I was twenty when this smartly dressed, suave mannered, thirty-something year old man first verbally harassed me in Rathmines as I walked to town from college.
He had stopped me to ask for directions and as I started to think out loud, he began speaking softly over me, telling me how “beautiful” and “sexy” I was. I was confused for a moment, I hadn’t quite heard him. “Sorry?” I asked, and he continued. Once my mind had a moment to catch up, I shook myself and walked onwards in shock and disgust. He hadn’t been looking for directions at all.
In the year and a half that followed, I would cross paths with this man a number of times as I walked along Camden Street, where I worked. Every time he would approach me in a similar way – catching me off guard as I walked with my head in my phone or in a day dream. I would look up and he would suddenly be right in front of me, looking me directly in the eye as his unwelcome sexual advances would fly at me – “sweet”,“baby”, “sexy” – and then he’d be gone before I had a chance to react.
His method of catching me off guard combined with the intimacy of his delivery would disarm me briefly. It was more personal than most of the verbal harassment I’ve faced, and he was able to escape before my mind had a chance to catch up and say something back.
He made my blood boil.
Over time, I found out he had also been verbally harassing my work mate on a regular basis when she’d sit in a local coffee shop, and that she had seen him do it to others too.
One day he came into my workplace. With his girlfriend.
I stood and stared at him quite obviously with fury but I didn’t want to make a scene with customers in the shop.
So, as he and his girlfriend left, I followed them.
“Hi,” I smiled “is this your boyfriend?” I calmly asked the girl by his side. “Yes” she smiled back at me and then at him with pride and interest. “Can I just ask you, do you know how he speaks to women in the street?” “No..?”
“OK, well he verbally sexually harasses women regularly. He comes right up to their faces, invades their space and he talks at them saying how sexy and beautiful they are. I just thought you should know that your boyfriend speaks to women like that.”[pullquote]His method of catching me off guard combined with the intimacy of his delivery would disarm me briefly. It was more personal than most of the verbal harassment I’ve faced.[/pullquote]
There was adrenalin pumping through my body but I kept my cool. I was surprised that he’d actually just let me stand there and speak but he was clearly shocked, he didn’t know how to react. His girlfriend was somewhat confused but didn’t show much alarm.
“Well you wouldn’t be happy if I was calling you fat and ugly!” he sputtered. “That is absolutely not the issue,” I said.
Then he came out with the most hilarious thing I’ve ever had shouted at me. “You know what you are? You’re just a feminist!”
“Of course I am! You clearly have no understanding of the word if you’re using that as an insult.” “Bitch! Stupid, ugly bitch,” he screeched at me whilst dragging his girlfriend away with him up the road.
This was a red flag moment. He had highlighted to me that the word ‘feminism’ is misunderstood in our society. Feminism is often seen as a dirty word and, to be honest, I find this bizarre. After this event, my friends told me I was ‘brave’ but that I should ‘be careful’ in situations like that. This kind of bothered me. I don’t think it should have been seen as a bold choice for me to stand up to him. I think this should be expected.
Feminism is not a means of women seeking special treatment. Feminism is a matter of equality. It is only called ‘feminism’ because women have found themselves being put in a lower position than men for as long as anyone can remember, and now we must fight to be considered as equals.[pullquote]Feminism is not a means of women seeking special treatment. Feminism is a matter of equality. It is only called ‘feminism’ because women have found themselves being put in a lower position than men for as long as anyone can remember.[/pullquote]
I can admit that I once had reservations about identifying as a feminist because I was afraid people would misunderstand me; that they would instantly see me as a bra burning man hater. I am co-founder of ACNE Theatre Company, a company whose aim is to devise work that shines a light on Irish societal attitudes and behaviours from a feminist perspective, and yet I avoided using the word ‘feminist’ when writing our original company manifesto. I even went as far as including a line on how we ‘didn’t have feminist agenda’ as if having one was something to apologise for.
Thankfully, I had a moment of enlightenment when I realised that by accepting this misunderstanding of the word ‘feminist’ I was part of the problem too. A friend recently asked me “But how extreme of a feminist are you? Will you get married?” Why wouldn’t I get married? I love men. I don’t believe that marriage should mean that I somehow lose respect from my partner or that he will suddenly have ownership over me? I will marry a man who sees me as his equal, not as his inferior. Somewhere along the way feminism became drowned in extremist stereotypes that blur our vision of what it really means. I believe it’s time to reclaim the word and I encourage others to do the same in order to create a more equal society.
I don’t remember there ever being any mention of feminism in school, or when I was growing up. It was not on the school curriculum, and although my parents are very liberal and have feminist values, the word and its definition were not explicitly used or taught to me at home.
Where education failed me and my peers, learned behaviour filled the gap and taught us how to behave in a world drowned in commonplace misogyny.[pullquote]Where education failed me and my peers, learned behaviour filled the gap and taught us how to behave in a world drowned in commonplace misogyny.[/pullquote]
Since that moment of enlightenment, I began a process of unlearning. I started recognising which of my attitudes were antifeminist and a product of learned behaviour, and I actively decided to unlearn them.
I remember starting with ‘slut shaming.’ Girls are brought up constantly putting each other down. I would stop myself ‘slut shaming’ others, and get angry at the idea of others ‘slut shaming’ me. I questioned why I was thinking that way? Why shouldn’t women dress however they want or sleep with whoever they want without being judged, just like men? Why can’t a woman have a one night stand without being seen as indecent and lacking in self respect? Why are men often put in a position of having ownership over sex?
It is a battle, but I attempt to question my own attitudes and behaviours everyday and make sure they are fitting with my feminist beliefs.
One thing I still fight against is an ingrained fear of expressing interest in guys at the risk of being labelled ‘too eager.’ As a teenager I was constantly reminded by my friends not to text first, not to come across too keen, that I had to wait for him to make the first move. We have so many double standards between men and women that need to be addressed. I have also had male friends tell me I need have my breasts on show and dress more provocatively if I want to meet a man. This is blatant learned behaviour in men and, in turn, often becomes learned behaviour in women. Because of this attitude I have grown up with a fear of wearing my cleavage on display incase it’s misinterpreted as me attempting to draw attention to my breasts in order to attract. These are attitudes we need to reject.[pullquote]Why can’t a woman have a one night stand without being seen as indecent and lacking in self respect? Why are men often put in a position of having ownership over sex?[/pullquote]
I believe that to fix many of the greater patriarchal and misogynistic issues in our world, we need to start from the ground up. We adults need to unlearn the learned attitudes we have grown up with and instill feminist values in our children so they can grow into an equal society.
We need to stop telling our boys to “man up” and our girls to be “ladylike.”
We need to rid our boys’ fears of being called a ‘pussy’ or ‘gay.’ Our children need to learn that the word ‘gay’ shouldn’t have negative connotations, that using ‘gay’ to cause offence is archaic. They need to not fear being sensitive and emotional without being criticised and being called ‘weak.’ They cannot continue to grow up in a world where the more misogynistic you are, the more respect you gain and the more of a ‘lad’ you become. They need to know that they cannot defend their misogyny with the word ‘banter.'[pullquote]Our children cannot continue to grow up in a world where the more misogynistic you are, the more respect you gain and the more of a ‘lad’ you become.[/pullquote]
They need to learn that the act of sex is a mutual exchange, that it is not a one sided thing, including one night stands. Our young men and women need to learn not to ‘slut shame.’ Our young women need to learn that their bodies belong to them and they can do what they want with them, but that they should not feel a need to use their bodies to gain respect. Our young women need to learn that they are worthy just as they are. Our young men need to learn that they are worthy just as they are. Our young people need to learn that they shouldn’t have to fit themselves into ridiculous ideologies of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’ They need to redefine these ideologies every day until the definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ become one and the same.
As friends, siblings, parents, and teachers, we all have a duty to educate each other, to liberate each other, to stand up to each other and demand the respect we deserve, rather than being passive in the face of misogyny. We should teach each other to wear the title of feminism like a badge of pride.