Friday, 1 February 2013
Being In Public While Female
Trigger warnings for discussion of rape, sexual harassment, rape culture.
I feel as though my feminist awakening is very much still ongoing, and over the past year or so, my eyes have been opened to a lot of pretty shocking stuff about which I used to be ignorant. The big one is the concept of "rape culture" - the idea that certain commonly-held beliefs and attitudes in our society (even ones which are seemingly innocent and well-meaning) add up to make rape and sexual harassment easy to get away with. So when I heard that there was going to be a Reclaim the Night event held in Cambridge, I was determined to attend and show my solidarity.
The question was whether to attend the march itself, or the allies' solidarity demo. As a symbolic point, Reclaim the Night marches are for self-defined women only, though as someone who was raised female and is still overwhelmingly read as female, I believe I would have been welcome to attend. However, in the end, I chose to attend the demo instead - for the simple reason that I have never experienced any kind of street harassment, and could not in good faith march alongside people who had, without feeling I was appropriating their experiences.
Frequently, as a trans* person, I come up against difficulties in interpreting my gendered experiences. I was "raised female", but I often feel as though I haven't had "a woman's experience" - I've ignored a lot of the messages society gives about how women should behave, and as such I can't relate to a lot of the supposedly "universal" aspects of life as a woman. The more I hear about others' experiences of street harassment, the more I start to feel like I'm the only female-assigned person I know who hasn't experienced it.
And this is horrible, and it's shocking, and above all it's not right. But how have I managed to escape it? What's more, how have I managed to go a lifetime without even internalising the fear of harassment or gendered violence which is central to so many women's experience of rape culture - which is fed by every well-meaning piece of advice to restrict how you dress, how much you drink, where you go and with whom?
Is it because I, identifying as male, have subconsciously never thought of this advice as applying to me, therefore have behaved with the ill-founded belief that "it won't happen to me" (or that, if it did, I would be able to single-handedly fend off a would-be attacker)?
Or is it because female gender conditioning has worked on me at a more insidious level?
I was never entirely unaware of the perils of being female in public. In fact, since it thoroughly freaked me out to be thought of as female, I was more than usually aware of them. More specifically, ever since puberty, I was terrified of male-identified people coming on to me. I just wouldn't have known how to handle it. So I cut my hair short (badly), I wore baggy clothes to hide my breasts, I chose glasses with thick fuck-off-don't-look-at-me frames. In brief, I deliberately worked to make myself look "ugly". Because god only knew what would have happened to me, I thought, if I'd been "pretty".
It didn't stop there. I was aware that, having a female appearance, any "friendly" or "innocent" conversation I got into with a male-identified stranger might be taken as a sign of... interest. I've taken a lot of intercontinental night buses, and I've always been wary of the chatty-looking guy taking the seat next to me. It's a long journey, sure, and he might legitimately just want to pass the time with a bit of conversation. But hey, it's much safer just to plug yourself in to your headphones and avoid all eye contact, isn't it?
I like my headphones. I wear them when I'm out walking, which means that even if someone does verbally harass me (or, of course, try to interact with me on any more benign level), I won't hear it.
Dress dowdy. Avoid eye contact. Don't talk to strangers. In summary, don't "lead them on". All typical bits of rape-prevention "advice" that I've followed to the letter ever since I grew breasts. All symptomatic of behaviour restricted by fear, the fear of what might happen if you don't hide how you look and who you are.
Maybe I've got away with avoiding gendered harassment and violence because my short hair and featureless clothes make my gender hard to read. Or maybe, if I am read as female, it's as such an unusual (i.e. unpredictable, i.e. dangerous) variant on the theme that nobody dares try it. I went through a brief student phase of going out clubbing, in my own slightly off-centre version of "sexy girly clothes", but still with badly-cropped hair, and tending more towards unashamedly uncool flailing than dirty dancing. Not once was I sleazed upon.
Or maybe, the rape-prevention "advice" "works". Well, whoopee. I don't think it's a fair exchange: letting fear impact upon your wardrobe, your actions, your whole personality, just in the uncertain hope of retaining your physical safety. And that's said as someone who was never big on femininity in the first place.
Or, y'know what? Maybe it doesn't work. Maybe it's just sheer blind happy coincidence that I've survived in a female-coded body for this long. After all, there are plenty of masculine-presenting female-assigned people who do experience harassment of all kinds. And that's before we even get on to the fact that the overwhelming majority of rapes are not committed by strangers in dark alleys (a 2005 Home Office study estimated that only 28% of reported rapes in the UK were "stranger rapes").
And the most insidious thing about the rape prevention "advice" is that if it "works" at all, it's only on the principle that you don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your friend. Me going around dressing as gender-ambiguously and behaving as introvertedly as I can isn't going to prevent rapes; if it has any effect at all, it's just going to mean that the would-be rapist goes for someone else. Someone dressed more... "provocatively". Someone whom people will be more likely to blame for the incident, rather than support and encourage to report it. Because everyone knows what you "should" do to avoid being raped. And that includes the perpetrators.
Rape-prevention "advice" isn't useful information for women. It's a handbook for rapists.
And that's why I demonstrated in solidarity with the Reclaim the Night march on Monday. By some stroke of good fortune, I don't feel that the night is mine to reclaim. But I will defend every woman's right to dress, and behave, and live as she chooses, free from fear. Rape is never going to be stopped by restricting women's freedoms; it can only be stopped by our culture sending out the message that rapists will not get away with it, no matter who they pick on, whether it's someone who was "following the advice" or not. I demonstrate to say I want to be part of creating that culture. I demonstrate to say that nobody, of any gender, should have their lives twisted and restricted by the threat of sexual violence. I'm angry enough at the way that happened to me, and I haven't even had "a woman's experience".