Is that heading a question or a statement?
I was well into my early teens before I had any idea of sex. I was more years older before I developed any interest in sex and I confess that I was late in realising there might be a fundamental difference between boys and girls (having grown up with my three brothers being my closest friends). The town I lived in had a tiny population of 700 people. It had a police station, but the town was so devoid of activity that it was not unusual to see the policeman slowly walking across the main street reading the newspaper.
One day, when I was about 10 years old, the policeman visited my tiny school of 25 students (kindergarten to 4th form (now year 10)) to talk to us about rape.
(My guess, now, is that there must have been a spate of rapes and the police were given the directive to educate girls on how to avoid being raped.)
I remember being very confused, not understanding why and how men might be dangerous to me. But having accepted that they might be, I was further puzzled when the policeman responded to a question from an older girl who asked what she should do if she couldn’t run away and her screams did not cause someone to come and save her.
The policeman said: "Well, just lie back and enjoy it."
To this day, I can hear him say those words. Perhaps I remember them so well because I turned them over and over in my mind for many days after. Try as I might, I could not figure out what a supposedly nasty person might want that required me to lie down. That is to say, in my then world of cops and robbers, nasty people stole jewellery/money. Lying down occurred when, in our goodies and baddies games, my brothers adamantly proclaimed that I had been shot dead. Dead and enjoyment didn't seem to fit.
Of course, now remembering the policeman’s words causes me to burn with anger at the ignorance and arrogance of the man. Did he really believe that something perpetrated in violence could be something to enjoy?
But that policeman was a man of that time, and believed in a certain ‘construction’ of women. Even my mother, who, to this day, I hold up as a progressive, was caught up in unconsciously facilitating the construction of woman. In many subtle ways, she instilled in me (as my breasts began to bud and I was increasingly classified as ‘a girl’) that, as a female, I had certain ‘duties’ towards men. One of those duties was not to tempt men beyond their capacity to keep their desires in check. Sometimes, the lessons weren’t so subtle; before every date in my later teenage years, my mother sat me down and listed chapter and verse what I could and could not do with the boy.
Like a ‘good girl’, I listened. My behaviour must have affronted my dates, who rarely asked me out a second time. I suppose they exacted revenge for my coolness towards their advances by giving me the lable ‘frigid’ (something I was often taunted with in the school ground and at the public swimming pool – though, years later, my brothers told me that the gossip in town was that I visited the beds of many men in town. Go figure!).
Like a ‘good girl’, I also obeyed the unspoken rule that men in the office were allowed to expect me to run errands for them, make tea and coffee and clean up their messes. Most of all, the unspoken rule was that I needed to put up with the way they touched me. To this day, I can feel hands sliding down the back of my head and over my shoulders to my breasts and breathy whispers “Hey gorgeous, can you type this up for me.” This while the boss looked on with a grin on his face at the ‘friendly office teasing’ that was being carried out in his presence.
There were also the hands of the then Treasurer of the NSW Government who offered to walk me home after a working dinner. In a lonely part of a Sydney street, he pulled me to himself. When I rebuffed him, he strengthened his hold and (thanks to the many youthful fisticuffs with my brothers) I became more fierce. He released me. He looked genuinely perplexed that I was upset by his behaviour. “I thought you were just playing hard to get like women are supposed to do,” he said.
That incident occurred when I had moved beyond the position of typists, had gained qualifications of both Masters and Doctorate degrees, and was employed as a management consultant. Yes, even then, I was expected to take responsibility for ensuring that men did not feel uncomfortable in my presence. I finally rebelled at this expectation when the chief partner of the consultancy group I worked in informed me that my being pregnant made me unsuitable for carrying on face-to-face interactions with clients. “They aren’t comfortable when they see you’re pregnant. I don’t think it’s right that this attitude exists but it’s just the way it is.” I didn’t believe his empty-sympathy – so I left the job.
Things have changed a lot (I am gratified that my sons seem to share lives with their partners as equals! And my brothers appear to have recovered from their upbringing), but there are still many things to change. Most of all, what needs to change are the subtle things that keep men and women from benefiting from what each can contribute to the other and, most of all, to a just and harmonious society.
Consider, for example, the embedded belief that males are more agentic (confident and decisive) and females are more communal (warm and helpful). Such a belief plays into many aspects of our lives, such as the way goods are marketed, expectations are formed and jobs are advertised.
For example, much of the language around leadership tends to be agentic – e.g. dominant, competitive. Oldford and Fiset (from Canada’s Saint Mary’s University) give examples of job advertisements:
“We’ll support you with the tools and resources you need to reach new milestones, as you help our customers reach theirs.”
“Tell us your story. Don’t go unnoticed. Explain why you’re a winning candidate.”
No prizes for guessing which one would attract women and might be wanting to attract women and which one would attract men and might be wanting to attract men.
Even after close on a century of ‘burning the bra’, many of us still salivate best at the call of a particular bell-tone.
Here’s another issue that’s holding us (particularly men) from truly accepting that a woman is simply another individual (I mean, a man expects variations in the personalities and preferences of his male friends, doesn’t he? He doesn’t regard such traits as needing to put the friend in the classification of ‘other’ does he?. So why does gender cause an 'other' classification?)
In a recent article in The Guardian (https://bit.ly/3n1I8qT) Sieghard notes that men are much less likely to read a book written by a woman than by a man. Sieghard notes that, for fiction, the 10 bestselling female authors have a readership of only 19% men and 81% women.
For the top 10 bestselling male authors, the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women. Female authors who ‘hide’ their names in initials, however, have higher male readerships. Yet, it’s clear that men enjoy reading books by women when they do open them. Average ratings men give books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5 and for by men, it’s 3.8. In nonfiction, women are 65% more likely to read a nonfiction book by the opposite sex than men are.
Kamila Shamsie has sat on a number of book prize judging panels and witnesses the asymmetry. “The women judges are putting forward books by both men and women and the male judges are largely putting forward books by other men.”
“Why does this matter?” asks Sieghard.
Because – even if subconsciously – by disregarding books written by women, men do not give themselves the opportunity to see the world through the female lens and believe there is a justifiable male default. “This narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners … it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.”
Sieghard quotes Bernardine Evaristo, author of The Authority Gap: “Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying.”
I look on with interest – and approval! – at the outrage expressed by women today when men demean their worth – something women of my generation largely ‘put up with’, got on with our lives and made the best of it. I am so so pleased that women are gaining a platform on which to vent their outrage and I’m cheering but I’m also aware that stamping out the explicit displays of disrespect for the worth of a woman is the low hanging fruit. There’s a ways to go before our culture erases the subtleties that enables ‘communal’ and ‘agentic’ lables to define the sexes rather than the individual characteristics of an individual.