Men Telling Women What We Are
Childhood: the first messages. Directed at me! Me, a present-dwelling little stir of thoughts and emotions, hungers, sadnesses, furies and delights.
There were men who knew better than me what I was: aged nine, a ‘future heartbreaker’, at twelve, something that could be touched, grabbed, at random, at will. Their will.
In the big city, they told me I was something to be shouted at, followed, still touched, still grabbed. Something for them to conquer. I learned to dress differently. I learned that it made no difference.
A house shared with a mixed group of friends; the young men told me that I, like the other young women, wasn’t someone who needed or deserved one of the biggest and best rooms.
I learnt that these young men were also frightened of the men who touch and grab me. Once it happened while they were there – they leapt up and we all ran away as fast as we could.
They told me that worse happened to other women. They were quite correct.
My mother had told me what misogyny was, but men told me that, though I thought I was seeing it, I was quite incorrect. What I was describing were my own personal failings.
Mothers, older women – I was told not to listen to them, they knew nothing of real value in the real world.
I heard men with power over the work I wanted to do saying to everyone present that they wanted the fittest girls. Other men told me that, with all due respect, I didn’t operate at the highest level, I was wrong and couldn’t know how things really worked.
I was told that I was stupid, too loud, too quiet, too clingy, too cold. I should have more fun, I should work harder.
I went to the doctor; he told me that I couldn’t know my own body, that my observations were inherently untrustworthy.
I arranged for a female colleague to cover while I had minor surgery. I returned to find someone else, a pushy, loud young man, crowing over the good job he’d done. The boss appeared; he told me to be careful about taking time off.
I learned that women pass on what they are told, second and third hand. It is easier and safer. A friend told me she didn’t feel threatened by men, but by women – because there were less places for us. She intended to fight the hardest and win a place for herself.
Rich men, for years, for decades, have been telling women, with their seismic wave of images, what we are: flesh, meat, holes, to be filled, broken, hurt, destroyed. Other men told me that everyone likes it, it’s natural, it’s fun.
Another room in another house. An engineer lived there, a young man, proud of his porn habit, who found it irritating and amusing – he wasn’t sure which – that his female colleague had complained about being sexually harassed. He told me that the best people get the best jobs.
Another house; the landlord had the same first and second names as one of the tenants. He used this to get his porn delivered where his wife and children wouldn’t see.
A visit from an old family friend. He’s forty years older, overweight. He’s rude to the waiter. He drinks too much and he confesses. His confession is this: he is jealous of my mother, he always was. Because she is that thing he knows all about, and wants to be – a woman.
In the place and time where he and she came from, he had choices in life that my mother was told were not for her. Today, in that place, women do not have legal rights over their own bodies. Still, she had what he wanted. I was told that his wife and children must not know. I was told to be something else: secret keeper for a man. To hold without speaking something I did not want and had not asked for.
I remember a boy, a young man, I hadn’t known him well. He’d wanted that too. This distilled, ultra-potent form of men-telling-women; to put on a skirt, to make swellings for a flat torso, to emulate what draws the shouters and grabbers, to copy images from the flood, and to say ‘I am you’.
No doubt he was suffering. Men suffer, and in their suffering they tell us what we are. Their suffering is a message to us.
I began to learn to stop listening and refuse to be told, to stop passing the messages on. I am still learning.
Women now, born ten or twenty years after me, the men telling and telling – now they are told that the boy, the old man, are very important. An old message in new words.
Children, born thirty years after me, are told their bodies are wrong for their thoughts and emotions, their hungers, sadnesses, furies and delights. An old message in new words.
The women are told that they are very cruel, very selfish. They must be responsible for this – they must have wanted the suffering.
Perhaps what they want is to love and desire other women. Perhaps what they want is to be left alone.
Give up more and more, he is suffering, he must take, he must have. The physical space and the mental space. The words. That still small space that may be breathing amongst the tellings. We’ve been told, after all, that we are the givers.
Who are we to say otherwise?