Can you walk down the street without being aware of your body? Simple question. And I don’t mean the physicality of walking. I mean feeling reduced solely to a body. If you can, you are, most likely, a man. A woman only has to walk down the street braless, or wearing something mildly short or low-cut, to be instantly reduced to a body. To flesh to be ogled by whoever feels so inclined. This may sound like an exaggeration, but, trust me, it is not. Every single time I leave the house wearing clothes that I feel comfortable in, I am leered at (or worse) by at least one man. Actually, whatever we are wearing, we are still not left alone. I’ve been harassed wearing ‘going out clothes’, but just as often I’ve been wearing dungarees. It is about the men, not the clothes, and pretending we can change our clothes to reduce harassment gives a false sense of control over our safety.
Women and gender nonconforming people are forcibly embodied. It is impossible to forget our physical presence as soon as we are in the outside world. As a woman, being embodied is to be forced into visibility, whether I want it or not. Beyond feeling uncomfortable, the reality of gendered sexual violence means I also feel deeply unsafe. How can I tell between someone ‘checking me out’ and someone with more malicious intentions? Objectification and sexual violence are directly correlated. It is easier to ignore someone’s consent (or lack of) when you only think of their body, and not their mind. The normalisation of objectification in our society cannot be separated from our staggering rates of gendered sexual harassment and violence.
And don’t tell me it’s a compliment. There is something deeply dehumanising about being reduced solely to a visual, sexual, physical object. Humanity is our personality, our characteristics, our interests – all of this is ignored and we become defined by our bodies, the least important aspect of our existence. As a queer woman, I can tell you that it is possible to flirt without objectifying. To tell someone you find them attractive without using that stare, the one we all know: eyes travel up and down your body without breaking for eye contact until they have finished violating your boundaries. When I leave the house wearing something that I consider comfortable, discomfort is immediately manufactured in me through the response of others – men.
In trying to avoid objectification (an impossible task), it is almost tempting to go the other way, and disavow all traces of sexuality – cover up, ‘defeminise’, self-protect. As a Good Feminist™, I told myself that this constant objectification didn’t affect how I saw myself, but I have recently realised the massive impact it has had on how I view my body, especially in sex. It is so easy to see myself as a passive object, something to be enjoyed, rather than a participant. Something to be viewed, not someone who can engage. That is something that is very difficult to fight back against – not helped by our media landscape and the phallocentric nature of modern porn.
Our existence as women sometimes seems defined solely by how our bodies are viewed through the prism of patriarchy. Even those supposedly defending us seek to define us through our bodies. One major example is the favoured transphobic ‘feminist’ diatribe that trans women are ‘not real women’ because they have not experienced gender-based harassment or violence. Firstly, trans women and gender nonconforming people are one of the groups most vulnerable to sexualised harassment. However, more than that, how boring is it to have our gender defined by our experience of harassment? It may be an experience shared by most women, but aren’t we supposed to be moving past regressive gender stereotypes? If we can choose how to define femininity, why make it about our bodies, and the assaults they face?
After Sarah Everard was abducted, we had what seemed to be a national conversation – and yet nothing has changed. In fact, it has got worse, with the spiking epidemic across UK campuses. I’ve written about this time and time again, but somehow, I am still writing, because the message doesn’t seem to go in. We have had #metoo, we have talked about Sarah Everard, we have talked about spiking, we have talked about Aisling Murphy, and yet nothing has changed in the way women are viewed first as a body, and secondly as individuals – whether this be sexually, or in judgement of our appearance or gender presentation. It is frustrating, it is dehumanising, and it is also really dangerous. Being a woman in this world is exhausting. I am tired of having to constantly protect myself from something that is not my fault. I am tired of being defined by the least important aspect of my existence. I am tired of having to justify my existence: she was ‘just’ walking home, she was ‘just’ going for a run – she was ‘just’ existing. My presence, and my safety in public spaces, should not have to be justified.
I know a lot of this is about conversations, and that paradigm shifts don’t always happen suddenly, but for us, any delay in change is too long. A focus on dialogue also ignores the depressing question of what happens if you talk to your male friends about this and then they still sexually assault someone? Which happens. I will keep talking about it, because the other option is to normalise this behaviour, as much as the world seems to have done, and I refuse to go that way. This is not the most hopeful takeaway, but I am just feeling exhausted.
It is also past time for men to step up. Why is the crushing emotional burden of doing this always on women? Why do I have to have these conversations that make me want to weep? I know a lot of great, non-toxic men who would never assault someone, and yet I also know that they are unlikely to call out predatory behaviour when they see it, or talk to their other male friends about objectification and sexual assault.
I’m tired of a defining aspect of womanhood being how our bodies are viewed and, to be honest, it is fucking boring. We deserve more than this, and it should not be our responsibility to stop it. Once again, it is beyond time for men to do the work.