Some of my first validating experiences involved interacting with men. The way they treated me changed immediately, and I couldn’t help but feel that it was the treatment of men that showed me that I was somehow making it in my new role. They saw me as a woman and they were harassing me like one. It was bizarrely affirming. Horrible, but it filled a space in me. I belonged.
This wasn’t a good belonging. Nobody really wants to be harassed in the street. But when you’re creating a new life for yourself, any belonging in your chosen space is welcome. After years of being starved of a place that made sense, it was bizarre to find that second-class position gratifying. But women do.
The male perception that they are entitled to express their opinion about the women they see in public spaces and in public ways permeates the female experience. Transgender women have cited my accounts of men following me home or shouting from their cars as a marker of my attractiveness, and I admit that early on I had a similar perception to start. Cisgender women have told me about their experiences of losing weight and how that changed the judgemental looks men gave them as they went running.
"THE BEHAVIOUR IS SO PERVASIVE THAT WE’VE CONDITIONED OURSELVES TO MONITOR AND INTERNALISE IT."
The behaviour is so pervasive that we’ve conditioned ourselves to monitor and internalise it. It becomes part of our perception of the world; we embrace unwelcome opinions as an affirmation of our place. This awareness is to the extent that some women will wonder what’s wrong with them if they don’t get harassed on their run one day.
The damage this causes is real. At the extremes, friends seriously looking at suicide will tell me they haven’t had any misogynistic abuse so they must be hideous. More commonly, it’s a barrage of microaggressions that discourage self care like exercise or regular eating.
It eats away at our self esteem and prompts anxiety even in children: Ten-year-old girls that I taught would express worry over how pretty they were. And it’s not new. My mother once recounted how boys during her teenage years would talk about her as ‘the token ugly one’ of her friendship group.
Granted, males being entitled is not the only set of messages that cause these problems. But the other factors in the absence of real people expressing opinions subtly or not-so-subtly would diminish their impact. It’s people that change people, not television. Television is the reinforcement, not the cause. People do this. Men do this.
While the expression of male entitlement is universally damaging for women, it causes a specific set of problems for transfeminine people. My personal fear is that some man will grab me and then attack me because he doesn’t find what he’s expecting. It upsets me to have other transgender women look at my regular harassment as a status symbol, like it’s a thing to aspire to. I understand where it comes from, but I hate the idea that we are glorifying male entitlement and making the harassment it causes a status symbol.
Why do people say with some disappointment that they haven’t received a dick pic? How is that disappointing? How does getting a dick pic validate a person in any way, except to say that some man feels that they can sexually assault you on the Internet. Is it because we crave their desire? But nobody actually wants a dick pic. Actually nobody. Men, please stop. It’s gross and we don’t want it. And yet we are in some way disappointed when nobody wants to expose themselves to us.
"WOMEN ARE CONDITIONED TO ACCEPT HARASSMENT."
Women are conditioned to accept harassment. It’s just what girls call normal. During the #metoo campaign, so many (including myself) would qualify their hashtag by saying it was, ‘Just the normal stuff.’ So what does the normal stuff include? For me, it included being followed home, prevented from leaving clubs and, once, a coffee shop. It included being grabbed in private areas in public and being shouted filth from cars. Men do not put up with this. Men don’t even think about this. Not even when they do it.
How can this be normal? I get that we can understand that we’re victims and that victimisation is systemic. I get that it’s often better to ignore and move on than it is to confront. I absolutely get that we can’t fight every self entitled male that decides to tell us whether they approve of our appearance and activities. But those things cannot result in us considering this stuff normal, surely.
We can’t stop this in one go. It’s just not going to happen and I think we know that. But we can be mindful of it. We can stop using male entitlement as a measure for our self worth. We can stop using harassment as a ruler for how attractive we are. We can reframe it as an unwelcome nuisance rather than a reward for being pretty.
The thing I said to my vulnerable friend after she used my experience of harassment as a measure for her relative attractiveness: don’t glorify my abuse. Don’t make my suffering a measure for your looks. I understand the line of reasoning, but it’s toxic and please stop. We all need to stop. Every single one of us.
We can’t control anyone but ourselves. We can’t confront everyone and we can’t stop men from acting as they do. Yet. What we can do is change our personal experience of male entitlement. We can make it unacceptable to ourselves - I understand that is painful. It’s taking something normal and making it upsetting, but it should be upsetting. It makes us vulnerable, but we are whether we see it or not.