On International Women’s Day last Tuesday, we highlighted the accomplishments of countless women throughout history and called attention to the desperate need for continued progress towards gender equality. There are so many issues that women face on a daily basis solely because of their gender. One that I have personally faced time and time again is the constant control of society over a women’s sexuality and the ways in which it affects all other aspects of a woman’s life.
The persistent sexualization of my femininity was especially apparent during my time working as a gas station cashier since I was sixteen years old.
“Smile,” exclusively men would say to me and my female coworkers. This was often followed by a comment like, “You look prettier when you do.” To them, my emotions had no value in the face of my aesthetic appeal. Some people have suggested that perhaps these customers were just trying to be cheerful. But the fact of the matter is that if a woman is not smiling for whatever reason, it unsettles some men so much that they have to tell them to alter their behaviour. Why?
There were times when customers would see a male co-worker speaking to me and joke with him about flirting with me or ask him if we are dating (implying that these are the only possible reasons why a man would interact with me).
Men will attempt to get a rise out of me: there are the drunken or uncalled for comments like “You’re sexy!” or “I love you,” but sometimes things get a little more disturbing, like the time a man forced me to compare myself to the model on the front of his Playboy magazine, and then asked if I “wanted to get dirty”.
There are those who want an ego boost. Men, without asking me my age, ask for my number or to take me on dates. My awkward laughs and hesitant ‘no’s are taken as an invitation for them to try harder. And instead of confidently rejecting them, I remain polite out of the fear that they might get offended or upset. Cornered in an empty store with no other place to go, can you question my tactics?
Men at my workplace (both customers AND co-workers) have repeatedly stepped out of line: reaching across the counter to touch my hair, slapping my butt, suggesting I should perform sexual favours for money, and accusing me and other co-workers of sleeping together.
More and more, I’ve that found my body and my sexuality are not viewed by many men as my own. Instead, I can be touched and questioned at their liking. Any form of retaliation I give is always met with, “It’s just a joke, chill out.” My opinions are deemed irrational and mean nothing against these societal norms. Even to me, these situations have become normalized, stories I laugh off or tend to forget.
Society’s desire to control my sexuality extends far beyond my workplace. Its influence on my decision to say “yes” is just as fierce as its influence on me to say “no”.
My mother, for example, is persistent that I maintain my ‘purity’. To her, all men want is sex and once they get it, they will leave you. When I was in a relationship, she asked, “You aren’t having sex, are you?” With her, it is never a question of what I want, but rather, it’s questions loaded with accusations and attempts to control me. Once, when she spotted a hickey I had, it became a huge issue as to how I obtained it. I was told to cover it up with make-up immediately so that people wouldn’t think I was a slut. It was my breasts that got me in this sort of trouble, she said. It was my body that made me some sort of prey for male predators. Apparently, my choices and feelings about the situation were not factors to be considered. And further, this ‘trouble’ I got into was to inevitably be condemned by society, damaging my reputation.
In order to protect myself, I am forced to spill lies of agreement to those who tell me to guard my virginity. Almost in the same way I protect myself from determined men with lies like “I’m seventeen” or “I have a boyfriend”. Hardly is it my decisions or beliefs that are satisfying responses, but often only answers guided my perceived obligations as a woman.
To some, if I say “yes” to sex it makes me seem untamed and promiscuous – names that the men who receive my consent almost never face.
Once, in an intimate situation, the boy asked me which of us is ‘easier’. While it was odd that he referred to himself as ‘easy’, this question makes it evident that we live in society where we are conditioned to believe that intimacy is something that has to be ‘worked’ for by the man and given by the woman. ‘Giving it away’ too soon can make a woman appear ‘easy’ and desperate with low self-esteem – a poor reflection on her character and reputation – when perhaps the truth is that she has decided to be intimate with a man because she sincerely cares and trusts him or simply wants to have fun in the same way he does.
There have been so many times that I was filled with regret after any form of romantic intimacy, not because it was not consensual or I didn’t enjoy it, but because I worry about the man’s opinion of me after it. I worry that he will lose respect for me, consider me some untamed creature, use me only for my body, and the fears go on and on. I fear making the first move for the same reasons: the part of me that has been so conditioned by society believes that being the first to express romantic attraction can put my reputation on the line.
I know #notallmen are like those in the encounters I have mentioned, and I know that sometimes my fears are sometimes truly irrational. But this is not the issue. The issue is that we still live in a society where there is an idea that women’s sexuality can be controlled by those other than herself, that her right to say no is not taken seriously, and her right to say yes can damage her reputation. Not all people possess this idea, but enough do for it to infiltrate the minds of women who will begin to accept it. Enough men possess this idea to harass, assault, and rape women. Enough people believe it to propagate the rape culture that is so prevalent, where the woman is the temptress and the men are just taking what they worked for.
And for these reasons, among so many others, we need feminism. Women deserve full control over their bodies and to not be judged based on their choices. They have a right to be heard: their accounts of sexual harassment, assault and rape should not be disregarded or devalued.
International Women’s Day has come and gone, but let us not forget to continue to fight to overcome gender inequality in the days to come.
Stephanie Bertolo is an Arts & Science student at McMaster University. A strong advocate for youth health and wellness, she is a founding member of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, a volunteer at McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, and a subcommittee member of COPE: a student mental health initiative. Other than studying and volunteering, she spends her time baking, spending hours in used bookstores and coffee shops, and finding herself on enthralling adventures. For three years, she suffered from anorexia and orthorexia nervosa, and is still coming to terms with life as someone who has ‘recovered’.