Trigger warning for this post: descriptions of sexual harassment, mention of rape. There’s another trigger warning later so you can skip the description of sexual harassment if you want.
More than two years ago now, I wrote the blog post which started me off on a gender transition that would turn out to consume my life.
Discovering that I was a trans woman, and living accordingly, blew my mind in so many ways. It forced radical changes in perspectives, destroyed theories and identities I had, destroyed my very sense of certainty about life, leaving me feeling naked and vulnerable.
One of these changes was a shift towards anti-sexist thought, or, in other words, feminism.
Note that some people take issue with the word “feminism”. For me, it means nothing other than “anti-sexism”. If you have issues with the word “feminism”, please just replace that word with “anti-sexism” in your head and bear with me.
I tentatively identified as feminist before transitioning, but to be honest, I had no idea. It’s so easy, when living as a man, to ignore sexism. Our society is BUILT with structures that allow men to ignore sexism. That is part of how sexism works.
Living in two different genders in the same lifetime gives a powerful perspective. I can COMPARE the two experiences. This, for me, very powerfully highlights the double standard which comprises our sexist reality. I’ve known a few trans people who weren’t feminist, but in general I think if you have your eyes open it’s about as hard to ignore sexism when transitioning as it is to ignore getting hit by a train.
I can remember the exact moment I became a feminist.
Trigger warning for this section: sexual harassment
It was three months into my transition and I was blending in as a woman a lot of the time. This day, I was at a metro stop, waiting for a train. A late-middle-aged man started a conversation with me.
Until that moment, I had never felt threatened by a late-middle-aged man starting a conversation with me. I used to think that maybe strangers should talk to each other more, to break down the barriers between people, and to be more friendly. (I no longer think that). Certainly, all I thought about this man was that he was being friendly and wanted to talk with someone.
After a few minutes, the man asked me out. I said no. Soon after, he repeated his request. I said no. This went on absurdly long, with him trying to convince me, and me repeating “no”.
Then, he touched me. First he touched my arm, then my leg. Then, finally he put his hand on my inner thigh, near my genitals, and squeezed.
It took me ages to respond to this gradually intensifying invasion because I honestly had no frame of reference in my head for such a thing. I was unable to process what was happening to me. Finally, after the thigh touching (not immediately after), I managed to make an excuse and get away from this man.
I didn’t immediately think I was traumatised. I did go through the rest of the day feeling like I’d eaten dog poop, but I didn’t think I was traumatised. I talked about it to my friends and tried to shrug it off.
But the day after, I noticed a shift. Suddenly, men I didn’t know were potential threats. When I walked down the street I was aware of them. Perhaps not hyper-aware, more like kind of residually wary, but that awareness was constant, and over time added up to a significant energy drain. And while I wasn’t panicking to go out onto the street, I was no longer entirely relaxed and comfortable about it. I was just always a little bit nervous.
Overall, I had the feeling like the street was no longer mine. I was suddenly a guest in a street that belonged to someone else. My welcome there was conditional and could be taken away at the whim of my host.
This was how I came to feel feminism rather than just conceptualise it. Suddenly, the debates made less sense. Is feminism right or wrong? If you’ve been on the receiving end of sexism, then feminism is inevitable. If you know this experience, then there can be no other answer.
Those who were raised and live as men find it easy to ignore it. It’s a subtle taboo in our society to talk about it. Women generally keep their sexual harassment to themselves. The catcalls, the subtle invasions of space. Or the domestic violence they’ve received, or even the rape.
Over time, and in no small part because women are more willing to talk about this to other women, I discovered that a very large proportion of my friends had been raped. Living as a man, I was able to ignore that. Rape seemed like a far off thing, something you hear about in the news but which doesn’t really happen to anyone you know. (About one in six women in Western countries will be raped in their lifetimes).
When women do speak up about the sexist violence they’ve received, it’s common for men to feel uncomfortable and try and downplay it, try and get the victim to shut up. This mechanism ensures that women usually don’t speak up, and that men can continue to feel comfortable in a sexist society.
I experienced this just today actually. I was in an activist conference. Some women had experienced sexist violence from one of the men, who had been thrown out. We were sitting in a circle, talking about it, and a couple of the men in the group seemed to really look for ways of playing down the victim’s hurt, or argue about whether it had been right to throw out the victimiser.
The environment of this conference was supposed to be anti-sexist, and the fact that it was anti-sexist to some extent allowed this conversation to actually happen, but even here there was an obvious pressure against the victims, a pressure pushing them to shut up and allow sexist violence to continue.
I don’t think the men were aware of what they were doing, by the way. I think their actions were more or less subconscious. Still, the end result was to reinforce a system that enables sexist violence.
Because of this pressure pushing women to shut up about the violence they experience, men generally have a very distorted vision of reality. They see a sexism-free world, one which can go on as it is with no guilt for them.
They also get to reap the benefits without even realising it. While on the one hand no-one really benefits because society would be better if we worked together rather than against each other, it’s also true that women being oppressed allows men to inflate their egoes more and gain greater social status. It’s not a real, practical benefit, but perhaps you can see how in a twisted way some would feel (subconsciously) invested in keeping this state of affairs as it is.
As far as practical benefits are concerned, men also earn more on average due to sexism, which is analogous to collectively using the system to collectively steal from women (we can’t point individual fingers here, but it’s a fact that the system is set up this way). Ultimately the disparity in wealth gives men more control over women, which feeds into men’s egoes and social status again.
Perhaps, if you are a cis man, the video I will post in following will help you. It involves a man who dressed as a woman in order to document sexual harassment. Of course, women could document sexual harassment too, but I think this is extra powerful because it lets men identify with this stripping away of privilege, the same stripping away which I experienced more than two years ago.
(Note: this is in Egypt but the situation is not that different elsewhere).
If you’d like more of that sort of stuff, this mini-documentary has some hidden-camera footage of sexual harassment, this time from an actual woman. The commentary is also generally spot-on (though I’d point out that talking back to harassers can incite further violence, which is why most of us don’t do it — just a point from the video I felt compelled to comment on).
I talk about sexist violence because it opened my eyes in a very radical way. But I also talk about it because I think that violence is inherent to the sexist system we are in. Violence helps cement the place of women in our society. It keeps them from stepping out, it keeps them from speaking up. It ultimately tells women, “You are mine”, that their lives are not theirs, that their bodies are not theirs, that they are some kind of object or possession which men choose what to do with.
This may seem harsh to some, but the actual experience of sexual violence drives this message home with so much force that you can’t ignore it. You can only ignore it if you live as male, and take advantage of the system which is created in order to allow you to ignore it. (Incidentally, you don’t have to be aware of taking advantage of it, in order to take advantage of it).
With violence as the basis, other structures are built. Women learn to value themselves less, to dream less high, to subordinate themselves. They learn to be ashamed of their sexual desires, to ignore the existence or importance of their own sexual desires, and simultaneously to sexually cater to the desires of men. They learn that they can’t be important, can’t do important things… or that the things they do do are not important; a subtle difference. Things men usually do are considered important and things women usually do are considered unimportant, whether or not they actually are.
And even if a woman escapes believing that she can’t do certain things, maybe she still won’t want to. I’ve vaguely considered plumbing as a job, for instance (fuck it, it’s well paid), but I wouldn’t be comfortable in the male-dominated field, where I’d be constantly having to prove my worth just because I’m a woman. Even though I might be inclined to fight for equality, I still have to pick my battles, and ultimately that excludes me from certain things as surely as a sign over the door saying “NO WOMEN ALLOWED”.
Sexism exists. It affects all women. If you try living as a woman, like I did, you will discover that. If you don’t want to do that, then do the next best thing: start listening to women.
No, listening sounds too passive. Start ACTIVELY CREATING the space women need in order to give their voice. Stop using your privilege unconsciously to silence their voices. Instead, step aside, and hand the talking stick over to women. For them to be heard, you have to very actively give up the privilege you’ve been holding. You have to make space in your head and your conversations and your communities to hear their stories. You have to be willing to let go of some identities you’re attached to, some feeling of security.
Just like I did, more than two years ago, when my identities and theories came crashing down. It felt like dying, kind of. It stripped me bare. And in order to really get feminism, you have to be willing to strip yourself bare in the same way.
You first have to be willing to not know, before you can learn something new.
You have to be willing to accept that you are participating in an oppressive system, before you can start removing your participation from it.
That’s hard. It was frikkin hard for me, and my experience was obliging me to face up to these things. For cis men who don’t want to live as women, you have to be brave and make yourself face up to them, because if you don’t make that effort, the system will always allow you not to.
So be brave. Do it, because without you nothing will ever change.
Feminism can’t work without the participation of men. Us women can do a lot, but ultimately the way to end sexist violence is to make men not be violent. That requires them to agree firstly not to silence us, then to listen to us, and finally, not to hurt us.
The ball is in your court, men.