*Gentle trigger warning: contains discussion of sexism and violence against women.
16th August 2020
Yesterday I was given a powerful reminder to reflect on silence in Audre Lorde’s 1977 piece: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. At the bottom of my own piece below from January I made a commitment not to stay silent, because I owed to it all girls and women. I no longer wanted to perpetuate the invisible structures that keep women small.
But guess what I did?
I stayed silent. Lorde eloquently points out the power of fear over truth:
“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us”.
But at this stage in my life, when I am tackling head-on the constructions of power in patriarchy, when I am feeling the rise of the divine feminine, listening more closely than ever to the wisdom of my own body and being called (again) to liberation in my own sexuality… I can no longer wait for the luxury of being unafraid.
This year my awareness of silence has been heightened. The myriad of things left unsaid is causing me an internal cognitive dissonance at best, and a whirling anxiety and disassociation at worst. When anger and injustice stay inside us unspoken they get stuck, and the pillars of patriarchy that enable oppression and violence are strengthened.
So, I will try again. Below I share about an experience from raw emotion. And this time I’m not using my voice just for girls and women, but for all of those who are marginalised. Voices that challenge structures of power have an intersectional ripple – the struggles of the marginalised are not disconnected.
Of Rage and Men
Originally written 2nd January 2020
I often don’t know where to start – but that feels like an understatement today.
As I finally sit down to write this, I have already felt doubt, confusion, intense rage, doubt again, selfishness, numbness, and a recklessness beneath the surface that makes me want to throw caution to the wolves and rage through the streets with fire and wanton abandon… because it’s all fucked, and I’m so sick of caring and healing.
And then there’s the other part of me – that is always there, patiently… annoyingly – sitting in calm and grace. This my Soul’s voice, holding a space of love and tenderness for me at all times.
But I don’t want to let go of my anger and let in compassion. I’m not ready, and I don’t want that tendency to soften and neutralise right now. That can be a trap of appeasing others to avoid confrontation. And this is the whole problem – appeasing, letting it slide, not causing a fuss. In all the most ridiculous irony, I call on the power of my inner supportive masculine to hold space for my feminine rage.
And as I begin… my thoughts go everywhere, pushing and pulling me like flotsam in a winter swell. Grey skies, foamy water, no sight of the shore. Seasick.
But here I go.
I have met so few men that I feel I can trust.
Trust with my personal safety. With my feelings. With my authenticity.
And it’s only in the last few years that the enormity of it has become so crystal clear. The #metoo movement was so powerful in this – helping women realise the subversive marginalisation we have always experienced. To help us realise the things we have been putting up with for so long. We didn’t know there was an alternative, and in some cases we didn’t even know we deserved one.
New Year’s Eve 2020. One man amidst a group of seven somehow managed to make us all feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t even with his ‘bros’. He wasn’t encouraged.
When he arrived, no serious alarm bells rang. This was perhaps due to his physical appearance. Shorter than me, a bit mediocre in style etc. Obviously, my unconscious mind didn’t see him as a physical threat. And as the night began, he was pretty ‘normal’. There were a few other men at the party then. One man seemed very lovely and interested in the group conversation, but he was there with his wife – which as we know tends to have a very big impact on behaviour. The other man was very shy and barely spoke. ‘Good’ says my brain – non-threatening. I can relax.
These days I am quite rarely in the presence of men I need to be wary of. It’s just how my life has unfolded. I avoid public spaces like clubs because of men, but in general I tend to hang out with women anyway. I come from a big circle of close friends and sisters who have respectful husbands. When we meet new people, I always have a few moments of nervousness anyway – are they ‘okay with gays’? Are we accepted here? And 9 times out of 10 I can very quickly relax. These people are kind, open-minded and friendly – we can talk about our recent wedding and our relationship as part of the broader conversation and no one bats an eyelid. I don’t take this for granted. The New Years group was like this, until X arrived and started drinking.
I want to stress here how often we as women are making these assessments. I am a highly perceptive and critical person, so maybe my radar is heightened. But for the most part, while men might be assessing the other men in a room for competitive reasons… we are assessing who might be a risk to our physical safety. Conscious or not – these thoughts are occurring.
As the night went on, alcohol started to play its part. Everyone was drinking and laughing, and it was fun. Even as I write this, I feel ridiculous about my anger… ‘it was just a party’ and ‘everyone was drinking’ or ‘it was just a bit of fun’…. But I continue, because this kind of placation is the WHOLE FUCKING PROBLEM. And I think what’s important is how the man in question represents men across the country and the planet. A seemingly innocuous, subtle sleaze – who always getting away with it. I’m sure many of us would agree that alcohol enables behaviour that was already there… it enables people to lower their guard and act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, but also to blame their behaviour on something external. It’s the ultimate cop out.
But back to the main character. He is the long-time family friend of the girl hosting the party. I’d never met him but concluded that because he had this girl’s trust and they have a long history of friendship there was nothing to worry about. We play a fun drinking card game of which he is the centre, because he’s the only one that knows the rules. Whatever. It’s fun and silly and everyone is having a great time. Twice in the game, he makes reference to lesbian sex because of my wife and I. It’s not until later when I hear a much more pointed comment, that I realise he’s one of those…
We sometimes come across men who are overly interested in our relationship. As lesbians we draw the attention of male gaze, unfairly sexualised and degraded. Sometimes men think it’s okay to put words to this, words like one might hear in a terrible American frat party movie. They ask us about how we met with disgusting grins on their faces. Or, like at the New Years party, make reference to ‘having sex with women’ and winking at us. Like we’re on the same team or something. Like because we both like to have sex with women we’re the same: lecherous, slimy, dominating. Without going on a rant within a rant (because I don’t enjoy feeling different to everyone else and then also having to put up with arseholes because of that difference) let’s just be clear and say WE ARE NOT THE SAME. As women, we treat other women with respect. End of story.
During the card game he shared a few rambling stories that included descriptions of ‘incredibly hot women’, a very gay man, Gerard Butlers’ penis… and as part of a demonstration to tell the story he did manage to put his hands on my bare legs. I didn’t like it but was party to a jovial conversation and didn’t care enough to make a fuss. I was in the presence of my peers – nothing could actually hurt me.
When I’m drinking my guard is down – I can’t hear my warning bells as clearly. And maybe sometimes I just want to be more carefree. Get over myself and just let my hair down… but I know that pools are an unsafe place around drunk men.
Before I even got in the water he made a comment about my arse to my wife (can you imagine him saying that to a male friend about their wife?) and when I did get in his first move was to swim over to us, put his arms around us both and cuddle – for ‘warmth’. I immediately stiffened and moved away. I imagine at that time in his drunken state and unconscious mind he struck me off his list, ‘can’t get away with anything with this one’. I actually got out of the pool at that point. I wasn’t interested in having to watch my back for accidental gropes.
As I sat on the side chatting, I had one eye observing his behaviour in the pool. There was laughter and playing with the pool toys – plenty of opportunities to touch people. At one point he had both his arms around a girl’s shoulders from behind, trailing behind her in a piggyback as she made a fast circle in the pool. But when I looked closer, I saw his hands were on her breasts. Did she like it? Was I missing something? A short while later in a partly playing and partly serious tone she told him to ‘get off!!’
My wife had joined me at the poolside then. We sat in our towels (by this point I had made a conscious choice not to show my body again) and she gave me a quick kiss on the lips. I heard him say, ‘Oh you too are so cute. What was it we were saying about not pointing?’ He was talking about his erection. I’m sure he thought no one heard him, but his reference to our earlier card game came through crystal clear to me.
And it was all crystal clear then. This guy was a creep, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. I remember now that when we went to change into our bathers, he had tried to also come into the room to get changed with us. It was a joke – I assume he wasn’t actually going to walk in on us undressing – but he still had to make the joke.
I didn’t even want my wife to change back into dry clothes then. I wanted her to stay covered up and in my line of sight. I know what can happen in these scenarios. This guy is a friend of a friend and everyone thinks he won’t cross any lines. It’s all drunken fun and silliness – until it’s not. Until a man crosses the line from sleaze bag to predator.
He decided to leave the party then – to meet up with his girlfriend!! But not before giving every woman one or two goodbye hugs. Sitting around the table after he had left one of the girls said that in the ‘hug’ he gave her on the way out he groped her twice. A murmur rumbled around the table, as if they all knew what she meant. I said, ‘He is a real sleaze when he’s drunk, and I have no fucking time for that behaviour’ – and then the conversation changed, and we enjoyed each other’s company for the rest of the night.
Silence and action
All of this behaviour seems minor in the scheme of what we know happens in the world. This isn’t stalking or rape or child trafficking or abduction. But where do you think that kind of behaviour grows legs? Seeds are planted at a very young age. Men are dominant. Women (and natural resources, culture, business, science) are to be dominated. As boys grow up their own femininity is quashed and there is only space for strength and control.
Behaviour like we experienced at this New Year’s party waters the seeds. And, I write with tears in my eyes, as women we are so often the gardeners. I’m so angry with myself for not saying something on the night. And yet I recognise my inaction as yet another symptom of the patriarchy. Was I misunderstanding something? Maybe she liked it? What about the friend – would she be upset if I called out her family friend? Was I being ridiculous? All I could do was get myself and my wife out of his way. Avoid him and his goodbye hugs.
But aren’t we letting each other down by saying nothing?
The following day I couldn’t think about it. The New Year’s hangover meant we watched Netflix all day, and every single show we watched (maybe 3 or 4 different programs including the Comedy Gala) portrayed men being sexist, racist, homophobic, sleazy arseholes. It makes me feel disgusted and disgusting and I just wanted to retreat. I didn’t want to engage or find a pathway to peace and unity. I was fucking sick of it.
But here I am, engaging. I’m writing it all down. It doesn’t matter if you think my experience is fair or not – whether I was overreacting or not – it was my experience. It was what I felt, and have felt, many times.
And I refuse to be gaslighted.
I want this man – and all men – to know it’s not okay. Your sleazy jokes are not okay. Your ‘accidental’ touching is not okay. Your sexualised stories are not okay. Women don’t do this to you, and we don’t do it to each other. And it matters. Small, seemingly insignificant misdemeanours matter. By allowing this behaviour, we are letting this vile thread of toxic masculinity to perpetuate.
And I no longer want to be part of it. I will no longer enable it with my silence.
It’s uncomfortable and awkward. I might put people offside by sharing this. But I won’t be part of it. I’ll do it for myself. I’ll do it for my wife and sisters and girlfriends. I’ll do it for all girls and women.
I stand in solidarity with the many fearless women that have gone before me. It’s my turn to take the baton, and start running.