My train home from Bristol Temple Meads has been cancelled and I am sitting on a bench on the platform waiting for the next one. A pair of young women (I am male) are sitting further down on the same bench and in the last 5 minutes 3 different (male) GWR staff have approached the women and asked if they are ok and if they need any assistance for arrangements for their journey. I have been utterly ignored. I guess the age old attitude of if you are a guy you have to fend for yourself still holds true.
I remember how at school, a girl took my classmate’s bottle of water and poured the entire thing into his bag, destroying all his books and whatnot. Obviously, he was mad about it, so as a form of mild “revenge” he pushed the girl’s books off her desk. She called the teacher and said that the guy was aggressive towards her. Even after the boy explained that she poured a bottle into his bag, he got punished for pushing her books off the desk and she was left unscathed by it.
I worked for a London company with a lot of older sales guys, some would drink in the lunchtime, they called me a lesbian as I didnt have a boyfriend and one called me a prostitute for no reason I can fathom except that he was always drunk in the lunchtimes and he was abusive and toxic, they made sexual jokes all the time and I didnt leave as I was scared and had to pay my rent which was high and I was quite new to the corporate world, so vunerable, looking back I wish I had left years ago when the comments started, although I would now never put myself in that situation, they also didnt pay me for new client accounts that I brought into the company.
Whilst sitting outside in the smoking area at my local pub (with one female friend and one male friend, known from school days), we were joined by a group of three women. Summer Sunday drinking and a lovely evening combined, one of these women asked my friend “as a man, do you prefer a shaven or unshaven muff?”. My friend responded that if he were honest, he prefers shaven. A discussion ensued: pro’s and con’s, hygiene, media influence etc. After several minutes of good conversation/debate, we all agreed with each other that, at the end of the day, it’s the woman’s own choice what she does. Yet, after this fair and honest conclusion, my male friend and one of the three women who joined us continued: M: Exactly; it’s fine if a woman isn’t shaven, as long as it’s neat and trimmed, you know? I mean I do, I’d expect the same in return F: Yeah, that’s the same as me- I’ve been with my boyfriend for 11 years, and we have always maintained our pubes as neat and trimmed down. It’s just fair, isn’t it? M: Obviously it’s kinda gross when you can see pubes under a woman’s bikini on the beach an’ stuff. F: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to go out looking like that- it’s embarrassing isn’t it, other women put in the work so why shouldn’t they? M: Yeah, apart from the older women though. You know, Mum’s of three and that kind of thing. F: Well yeah, they’ve pushed three babies out of there, they deserve… M:… They’ve worked hard, they deserve a break! (all laugh, fake or not) I never gave my opinion on matters after this, although we finished out cigarettes fairly swiftly and went back inside to play pool after this. I was shocked that my friends, and a group of young women who brought up such an interesting point in the first place, could so blindly fall into the traps which they had just refuted. I wish I could have had the courage to tell them my point and feelings at the time, however, just prior to the above conversation I heard one of the group of women respond to a question with “oh no, not that feminism stuff, no no, just asking about body hair”. This knocked my confidence in the group somewhat, feeling in the minority with my opinion, thus I write it down here for you to read.
Dear Laura, I saw your TED talk from 2014 on youtube. Thank you. It was thought provoking, and made me again stop and reflect on my own character. I think of myself as not being a sexist: I went to mixed schools from a young age and so have been accustomed to being out-competed by girls all my life, both physically and intellectually. My little sister is more successful than my older brother and I, and I am not only happy for her, but I recognise that it is entirely merited as well. My wife is more intelligent than I am (this is objectively true; we met at medical school where she ranked 1st out 250+ students in the year) and I think of us as being equally capable. My other more basic ‘non-sexist’ credentials are that I have never assaulted or hit a woman, trolled anyone, cat-called or asked anyone to show me their breasts (who I did not fully believe would be happy to do so). I have grown up in a context where sexism has at least not been overtly apparent to me, so I don’t think it is in any way a ‘norm’ to me. On considering the evidence of my behaviour it would be easy to think that I am as good as it gets, but closer reflection reveals that all is not quite as it seems. I now have 3 children, a son and two daughters, and the birth of my daughters has made me much more conscious about the challenges that face women. It struck home when I realised that my first go-to compliment that I pay my daughter is that she is beautiful (which she is). I now make a conscious effort to compliment her for her strength, intelligence and speed (which she also has by the bucket load). The fact that it wasn’t my first instinct with her troubled me though. I don’t mind that she likes Disney princess (especially the newer more capable and empowered ones) or that she wants to be pretty already at 3 years old, but it is much more urgently important to me now that she sees herself for more than that and that she has role models that are both capable and female, as well as male and enlightened. That women and men are interested in each other beyond sexuality, but can collaborate to achieve a meaningful goal (the next generation of Disney films perhaps…?). The fact that this lack didn’t occur to me before having daughters shows to me that I am at least a bit complicit in a sexist culture, simply by not seeing it. I also worry about how my son will develop his understanding of women. I was a late-teenager at the time when the internet first entered our homes, and I freely admit that I watched online pornography. It was normal to me and I at least think that it did not change my perception of women. I know that no matter what parental controls I apply, my son will encounter pornography at a much younger age than I did, and the nature of it is so much more unpleasant now. It seems ludicrous to believe that that doesn’t impact on how young men perceive women and the expectations of sexual relationships that they will have. What really struck me during your talk though was two uncomfortable realisations. When the video started the first thought that popped into my head was: ‘wow she is hot’. I can tell myself that at that point I had no other basis for forming an opinion about you other than how you appeared, but the reality that I have to accept is that there is something unpleasant hard-wired in the male psyche. If that is my response, given that I think of myself as an enlightened man, what sort of responses are my daughters going to face throughout life? I would apologise for that reaction but that is a too little too late. I have to accept that at least to some extent I am sexist. The other uncomfortable realisation came when you were sharing the story about being groped on the bus and everyone looking away. I am taller, heavier and stronger than the average man (this is again objectively true and not a matter of narcissism). I mention it because it deepens my shame in realising that if I were on that bus I would also probably not have intervened. Not because I approve of a man groping you, it is beyond any doubt wrong. It is to do with what the sequence of events from the point of my intervening would have been. A man telling another man off (who has already demonstrated a lack of empathy and adherence to social norms) will almost inevitably result in a physical confrontation, which I would lose simply because I have limits. I lived in London, and currently practice as a doctor. I have seen first-hand the results of fights involving people who are willing to stomp on another person’s face or stab them in the neck. The only way to ensure a peaceful outcome would have been to confront the person as part of a coalition, which was not immediately available to those people on the bus with you and that is why they did (and I also would have done) nothing. It is not farfetched to claim that confronting someone on night bus in London as a lone man is a potentially life threatening thing to do. And yet it makes me ashamed to admit it; we would all love to be heroic. By way of apology to all the women on night buses who have experienced what you did all I can say in pathetic defence is that when I have witnessed sexism in the workplace or in more normal social situations (where I am clearly not risking injury) I have confronted people about it. But is does seem a shallow excuse. What if it was my little girl on that bus? That is the question men have to ask themselves. My one final thought about the video though was that the audience had very few men in it. Your message is critically important; I just don’t think it is getting to the people who actually need to hear it. I have waffled on a bit but I just wanted to share my thoughts. Thank you for the talk and I wish you the best of luck.