“…thinks that/ feels that way/ has had that happened to her.” In the responses to my asking what men say (and shouldn’t) to women about gender issues, one particular theme kept coming up. Women were not regarded as understanding what being a woman was like. In their individual cases, someone might have been sexist/ abusive/ offensive, but this just wasn’t generalisable across the whole of society. It often took the form of statements that no woman they knew had ever said anything similar, or they did not know any woman to whom sexual assault had happened.
This is partly due to the extraordinary sexist assumption that women are unreliable witnesses to their own lives (to borrow a phrase from Lucy Allen.) It goes along with “are you sure he meant it that way?”, “you must be upset about that, and I think that’s clouding your judgement” and similar phrases. But it is also rooted in a genuine fact about the way men and women often communicate with each other. Not because of the wiring of their brains or the evolutionary impulses they’re obeying, but because of the way power and danger are present in their lives. When a man holds sexist opinions, or laughs at a joke which demeans women, he’s making it less likely that any woman will feel able to discuss the reality of women’s lives with him. Of course men who think women have it easy these days aren’t the ones whom women will tell that they’re being harassed at work. Doing that makes her vulnerable, it shows that she isn’t in complete control of everything around her, and he’s just made it clear that women should make sure they aren’t vulnerable around him.
I didn’t think I knew any women who were sexually harassed, discriminated against, or abused on the basis of their gender. I knew a lot of successful, high-achieving, talented women. It seemed unlikely that they were facing a battery of sexist hostility and danger which could break into their lives without warning. When I began reading about feminism and listening to women’s accounts of their lives, I still thought of this as something terrible which happened to other women, the ones I didn’t know. Then, gradually, women started mentioning things to me. The more I write on feminism and gender issues, the more I hear about them from people in my life.
This isn’t because I have some profound insight other people don’t possess (pause for uproarious laughter from those who know me), but because I have been unknowingly sending out signals that I’m safe to discuss this stuff with. It wasn’t intentional, but I have found that if you are seen to be taking women and women’s lives seriously, you’re more likely to be told things which provide some glimpses of what you don’t understand because you’ve lived your life in a male-arranged world. When a man says “No woman I know…” I wonder how well he knows them. And whether he knows them in the way a scientist knows a reaction, the way a musician knows a symphony, or the way a friend knows a friend.
As men, we are never going to understand women’s experiences, and the particular ways in which society has impinged on individual women, shaping their lives and their personalities. Still, this is not a complete epistemological blockade. There is a way for men to get to understand women’s experiences better. But it’s not treating what they say as data to be explained back to them by our more objective analytical lens. It’s really listening to them, and accepting that we do not yet have the experience or the tools to explain or evaluate what they’re saying. It involves letting go of the idea that the neutral, objective (implicitly male) perspective is the one against which all information must be measured. We will need to open our sense of how the world works, and allow it to be challenged and changed by what we hear. This is not a comfortable process. We’ve worked hard to reconcile everything we see around us into a coherent understanding of society. We think we know where we stand, and why we might be blamed or praised, what obligations we owe and what is due to us. We feel we are in control of our actions and the meanings they produce.
Accepting that we might be wrong is threatening. That we might not only be incorrect on particular issues, but that some parts of our whole vision of understanding society might be narrow and blurry and unreliable. It’s not a pleasant prospect. Nor is the idea that we don’t know our friends as well as we thought we did; that we may not always have been as good friends to them as we would like. But they are possibilities we have to face. Doing so will also involve changing our behaviour, even our sense of self. This sounds very dramatic and abstract, but it starts with simple, everyday actions. Don’t laugh at that rape joke. Or the one about tricking a woman into sex. Or the one about the nagging wife. You’re signalling that you’re not safe to confide in.
Start noticing sexism around you, and when someone mentions it, don’t immediately look for reasons why that wasn’t really sexism. If a woman does bring up gender prejudice, don’t jump in and explain how gender injustice works in our society, even if you agree with her. You’re signalling that you don’t listen to women. You’re suggesting you see them as objects in the world, to be explained and accounted for, rather than as people to be listened to and learned from. When you do talk about sex, dating, society, relationships, culture, ask yourself a simple question: do I sound safe? Do I sound like someone who could be confided in, whom people would be OK being vulnerable around? Women have good reason not to trust us as men – it’s up to us to demonstrate that they should.