It's hard to call the people we love on their attitudes sometimes. It's particularly hard when we know that they're really not misogynists or homophobes or racists etc. etc. but I feel it's these very people we have the most responsibility to check when they say or do something inappropriate; they are, by and large, good people who we want to be a part of our safe spaces, who we want to be around and who hurt us badly when they behave in a way that betrays those wishes.
The people I have the most difficulty confronting are my family members because they tend not to take my concerns very seriously. A different but more pressing challenge is my boyfriend, who usually takes my concerns seriously (except the ones like running out of apple tea, but I'm okay with that even though it's a tragic fate). He's not sexist. He's mostly very considerate and, generally speaking, we have a great relationship. Every so often, though, he comes out with something that causes me almost-tears of frustration and I often seem to fail, in the heat of the moment, to explain why.
Before I come to the remark that inspired this particular post, a few more general comments: I'm still working on the ability to choose my words so that I express myself without upsetting him - not because I think we're beholden as women or feminists not to upset those who disagree with us* but because I care very much about him and I don't like him to be upset, which I consider an important distinction. No, we should not have to hide or fetter our feelings because they make others uncomfortable, but that does not mean unleashing a full tirade every time anyone upsets us. As people, human beings, I have come to agree that we have a duty to think about our language and the way it affects those exposed to it. Can anyone deny that "you're just repeating ideas you've picked up from other people" sounds patronising as all hell? I've had it said to me and it made me feel both furious with the person who said it and, at the same time, about six inches tall - like I was a child who couldn't possibly be responsible for their own opinions. Surely, women have to deal with enough of that shit not to add to the mass of it already in the world? So what is the best way to explain that "No, I'm not saying you're being deliberately sexist, but that doesn't mean that what you just said wasn't sexist"? If you have any suggestions, please share.
On the other hand, there are also things our loved ones could try to remember before they take offence... What they just said might well be the only possibly sexist thing they've said this week, this month, this year! But what they have to understand about where we're coming from is that it is by no means the first sexist thing we've heard. It could be the tenth slur we've heard that day, more even. Our interactions with them do not take place in a vacuum but rather form part of a wide context that encompasses everyone we interact with and everything we experience. It's not necessarily that we see no difference (I think there is one, I know others would say there isn't), but it cuts deep to hear, said carelessly by someone we love and trust and respect, something that is often trotted out by others deliberately to belittle or hurt us.
So, what did my boyfriend actually say that caused this digital invective?
Brief context: I suffer from depression and anxiety disorder and have chronically low self-confidence when not hidden behind a computer. I was recently made unemployed. I've been trying to find a job while cultivating whatever sanity I've held onto. My boyfriend and I have lived together for three years; he is well aware of all these things.
Walking past the pub opposite our flat yesterday, I mentioned the sign in their window advertising for bar staff. I was hoping to discuss the pros and cons of my possibly applying. The response I received was, "Are you going to be a busty barmaid?" If a stranger had asked on the internet, swearing would have ensued. As it was, I tried to explain more or less calmly that I was hurt by that response because it reduced me to a pair of breasts rather than a complicated, complete human being who was trying to have a conversation with him. I don't think I explained very well. I certainly wasn't satisfied by his reaction which was to complain that I knew perfectly well that that's not how he thinks of me and that I have big breasts and was proposing to work behind a bar so describing me as a 'busty barmaid' was accurate and fair enough in context. I do know that's not how he thinks of me. And I do have big breasts. But I don't think that's fair enough at all.
The problem as I see it is that my breasts are one aspect of my being, by no means the most important and not one that was actually related in any way to the comment I'd just made. If I'd said something like "Do you think I've got big enough boobs to be a barmaid?" then, yeah, fair enough; the difference is that my physical shape, my breasts in particular, are clearly something I feel is relevant to my possible application for that job. For them to be the first thing he picked out of the air in response was insulting. He could have commented on various things: my anxieties about talking to strangers, the fact that I do have a history of over-coming this in professional situations, the fact that I have zero experience of hospitality jobs and am terrified of drunk people, the convenience of working just across the road from our flat... He's got a good imagination - I'm sure there were hundreds more options. But what he chose to focus on was my breasts. He took a subject that was of some concern to me, enough to bring it up with him, and seamlessly turned it into a typical het male sexual fantasy. And I was accused of being 'over-sensitive'.
I know he didn't mean to offend me, either with the comment itself or the aftermath. I know he's not sexist. He does not think of women purely in terms of their physical attractiveness or their appeal to men. But his coming out with that remark just goes to show that he's not immune to the pervasive culture that commends doing so. I think I came across as condescending when I attempted to suggest that last night. I do not mean to insult anyone's individuality or intelligence. None of us live in a cultural bubble. It's difficult and exhausting to start dismantling the messages we receive and examining which ones we allow ourselves to internalise. We who have arrived at calling ourselves feminists have usually struggled with it and, in most cases, are still struggling. We know how onerous it can be, right? But if we can't expect the people who care about us to make the effort, how can we expect anyone else to bother?
This post has a couple of purposes. As usual, I hope I'll have succeeded in putting down in words something others have felt but been unable to share or articulate - that someone will read this and say, "Yes, that's exactly what it is!" The other purpose is to explain myself, because I write better than I speak and this is something that it is important to me that my boyfriend understands. Maybe one of you will have the same problem and may find it useful in explaining your feelings to someone important to you. I hope I can help. But I also hope you don't have the problem.
*The hypocrisy trap inherent in this attitude will have to wait for another post.