day, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” and I’m realise how must I still need to work on that and sharpen my ability to take people for what they show themselves to be. I have to constantly remind myself to stop making excuses for their actions, or justify their behaviour because I am blindly trusting. I need to constantly trust my instincts, listen to my gut, reming myself to react immediately when I feel it is required, to not wait or ask myself for reasons or justification. To remember that no explanations are needed in the face of feeling discomfort.
Draw those lines, ladies. Draw them for yourself. Safeguard them fiercely, by yourself. Be your own person and protect yourself at all times. Don’t look for excuses to justify the moments when you are prompted to get men to check that cocky confidence from time to time.
We’ve got to teach ourselves to starkly draw boundaries when men try and evade them. We have to fiercely protect our sanctuaries of balance and peace when faced with unsavoury behaviour that could very quickly devolve into messy relations. The onus to protect us, lies on us. To call violations out for what they are – no mincing words. To react when we’re faced with even the mildest oppression. To push back when we’re being painted with wide swathes of regressive notions that make it seems like all women can and will be silently subjugated. To fight. Not flee.
I’ve had to learn that flight is not always the best reaction. I’ve moved from my initial reactions of fleeing the situation and being completely in denial of the violation itself, to a point where I acknowledge it (albeit a little late), to a step further where I can react (but am sometimes too polite), to what I did yesterday — which was boldly call inappropriate behaviour out, for exactly that. Inappropriate. Uncalled for. Uncomfortable. And I made sure the man in question knew I was doing precisely that, and knew just what he was on to.
It’s important to get that message across fearlessly. Despite initial panic pre-responding to the instance, I came out feeling much stronger once I had formulated a response to what had happened. It’s a required learning curve one had to go through, to teach the few transgressors (they exist, amongst the wonderful men we know) that we encounter, that not every woman they meet will willingly, politely fit into the generic little cubbyholes that they want to put us into.