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 potentially dangerous for my personal space and body. Time and again, 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. Not all men and all that *eyeroll*
Here’s the thing, though. 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 this unrealistic level of confidence to pull off all manners of assholery runs so very deep. It operates in ways I do not understand and have not been prepared for. Especially if, like me, you don’t want to believe that every man out there could be a potential threat to your safety.
The cocky confidence to dismiss naturally drawn boundaries. To be blind to a response, selective ignore the lack of explicit consent and to continue in an assertive, single minded fashion. To assert physical force. To be driven by that extreme kind of chauvinism. To feel believe that the right to get away with an un called for glance, an inappropriate comment, a prickly message that is subject to a lot of interpretation, a subtle grope, a misogynistic 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 worse, an excuse for your 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. And they will be quiet about it.
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 blatant sexism, and eventually a terrible internal exam that was neither medically required not appropriately carried out, before I realised that was in fact wrong, in every way possible. That I had been nothing short of emotionally and physically violated. 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, making painful advances, chatting me up with very inappropriate conversation. It felt inappropriate and made me very uncomfortable, but given the social situation we were in, I brushed it aside, 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? Because my husband was visibly with me? But I’ve realised that some men have completely
different non-existent parameters. And confidence that trumps everything else.
My paranoia was legitimate. Later that night, long after the guests had left the lout had the cheek to come home, ring my doorbell, converse with me at my doorstep, making plans to grab coffee and get to know each other. And he would just not take no for an answer. Somewhere in between all that, he made an advance. It was then that the penny dropped and I physically pushed 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.
So I’ve learned, and I’m learning all the time. That maybe I can no longer 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 glaringly problematic.
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. Even those I consider friends, or men I put my trust in — doctors, trainers, colleagues. I have to constantly remind myself to stop making excuses for their actions, or justify their behaviour because it is confusing.
I need to constantly trust my instincts, listen to my gut, reming myself to react immediately when I feel it is required. And there is no bigger reason for that than discomfort. That I need not wait or ask myself for reasons or justification. To remember that no explanations are needed in the face of feeling that discomfort.
Draw those lines, ladies. Safeguard them fiercely. Don’t look for excuses to justify them or to get men to check that cocky confidence from time to time. Do it for you. Do it for us.