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I’ll never forget the first time I heard the word misogyny. It was during the first week of college. I stood in the bathroom, brushing my teeth and full of new freshman jitters. A bubbly girl with long dark hair was telling me about her semester abroad last year. She was a junior (we didn’t have many freshman-specific/only dorms) and she explained she hadn’t planned on going abroad until the next year but then things got really bad at school.
“Last fall, a group of men were beating up and raping women – like in the middle of the day, randomly. They’d pull them into bushes and do that, right there, while everyone was walking by, going to class,” She told me, her eyes wide, “It was so scary so I had to leave second semester. I had to get away from that misogynist group.”
I hadn’t heard the word before and it took me a second to contextualize it and realize what she meant. I stared at her and myself in the bathroom mirror, wondering what kind of college I’d chosen to attend. She told me the attacks had stopped but that didn’t prevent my entire being from feeling chilled. How could something like that happen, in the middle of the day?
Later that week, I met a cute, older guy who lived on my floor. I knew it’d be a bad idea to hook up with someone on my floor but hey, we’re all allowed at least one freshman mistake, right? I just didn’t know how bad of an idea it would be. After our very brief (just weeks long) relationship, he persisted to torment me for the rest of the year. Even years later when I was a senior and he was a “super senior,” I’d see him around campus and he’d mock me and sneer at me. Suffice to say, I was scared about running into him alone.
Back to my freshman year, later in my first month, I was walking in an empty hallway on my way to class when I suddenly saw a guy I’d met at orientation. We’d walked to the parking garage one night during orientation earlier in the summer and made small talk about where we were from. I didn’t think much of it, other than appreciating his company as I tried to find my way around a new college campus in the dark. But two months later when he corralled me in the hall, I got a different sense of him.
“Do you remember me?” He asked. I told him yes and tried to go on my way but he moved closer and asked me again if I remembered him. Confused, I nodded. Then several other guys came up from behind him and circled me.
“How about me?” One asked, “do you remember me?”
“What about me?” Another asked from the opposite side of the circle, behind my back.
I knew this was a bad situation so I quickly said “no” and rushed through a break in the circle and ran to my class, which fortunately was just ten or so feet away. I am still relieved none of them tried to grab or chase me when I bolted. They certainly could have and I don’t know why they didn’t. Still this is not to say that they were not so bad just because they didn’t. The fact that they encircled me and taunted me in the middle of the day and in a public place was intimidating enough. Yes it could have been worse. And I don’t know, maybe they did do something worse to someone else. And they were just warming up with me.
In October of my freshman year, I had another skeevy experience. I had a 9 am class on Friday mornings. One Friday, I got up to take a shower around 8 am and while I was washing my hair, I had my back to the curtain. When I turned around, the curtain had been pulled back and there was a creepy guy, standing there watching me. I gasped and grabbed the curtain shut. All around me, I heard water from other showers running, everyone else seemed okay. Though who knows? I was frozen, embarrassed and shocked. So I just went on with my shower and didn’t tell anyone about what had happened for two more weeks.
It’s not that I hadn’t experienced misogyny before college. I mean I’d had a boyfriend in high school who was controlling and his mother had been abused by his dad. I also got mixed messages from my parents who told me that I was wonderful and could do anything I put my mind to but also told me repeatedly that girls and women are weaker, tend to get the shit end of the stick and are not good at some things, like math and science, at least not as good as boys and men are. Less than. I knew that’s what I was. Or at least that’s what everyone thought I was. But I didn’t believe it. Even though the societal beliefs reinforced by my parents did get to me, I knew something was wrong. A fire began to kindle within me and grew as I did and it made me fierce, independent, compassionate and strong, even if insecure at times, and I was determined to make a difference.
My sketchy experiences in college didn’t end after October of my freshman year either. There were plenty more in college, and beyond, that I’ll never fully acknowledge on this blog. But the conversation with the bubbly girl in the bathroom on one of my first nights in college and then the three subsequent negative experiences within the next two months really drove the point home. Welcome to the real (misogynistic) world, Izzy.
It’s also important to acknowledge that I am straight, white and from a well-to-do family. In other words, quite privileged. I know that I have experienced hard things and gone through tough times but I would never describe my life as hard or tough. On the contrary, I’d describe it as quite charmed. And perhaps this is somewhat because of women’s tendencies to downplay their hardships and needs. Or perhaps it’s because I recognize my privilege. More likely, it’s both.
Regardless my point is I know my privilege from my oppression. I guess there was a Washington Post opinion post recently that said something along the lines of women play up sexual assault on college campuses and we get some sort of privilege from it. Okay, that argument is completely absurd but let’s stick with it for a moment. Because I’m a woman, I’ve had negative experiences with multiple men and because rape is a type of violence all women fear one way or another, my life has been scarred and impacted by this fear. There have been nightmares and there is hyper vigilance. There’s been low self-esteem and at times I’ve felt worthless and hopeless. That’s not privilege. Now, things like easy access to good education, low student debt and the ability to be almost always treated well in stores and restaurants – that’s privilege. And those are privileges I have because I’m white and middle class – I have other privileges too, related to being straight, cisgender, American-born and able-bodied. Those privileges make life a lot easier for me and they are things I’d hope for everyone to have. Fear of rape and the subsequent trauma and depression? Those things are not privileges and they’re not things I’d wish on anyone.
Then there are pop up tumblrs/groups like #WomenAgainstFeminism, which are perplexing. Or at least seemingly so. There are many absurd and caustic “reasons” women list on the tumblr for being against feminism. But I’ve noticed a few common trends. For instance, many members in these groups seem to think that feminism is about elevating women over men, rather than pushing for women to be equal to men and to have the same privileges as men, because we’re still not equal to men. Or that feminists think all men are bad (sigh). I shouldn’t even need to say this but the vast majority of my experiences with men have been good. But it’s a problem that I experience systemic oppression and misogyny (including the negative experiences I’ve experienced directly by multiple, individual males) simply because I’m a woman despite the fact that most men in my personal life are wonderful people. Another common (flawed) qualm that women in these groups seem to have with feminism is that they think women can’t be oppressed any longer because of certain privileges they personally have. But that’s not so. As kyriarchy theory (a theory I mostly agree with) states, it’s possible to be both privileged and oppressed at the same time. In other words, you can have a great life and tons of privilege but your quality of life can still be impacted negatively by systemic oppression. And just because things are good or better than they once were, doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be better. I mean my life is pretty good but if I can list countless examples of how misogyny has impacted me then that’s not okay.
And it’s okay if it’s not okay. My personal belief is that there’s a deeper reason why some, perhaps many, of the women on #WomenAgainstFeminism are really there and it might be a reason that most of them don’t even realize. I’ve seen it happen before – some members of an oppressed group deny the oppression exists because they want to distance themselves from the negative aspects of belonging to that group. In this case, to me, it seems these women are trying to distance themselves from the negative aspects (aka institutional misogyny) of being female. And I totally get that. I’m well aware of the negative impacts of misogny and it blows. I would not be surprised if many contributors to #WomenAgainstFeminism know on some, perhaps unconscious, level how much misogyny blows and it’s just too painful for them to acknowledge. Because it really sucks to feel vulnerable and less than and to know that society sees you that way. So instead some women put up walls and say, “I don’t know what all these other women are saying because I’m fine.” They feel (again perhaps unconsciously) that if they don’t acknowledge the reality of sexism and misogyny then they don’t have to feel it as much. I mean hey, we all have to cope! Numbing and denial are strong coping mechanisms and make people act in ways that are contrary to how they actually feel.
I feel lucky to have enough support in my personal life to feel like I can face the patriarchy head on. Not to say it’s easy and not to say there aren’t days or ways that I numb myself and/or deny reality to minimize the pain a bit. That’s a normal response. But I hope that all women, when they’re ready, are able to acknowledge the effects of misogyny on their well-beings and to heal in their lifetimes.
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