Thursday, June 5, 2014

So, a Lady Goes for a Walk...: Why We Need Respect

I love to go walking, especially during summer and spring. To me, it’s easier than getting to the gym and time goes by a lot faster. I get to get a little sun, be active and have some time to just be alone and clear my head. Living in Fayetteville, a clean and relatively safe small city, a place abundant with outdoor activities, it’s hard not to take advantage. As I have become more and more bogged down by the stress of the approaching LSAT and the summer heat has begun creeping in, I’ve had more of a need than ever to spend some time doing something active outdoors. Over the past few days I began making more time for my walking. Today was an especially nice day. However, it was overshadowed by a sad realization.
As I walked briskly through winding paths across streets, through trees and between houses or buildings, I enjoy the cleanliness of where i live, the beauty of the outdoors and the peace I am finally beginning to feel. I set my pace to the beat of a Janis Joplin playlist. I am about 1/3 of the way to my turn-around point, I begin hearing footsteps behind me. I immediately pause my music and turn around. It’s a jogger. I recently downloaded a pedometer so as I walk, I keep my attention turned towards it in order to see if it’s working; it is. It’s about 90 degrees out and I am envious of the shirtless men that jog past me, wishing I could have just worn my sports bra, but I can’t really do that. I am sweating through my favorite LuLu Lemon top, worrying that it may even look a little too tight. As I get to an intersection that I need to cross, one man waves me over, telling me to cross. Midway through crossing I am stopped in my tracks as a group of young men speed by anyway, honking and yelling inaudible things from the car. I keep on moving. I feel my shoulders turning red and as I head into a tree-lined area of the path, the shade feels great. I decide I want to walk further than usual so as I pass the marker at Gregg Street, I begin heading down a path. I begin my way down the narrower area of the path that is completely surrounded by trees. As I do this, an older man, sort of standing and occasionally taking a few steps, looking around, hands in his pockets, begins to head down the same path.While I am not inclined to avoid everyone I encounter on a bike path, the next part of the trail is secluded and it seems that we are the only people around. I am a little bit uncomfortable. I decide to trek back. As I get close to home I again have to pass an intersection. Right after I do, I hear a car stop or slow behind me. I turn around to see a car-full of teenage boys staring at me and then turning their attention to the girls on the other side of the street who are jogging. They are literally almost at a complete stop, pointing, staring and cat calling. I roll my eyes, keep walking and eventually, make my way home. As I get upstairs and sit down, I find that I feel satisfied that I walked pretty far. I feel my heart pounding in my chest. I also realize that I feel relieved. As I had walked up the driveway and the stairs to the apartment, I had felt a sense of relief, as if I said to myself “ah, I made it home.” This struck me.
It occurred to me how sad it was that in a town that I live and am familiar with, I have to be so aware just going for a walk on a path during daytime. I worry about secluded areas. I have to make sure my shorts are long enough or top isn’t too tight so that they don’t bring uninvited looks. On a bike path, I turn around to make sure no one is coming at me when I hear jogging footsteps. I am disgusted by the fact that shirtless men pass me while I worry if my top is too tight, and even then some people believe that it is ok to stare and observe, or yell and cat-call while I am trying to take a damn walk. I am a human being for God’s sake, not a zoo animal. I am wearing more clothes than most people on this path and am in daylight and even then, things are uncomfortable.
I suddenly realized something else. Most men on that path didn’t think twice before taking their shirt off to run. They did not know the feeling of eyes watching and belittling your humanity with their thoughts. Most of them walked, biked or jogged freely, without a thought of safety or if it was daylight. They did not know the feeling of fear that just because of your gender and the fact that your alone, someone may hurt you. Most men on that path ran freely in whatever they wanted without any concern of scrutiny or creepiness. They did not know the feeling of people watching you as if you are on show for the world to examine and check out, your body nothing more than something for the whole world to admire, stare at and comment on, all the while it having nothing to do if you actually even look good, but because you have a vagina and boobs and are wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It occurred to me that most of these men passing me had never left their apartment because maintenance was coming and they were alone, something parents have cautioned us about or we simply find uncomfortable. They never felt like the had to park under a street light in the garage and even then, make sure they had their keys in hand and mace on their keyring. They didn’t go to a bar and spend so much time making sure they didn’t leave a drink unattended that out of habit, their hands always drip with condensation and cold as their drink warms under their cautious grip. 
I had learned to make it habit to keep my music low when walking or jogging, in order to hear if someone was approaching. I was taught to never leave my drink unattended. I was taught to park under a light at night and even then, not to walk alone. I was taught to make sure I dressed a certain way. I was taught not to drink too much or not to be alone or to be sure to triple check locks or to not be at the library too late along or to park too far or to whatever. All of these fears are so ingrained in our lives, that our behavior modifications to protect against them are habit. And the fact is, we have to. I am not naive. As much as I wish I could jog in my sports bra, stay at the library and walk to my car as late as I want or not have to worry about setting a drink down, I do. If I stop doing those things, it won’t make a statement or fix the problem, it will put me at risk. The problem is something else entirely.
I simply shouldn’t have to do these things. Most men don’t have to worry about most of these things but because of my gender, I do. And instead of teaching all men to behave and think in a respectful way, we teach women to be more cautious. Quite frankly, that may seem minor, but it isn’t. It was in my face today. It was unavoidable and in my face. It was everywhere. It wasn’t fair and it was ridiculous. And even when we do these things, they don’t help. We can modify our behaviors and be as safe as society teaches us to be and the truth is, we are harassed or bad things still happen to us. Even the safest and most paranoid of women are victims. Teaching us to be safe doesn’t teach men not to be violent towards us. 

We have to change the conversation. I am so sick of girls being taught precautionary measures instead of guys being taught not to stare at, bother, cat call, rape, attack, creep on, or whatever...women. It isn’t all that difficult. A Ryan-Gosling-looking man with Brad-Pitt abs jogged by me and I didn’t feel the need to stop, explain “dammmmmn,” interfere with his day or creepily stare at him. That would be weird, uncomfortable and rude. So, I expect the exact same thing. The point is, I am sick of this shit. It is real, it is annoying and quite honestly, it’s wrong. The fact that it is a habit to glance over my shoulder at the sound of jogging feet on a BIKE PATH, is sad. I am not asking for men to all cover their eyes, completely stop looking at women or to stop any interaction so that we can run around naked and be wildly irresponsible. I am also not saying all men are creepers or rapists. I am just asking that we start teaching all men to be respectful, instead of women to be paranoid as hell. Let’s teach peace and respect and ending violence instead of teaching defense. Firstly, I shouldn’t have to be more cautious than a man because of the fact that my genitalia innately makes me more at risk to be a victim of some sort. Secondly, even then, plenty of women are cautious and fall victim. Thirdly, we can never fix the issue if we keep telling women they are responsible for what other people decide to do to them instead of making sure everyone in society is simply taught not to bother, creep on or harm women. Stop telling women that what happens to them is a result of their outside actions or appearance and instead teach society that what they do to other people is entirely their responsibility. I am just asking for a little respect. I am just asking for a little bit of peace of mind. I am just asking for a world where instead of me being paranoid, men are held to a higher standard. I am better than that. Most men are better than that. I just want to be able to take a walk.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bossy, Bitchy, Slutty and Emotional: Problems with gender and word association

When friends inquired over a year ago as to why I shut down my blog, I didn’t have a real answer. My blog was about the humorous lessons and tales from my perils of dating and partying. As time went on and I found myself in a relationship and spending more time studying than socializing, I realized my stories weren’t all that funny or amusing anymore. As I matured, my focus shifted from the perils of the single life, to the perils of the female life. I became increasingly aware of the discrimination, frustration and objectification of women. Frequent whisperings of sexual assault and constant talk of “the thigh gap” got me thinking, things are pretty F-ed up. Here we are, as oh-so-progressive Americans of the 21st-century, and people are still arguing over gay marriage, women still make less money, girls are still being told they’re to blame for rape and that they are too fat. I heard girls bashing other girls’ bodies. I heard guys calling girls sluts. I was called bitchy and bossy for speaking my mind just like the guys in my class, whom no one passed judgment on. A professor told me that as a woman in the South, I could never be partner at a law firm. A guy in my class told me that if a girl went home with a guy and changed her mind about having sex, that it was her fault if he raped her. A guy in a different class accused numerous females students of receiving an A solely because our professor found us attractive, not because we earned it. I heard someone tell my bisexual friend to “make up her mind.” I heard of girls being slut-shamed, body-bashed, and critiqued, by men and by each other. Over the past year, I’ve grown frustrated. No, I’ve grown intolerant of and outraged by ignorance. I grew angrier and angrier, feeling powerless and unable to make a difference. I had so many things to say and change and wasn’t sure how. So, I decided to go back to my roots as a writer and take to the internet. I will be addressing, as humorously as ever, the frustrations of being a young woman in America.
I have recently given much attention to the words and phrases associated with women. I had started noticing how I was bossy but the guy in my class was just assertive. A guy was just a ladies man but girls were slutty. We sort of mean the same thing, but we use different words, which tend to have different feelings and positive or negative associations attached to them. The words we chose were based on gender. I started to think about what words were associated with my gender and I began to realize they were inaccurate, offensive and a poor representation of who I am or what my goals or actually roles are or will be. I asked a male peer of mine to respond “man” or “woman” to certain words, to indicate if he associated that word with men or women. His voice took on a sad tone and his face a look of shame as he answered honestly and uncomfortably. His responses came naturally, these associations deeply rooted and innate. If you had asked me a year ago, my responses would have probably been the same. I asked by boyfriend and a female friend to do the same. All of their responses were similar. So, the verdict? 
Powerful
Pure
Bossy
In-Charge
Scholar
Emotional
Influential
Dramatic
Nurse
Business
Promiscuous
Sexy
Corporate
Vulnerable
Aggressive
Thin
Muscular
Lawyer
Brave
Pitiful
Competitive
Nervous
Aggressive
Courageous
Risky
Tough
Self-Conscious
Tender
Leader
Quiet
Outspoken
Suit
Clean
Perky
Independent
Ditzy
Wise
Adorable
Timid
Firm
Wealthy
Hormonal
Provider
Complicated
Fertile
Noble

These are just some of the words that I asked for responses too. The thing is, I had to explain to everyone whom I asked to participate that they can't respond based on what they think the truth is, but instead what the words are typically associated with. The responses were all pretty consistent. Ones that were disagreed upon were left out here. Here's the issue. These responses are based on things that are instilled in us from a young age. Yet, I don't associate myself with most of the words typically chosen to describe women and instead, identify with a lot of the words that are associated with masculinity. These words take on a gender of their own and they simply should not. Not only should we avoid such ridiculous associations with women, we should avoid associating certain words or characteristics with either gender. When one defies the characteristics typically associated with his or her gender, scolding, criticism or oppression is usually the result. Many girls who defy these pink words are told to be more ladylike. Many boys who defy these blue words are told to be tougher and less of a sissy. It places people into categories, changes goals we set for ourselves at a young age, and puts an unnecessary pressure on people to conform to cookie cutter gender constructions. While it seems natural to us and many don't believe it is really a problem, when you see how offensive, dangerous and wrong it is on paper, I think it's easier to see there is a serious issue here. Women are associated with words about silence, dependence, virginity, attractiveness and emotional instability. Men are associated with domination, sophistication, superiority and stoicism. These associations and expectations tell women they should be submissive and subordinates to men. They tell men and boys that they should be powerful and stronger than women in every role, as if being associated with femininity is gross. Really, it's insulting. Not everyone fulfills these and these associations shape our expectations of each gender. So what can we do about it? I guess start by defying these. Challenge them and argue against them. I also think this issue, like many gender issues, starts in the home with young children. I hate that at 21, in America, in the 21st century, my gender is still associated with such staunch and restrictive terms. The problem is clear here and the words we use, characteristics we value, and lessons we teach are what cause it and can fix it. Language is a huge part of culture and does, in fact, change along with culture. If we eliminate gender expectations and abandon widely accepted gender roles, this culture of offensive and strict expectations will change and once that changes, our language and what we associate words with will certainly change with it. If this list bothers you (which it should) then start making those changes. Let's be careful what we teach kids, base value on and start abandoning preassigned notions, roles and ideals.