I went on holiday last week leaving behind a tangle of discussions that have been consistently and increasingly ending up with the participants polarised by gender. So often we end up degenerating into the rehashing of age-old chestnuts. It’s affecting me, so it’s ubiquitous. It’s not affecting me, so it’s not happening. You’re not listening to a word I say. I’m not listening because you’re not making any sense. You’re trivialising my problems. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
As the volume and urgency of our communications increase, the sense any of us are making often decreases; and at the end of it all, we so often find ourselves on either side of a seemingly impassable chasm, aligned neatly by gender.
I don’t buy this. I don’t buy the inevitability of this. I’ve spent most of my adult life studying and working and playing and living with men, and I know they are people, too. They have the same scope for thinking and feeling and empathising. And they’re not always selectively deaf by pitch: they can hear us just fine, provided they’re not in a frame of mind that prevents them from listening. And that’s the frame of mind that, all too often, our discussions, or simply the language we use to conduct those discussions, seem to be creating.
Words are failing us. They are not only not facilitating communication, but they’re actually hindering it. And the communication morass is getting dug deeper with every rehashing of the usual arguments. Like wheel ruts on boggy ground, every time we go over this we make more of a mess; we make it harder to drag ourselves through to a place where we all can stand and talk. And it’s getting to the point that many of us, faced with wading through an ever-deeper, ever-stickier mess, have given up trying. We just yell at each other from a distance, instead, and then wonder why our arguments can’t seem to get through.
Sometimes the words seem to fail because we’re using the same terms to discuss totally different experiences, and the difference in experience is deeply gender-biased. I’ve never been a man. I can try to conceptualise what their lives may be like, what pressures and demands and advantages they may be faced with; but there’s no guarantee I will get it right. The reverse is true of men trying to understand my life. The more differences involved (size, strength, socio-economic background, etc.), the less the Venn diagrams of our experience overlap.
It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never felt it what it’s like to realise that someone bigger and stronger, someone who could overpower you without breaking a sweat, has completely dehumanised you, and sees you only as a resource, for the simple fact that you have a vagina. That the only reason they aren’t using you as the thing they consider you to be is that they don’t believe they could get away with it, right here and now, but it’s still on the cards. It’s always on the cards. How do you explain the implications of “othering by gender” to someone who may have never experienced either “othering” or having to live constantly at a physical disadvantage?
So we make words to fit our meaning, like “objectification”. And we throw them at the guys: do you see now? And they often don’t, because the word per se doesn’t convey any added meaning to someone who’s never had that experience. The word becomes a barrier, in fact. Yes, you like it if a woman likes your dick, but that’s not what we’re talking about. No, you’re not objectifying me if you think my boobs are nice, I’m not saying you’re one of them. But I also can’t explain what the difference is in a way that makes any sense to you, so you may still feel accused by association.
So we try with analogies. It’s not like a smaller woman telling you that she likes your dick. It’s like a larger, stronger man, a man who you know could overpower you with scant difficulties, telling you that he likes your ass. But more than that, it’s realising that, to him, you’re not a person with an ass. You’re your ass; a tool for his pleasure. Not a person, and definitely not an equal. And the man in question would have seen your struggles as nothing more than an inconvenience to overcome, your “nos” as a routine soundtrack, and the very fact that you dared try to gatekeep him from the bounty you are carrying as iniquitous.
And we’re getting halfway there, because we’re starting to translate our experience into something relatable… and we get accused of tapping into the all-to-common homophobia permeating our culture. So we take a step back.
Catcalling is like aggressive panhandling for sexual attention. Does this make sense? The people doing it may not be asking for much to start with, but they are deliberately pushing you to give up something you don’t want to. They’re also pushing right up against the boundaries of what is socially acceptable: asking is OK, demanding is a crime, asking that forcefully is… iffy. And because these people are so comfortable edging close to the boundary of what’s allowed, and so comfortable pushing against your consent, you can’t possibly know how far they’re willing to go to get what they want. You cannot rely on their inner moral compass or their respect for social standards to keep you safe. You can only rely on your personal resources, and if they are not sufficient, or the circumstances conspire against you, you could find yourself in a tricky situation.
Maybe we get halfway there. Maybe we get to the point where we’re absolutely not in agreement, but at least we all know what it is we’re trying to talk about. And although this seems unreasonably slow and convoluted, frustrating beyond belief, what is the alternative? Shouting the same crap at an ever increasing volume over a void doesn’t seem to be helping us any.