misogyny and male apathy: a wake up call
When I first saw the ‘catcall’ video, showing the harassment experienced by Shoshana Roberts as she walked through New York City, I was disturbed.
I wasn’t disturbed by incessant and often aggressive intrusions into her day, however. My knee-jerk reaction was to be offended for myself. I had, at various points in my life, engaged in some of the behaviour I was now being told constitutes harassment.
‘How can anyone suggest that introducing yourself to a woman on the street and paying her a compliment is even in the same ballpark as sexual harassment?’ I thought.
But that’s the thing about knee-jerk reactions. They’re rarely a response to what is actually being said and almost always an emotional reaction to seeing your comfortable self-image crumble before your eyes. None of us can fully escape our social conditioning and in that video, I saw a complete rejection of the juvenile identity I had been desperately preserving in order to stem the inevitable self-pity that accompanies ageing.
So I decided to reflect on the untimely death of my cherished delusions. I read the responses of women to the video. I listened to their stories. I found myself piecing together unacknowledged female narratives and trying to understand the lived experience of a woman living in a still-too-patriarchal society
It’s unlikely that any of the men in the video will ever pay the slightest attention to studies like the one published by the United Nations General Assembly reporting that 22% of high school students and 32% of college students in the U.S. claimed to have been victims of dating violence and an astounding 83% of girls attending public schools in grades 8 to 11 have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Far from being an inherently American problem, a research report published by the White Ribbon Campaign reported that, since the age of fifteen, 40% of Australian women reported at least one incident of physical or sexual violence, 33% experienced inappropriate comments about their body or sex life, 25% experienced unwanted sexual touching and 19% had been subjected to stalking. Another survey, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, reported that 25% of women aged 15 years and older have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the five years prior.
As most of us receive this information with the required level of disgust and get on with our days, women are paying much closer attention.
And before we absolve ourselves from any responsibility for the degenerate morals of psychotic thugs, take some time to consider the utter banality with which sexism and misogyny are accepted and normalised in our society; a banality that makes the denigration and objectification of women a frighteningly rational attitude to possess.
The success of last year’s biggest selling song, after all, was predicated on three fully clothed, middle-aged men dancing around a group of almost-naked twenty-something women and spouting:
‘You know you want it’
‘You the hottest bitch in this place’
‘I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.’
Ours, it seems, is a culture in which a popular rapper who brags about ‘buffaloing hoes‘ and releases a single concerned entirely with sexualising female buttocks, can show up weeks later at the side of Elmo on Sesame Street to teach pre-schoolers the meaning of the word “astounded”. His cohort on the same track is well known to Australian audiences. He is the same “artist” that “mentors” young and aspiring singers, toward industry success, on one of Australia’s most popular prime-time television shows; the same “victim” of critics who intentionally misinterpret his ‘love and respect for women’.
It’s not just overpaid and under-talented entertainers who engage in this type of recreational misogyny. Our country’s own illustrious leader is a veritable suppository [sic] of douchebag wisdom:
‘A woman’s virginity the greatest gift she could give her husband,’
‘This idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they…both need to be moderated’.
‘[Abortion is an] objectively grave matter [that] has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.’
Ours is a leader who strategically places himself under signs calling his country’s first female Prime Minister another male politician’s ‘bitch‘ and reduces the merits of his own party’s female candidates to their ‘sex appeal.’ Even more concerning is the fact that he can do and say all of these things prior to being overwhelmingly elected to lead the country.
As men, we are encouraged to dismiss as irrelevant experiences that don’t accord with our own. We take for granted the fact that we rarely have our personal safety in the forefront of our minds and that we are not judged almost exclusively on our ability to satisfy a particular patriarchal aesthetic.
Worse still, we continue to celebrate misogyny openly and with little acknowledgment that we are doing so. We continue to expect women to ignore the casualness with which their oppression is being perpetuated, providing the fertile soil for our daughters’ ever-flourishing exploitation and self-hatred.
The time is well overdue for men to stand up and express solidarity with those brave female voices that seek to challenge the normalisation of sexism and misogyny in our society; voices that speak to the reality of the female experience, an experience distinctly different from that which exists in every wannabe Prince Charming’s self-absorbed mind.
And rather than taking umbrage at the rebukes of a woman who refuses to subject herself to uninvited attention, our emotional energy is better spent trying to understand the lived-experience of a woman living in a society that continues to celebrate women as objects of adornment or, at worst, passive objects of men’s violent sexual desires.