Last week I sat in a room full of people listening to a woman recount her own story of sexual abuse at the hands of her brother, to later find out her sister was subject to the same sexual abuse at the hands of their father. Before she even spoke, however, tears saturated my lap. It’s as if women can sense each other’s pain – the distinct pain of being a woman – in one glance – through the portal to our souls. This woman, in her life, had become the victim of commercial sexual exploitation and struggled, like many women, to emerge from the spiraling black-hole of shame and despair that follows such a life.
When I was born I was born a human being. It was not until I reached maybe school-age that I realized I was a “girl.” By this I mean that my early memories were not of innately desiring pink things, or to play with dolls, or to have long hair. I played with whatever toy I had access to. I fixed things around the house with my dad because that’s just what I did. If anything I knew I was simply treated as a child – which carries its own set of inferiority complexes, but it was not until later on that I realized I was apparently also in the societally-imposed confines of gender constructs. To be a “girl” – ah what a fate. Being indoctrinated about virginity, chastity, “don’t go anywhere alone,” “don’t be out late at night.” Let’s just say that I have been suffering from some form of “shell-shock” ever since I realized that my entire life was dictated to me before I even knew what happens when you add 2 to 2. When my ex-boyfriend pinned me down and told me he could do anything he wanted to me and there was nothing I could do about it as I struggled to break free from the force of his entire weight being used to physically show me my true helplessness, my true vulnerability – he was right, there was literally nothing I could do about it. That is the painful truth of being a female.
While I have struggled deeply with the issue of assigned gender constructs my entire life and try to understand the consequences of having been born a female, I have tried not to be angry at men since they were equally born as human beings with no say in the matter and more importantly without any inherent qualities causing them to treat women as inferior. Recently, however, I have realized that I have been cutting men far too much slack.
Yes every man in the entire existing world: you did not personally create the gender confines that imprison every woman that has ever lived. You are, however, pretending to be blissfully ignorant – whether you will admit it or not. The fact is that sexism exists. Everyone knows it. History knows it. Men, however, have somehow evolved a distinct self-preservation tactic– to pretend they do not see sexism and –when an example is brought to their attention- to incorporate some hybrid of a shocked, surprised, and awed reaction combined with an indicia of sympathy – and, if successful, averts any further attention to the matter. “You,” women unconsciously think to ourselves, “are not the problem. You’re one of the ‘good ones.’ This isn’t your fault. This argument is lost on you.”
If men were as painfully aware of sexism as women are it should not exist anymore. That’s it. Point blank. To say any less is to assume men are as useless as we may jest. To say otherwise implies that men either a) do not have the rational capacity to solve a problem or enact that level of change (they are not omnificent after all!), or b) lack empathy enough to want to be the change. Assuming men are only unconsciously aware of sexism every man stills has an affirmative duty to make themselves consider it, be aware of it, try to understand it, examine it, … and alleviate it. I have come to the realization, finally, that men are on the hook – right here, right now, for every act of sexism that occurs in this modern day and age. The fact that we are not past it, that it is still prevalent, means that men either are not or will not stop it. No it is not just the sick ones, the “deviants,” the “rapists” whose fault it is. It is all men, any man that lets his friend joke about “banging that chick last night and not even knowing her name.” That “chick” is a person, a person with a family, a story, a brain, thoughts, beliefs, dreams – not just a toy or the butt of your jokes with your friends. That is sexism. That is the problem.
If every man truly believed women were equal and that sexism does not exist or severely impact women, then how do they rationalize the existence of prostitution? Strip clubs? Rap music videos? Selling sex for money through advertising, media, movies – everywhere. That from a young age girls are told by their fathers that we “cannot date until marriage,” even jokingly, because men are pigs and our fathers “know what they really want with us.” This, perpetuating even in jest, rather than showing zero tolerance for these attitudes, is the reason men are on the hook for this issue. Stop blaming others and take responsibility every time you do not stand up against a gender stereotype, joke, comment, or act adversely affecting women – and if you claim that you don’t realize they are happening – open your eyes, because they are there – and you are as responsible for ignoring it as those who actively participate.
Silence is the insidious enemy on this issue. Millions of women are suffering, right at this very moment. And millions more will suffer, until men start treating women not as ‘women’ first but as human beings. In every aspect of your lives, try to see women as human beings. Not simply as something you’d like to perform sexual acts on or with, but as actual human beings. Stop joking at the expense of women, because it isn’t funny, and it makes you complicit in this tragedy.