Battle of the sexes

I’m not a feminist. I care about women, and our place in the world in relation to patriarchy, but I don’t think I’m deserving of the title. I’m not one for self proclamation, so even though I’m angered by the sexism and the catcalling and the gendered roles within our society, I just don’t think I take part in enough protests or date enough women to call myself a feminist warrior.

This year at university I’m taking a feminist subject, taught by a radical lesbian feminist. I spent the first two months of the course rolling my eyes and sighing at my professor. I decided she was a man hater, as feisty as they get. Everything about men and heterosexual relationships she demonised. Every possible argument we made against her opinions, she rebutted. I ended up feeling like I was in a camp, conspiring against men, planning to wipe them all out and establish an all female society.

Today however things changed.

I sat in my tutorial, tired, cold and annoyed. I hadn’t enjoyed this subject and was keen to get it over with. One of the girls started discussing her sexual orientation. She talked about being bisexual while her boyfriend sat next to her. I watched his face, awestruck.

Everyone listened to her talk, but I focused on him. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I expected him to laugh or shudder or express some kind of (negative) emotion in light of the conversation; I suppose in my mind that would have been a guys appropriate reaction. To my amazement though, he didn’t flinch. Sometimes he’d look at her face listening intently, but not in any way affecting or interfering with her dialogue. This may not seem like a ground breaking observation but I felt a shift within me. This was different. He was listening – really listening, while she spoke so unapologetically about her sexuality.

Suddenly I realised what this subject was doing. Maybe I didn’t fully agree with the radical feminist perspective, maybe I didn’t identify with the idea of heterosexuality as destructive to women, but to experience a man respect, and give his girlfriend the space and freedom to express herself, in a society where men are constantly belittling and undermining women, was astounding. I realised that this subject was awakening men. As a woman I already know that when I walk on the road I will be subject to the male gaze. I will get whistled at. I will get stared down. But do men know this? Do men know that women are prepared for some kind of harassment at all times? Do men know that street harassment has become a normalcy? Do they know that as a woman I view male dominance as part of the fabric of my society, when in reality, it should be something disturbing, something I shouldn’t dismiss by saying ‘oh yeah I’ve had a man press up against me in a crowded place and no, I didn’t say a word.’ We expect it, because we are certain it will happen. And it does.

Today I realised that because I’m a woman, a lot of what my lecturer said, and showed us about male dominance and supremacy, didn’t resonate. Why? Because I was numb. I knew all of it. I’d heard all of it. I’ve experienced it. It’s almost easy to hear testimonies of women talking about the abuse they’ve experienced because as a woman, I’ve been subject to some form of it myself, and so has my mother and my sister and most, if not all of my female friends. This is the norm. But for those men who take this subject, to sit in a room full of feminists, having to listen to stories of exploitation one after the other, the second one worse than the last, perhaps something clicked. Perhaps a few men will leave this subject finally understanding that shouting out ‘hey sexy’ to a girl on the street, really isn’t sexy, or that talking about ‘banging another woman’ while he’s married doesn’t make him a stud; perhaps a few men will leave this subject with a renewed sense of maturity and respect, perhaps a few boys will leave this subject as men.

Today I realised that my feminist subject wasn’t meant to convert me, or bring me to the “other side.” This subject gave me hope. Hope that someday, I won’t have to pretend I didn’t hear the whistle, or ignore the wink; it’s given me hope that someday being called a woman will feel liberating and empowering, and feminism will mean a celebration of women, rather than an ideology associated with the battle of the sexes.

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