I am a naturally confident and outgoing person but sexism is making me feel depressed, withdrawn and unable to cope with social situations. Sexism is attacking me on two main fronts; firstly through physical, verbal and emotional abuse and secondly by silencing my attempts to challenge and articulate this abuse and its effects. Before the abusive comments pour in (oh the irony!) let me just say this: my case is not special, I am not unlucky and this is not my fault. I am only guilty of having been born female in a patriarchal society. While the odds may at times seem stacked against me, I am dedicated to resisting and I am determined to recover.
It would be near impossible to describe in detail the amount of physical abuse men have inflicted on me over the course of my life. My memories of primary and secondary school are full of being slapped, punched, kicked and sexually abused by boys. Lacking self-confidence and self-worth, during college I was trapped in a physically, sexually and psychologically abusive long-term relationship. At university, a man I had a casual relationship with threatened to “crack my skull open with one hand” because I had tried to refuse him sex when he appeared uninvited and very drunk at my house at 3am. Most recently, I have had a ‘relationship’ with a man whose extreme insensitivity and emotional manipulation compounded my lack of self-esteem and agency. These were not by any means my only experiences of this kind and these were not exceptions. Physical abuse has damaged my mental health by destroying the sanctity of my body and violating my sense of self. By inflicting pain on me with total immunity, these men have also reminded me of their physical power and social dominance.
As alluded to above, since raising questions of gender online I have been the victim of serious verbal abuse. Trolling and general nastiness is common on the internet due to the anonymity provided by cyberspace (by which I mean they would never get away with chatting like that to my face!) So I will not focus on these comments here. But I will remind readers of the real life verbal abuse men frequently subject me to, especially when their sexism and position of dominance is challenged. I will also briefly highlight the fact that the commonplace nature of sexist jokes, inappropriate sexual innuendos (for example from a male superior at work) and sexism in the media are all manifestations of a culture of sexism which normalises attitudes and behaviours which are hurtful to women.
I cannot speak
People who know me will ‘lol’ when they read this. I speak a lot, I am a talkative person. But because of sexist attitudes, despite being a loud, confident and articulate speaker, what I say is not always heard, listened to or understood (I can only imagine what this must be like for naturally shy and quiet women). Often I am not listened to due to an inability to accept that my perspective, as a woman, is valid; men often immediately disagree with me or attack me even when I am explaining how I feel about something. The most common example of this is when I state that a sexist comment or action made me feel uncomfortable and the type of man our Letter to Male Activists was written to immediately dismisses my feelings, defends the sexism and tells me why I can’t or shouldn’t feel offended. This type of man will often patronise women, will assume them to have “misunderstood” everything and will talk to women with the same tone a particularly arrogant headmaster adopts to calmly scold an irritating 11 year old.
Another example of men effectively silencing me arises when I tell a man “I am not interested” and because of sexist ideas about men’s ownership and control of women and our sexuality he hears “I am playing hard to get.” When I say “no” he hears “yes” or “maybe, just keep trying.” (See the “Translation” section of the Sisters of Resistance Terminology Tool Kit) If I become annoyed he is pleased: “Yea I like feisty women.” No matter what I say or how I feel, he only hears what he wants to hear.
When a man complains he is justified while women are “moaning”, “bitching” or “nagging.” Often women are not taken seriously; when I say “I am depressed” or “I am going through a mental break down” most people laugh or reply “oh yea me too.” This probably has as much to do with sexism as it does with the stigma surrounding mental health. But being systematically dehumanised, devalued and marginalised is enough to make anyone feel like they are going a bit mad. In the context of the abuse outlined above, women’s mental health becomes even more complex, how can you name abuse that is normalised? Mental health institutions are as sexist and racist as the society they inhabit; historically they have seen white, male, heterosexist, upper/middle-class norms forced upon the rest of us, who have been sectioned, electrocuted, drugged and sedated into compliance.
Sexism also creates an environment in which issues women are statistically much more likely to experience are not socially acceptable to articulate. This is partly because no one wants to hear them; they are difficult to hear. It is also because we do not live in a society that is sympathetic to these experiences; rather it is one that blames the victim. In addition to coping with the psychological effects of ill-treatment, the survivor must work through feelings of shame, guilt and rejection. In the above section on abuse, I did not talk about rape or incestuous sexual abuse for these reasons.
Resisting and recovering
As I hope readers of Sisters of Resistance are already aware, I am not a passive victim in any of this. I resist the abuse and I continually struggle to be heard. I am lucky to have truly supportive sistas and a number of strong male allies. I constantly seek to improve my mental health through a variety methods including self-care, cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation, reading about Buddhism and counseling.
I have found reading Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror invaluable and both academically and personally enlightening. Herman, a feminist psychologist, argues that the women’s movement of the 1960s created physical spaces and a socio-political environment from within which women could start to articulate their traumatic experiences of incest, rape and male violence. She demonstrates that an examination of women’s mental health must acknowledge patriarchy and she maps the course to recovery.
I have recently coined the term “celibacy for sanity” as I am currently refraining from intimacy until I meet a man (or woman, I’m open-minded) who treats me with the respect and compassion I deserve. I refuse to settle and I am not lowering my standards. I suddenly realised that I had spent way too much of my time loving men who didn’t, or couldn’t, love me back. I decided it was time to stop loving my oppressor and start loving myself. This decision has left me feeling empowered and happier. I no longer rely on men for my self-esteem and for once my love is reciprocated. This might sound really cliché, I know it did to me at first, but it’s true; only I can give myself the love that I need.
A heartfelt and revolutionary thank you to the numerous male allies who have continually expressed their support for me at this time. Thank you to everyone who has told me they enjoy Sisters of Resistance. Thank you to those who try to listen. Thank you to people who have encouraged me to keep writing. I would not have been able to keep going without you all. And to the haters: you will only make me stronger.