I’ve spent the last couple of days absolutely kicking myself. Not literally, that would be something to see.
At the start of the week, I had a couple of misogynistic experiences that I swallowed and smoothed over at the time. I’m feeling the burning shame now, and regret that I didn’t do anything. Of course, women are socialised to not “make a fuss” in social situations, to keep calm and laugh it off in order to be considered sports. Otherwise, you’re just hysterical and overreacting, so says this script. That’s why the freeze, the laugh, the making oneself as unnoticeable as possible. To be approved for the next round of sport.
And I know that, to use one of the experiences as an example, I don’t deserve to commented upon as a potential sexual conquest in a game of macho social oneupmanship. It’s horrible, it’s reductive, it’s disempowering, it makes me feel like shit. No woman deserves that. It’s up to the people who make those sorts of comments to not do it, and, if they do, to make amends. One is not obliged to tell people exactly what they did wrong by one, and risk further harm, or ruin one’s night, or whatever.
But there’s another kind of shame going on for me; I’m kicking myself because I didn’t give the wrongdoers a good feminist talking to. More than I’m embarrassed at being treated like a sexual goalpost, I’m ashamed that I couldn’t overcome the Nice Lady socialisation in that moment to tell that man exactly how I feel about it. It felt like I couldn’t deliver what I stand for.
Neither of these are flavours of shame I should have to taste. I know I’m in no way to blame; the thing is that it’s hard to think of my strong feminist self helpless and compliant in that moment of being caught off-guard. It’s hard think of it as an ethical failure on the wrongdoers’ parts, because I keep thinking of not fighting back as a failure of my politics. It’s taking a lot of effort to remember that that’s not how it works.
Backing down from your own defence in the moment is no feminist failure. The two shames are two sides of the same coin. It’s a coin that places the fault with women, for existing, for not having fixed the world up feminist style quick smart, for being sexual or not in particular ways: for being in the room. Women are not individually responsible for telling off those who have done wrong by them. Feminism is about changing the system so that wrongdoers don’t feel comfortable doing wrong anymore. The only obligation you as the wronged party have in this kind of circumstance is to take care of yourself.
I hope you don’t find yourself in this kind of situation. You probably do, though, and I hope you remember that being aware of social injustice doesn’t mean you don’t internalise unjust societal messages. It doesn’t mean you have to carry on your shoulders the entire weight of making the world better. And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you shrink away in a threatening situation. You’re never to blame for someone doing wrong to you, whatever the circumstance and however you make your way through the world.