Kate White

He for She

I was fifteen years old when a boy tried to shut me up. He was someone I trusted; a long-term friend who eventually became my boyfriend.

In the back of your closets and shoved under your beds, there lies a matter so heavily engrained in our culture that, despite what hegemonic discourse might have us believe, affects every single living human being on the planet, regardless of age, sex, race, or any other distinguishing factor.

The issue is gender inequality, and more specifically, the oppression of women that scarily, still occurs throughout the majority of the world in 2014.

So this is obviously a women’s issue then, right? … Please.

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.
- Rebecca West

We all have mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, aunts, cousins, friends; teachers that we care for deeply and those we want the best for. Do you want your little girl to be too scared to try out for the soccer team? To be silenced out of applying for college? To be scared to walk to her car alone at night for fear of god only knows?

Everyone, men and women alike, have a role to play in reeling in the gender gap that we are currently divided by. My own experience with being silenced by an abusive boyfriend as a teenage girl is something I’m sure many women can relate to, and I hope that by speaking out about these problems, the subject will become less taboo and feministic stereotypes and stigmas can be laid to rest.

Straight off the bat – I do not hate men. I love men. I have never hated men, and I don’t think I could even if I desperately wanted to. I am a single, hot-blooded heterosexual young woman and there is simply no way around that fact. I have also grown up with positive male influences in my life; my father is the kindest, strongest, most respectful man I could ever have asked to look up to, a dedicated protector of his daughters and their interests at all costs. Having attended a co-ed school, some of my greatest friends are male, and growing up in that integrated environment has, I believe, accrued many benefits.

One negative experience at a crucial point in my development however, highlighted to me the particular gender-norms entrenched in the way we live our lives. I hope that by the end of this piece, you agree that there is much more we can be doing to change the current state of the gender gap.

I was fifteen years old when a boy tried to shut me up. It had a profound impact on me. He was someone I trusted, as the perpetrators often are; a long-term friend who eventually became my boyfriend. I didn’t know his behaviour would change so dramatically of course when I entered into the relationship, but puberty hit him like a freight train full of testosterone. The innocent kid I’d shared a trusting friendship with suddenly became a frantic boy in some sort of violent, desperate pursuit of his manhood.

Today, I truly do believe he is a good person, and has dealt with whatever it was that back then that made him feel the need to ruin my life.

If I believed he was bad person today, I don’t think I could cope knowing he might still be treating other people in this way. But I have had to resolve that as human beings we all deal with things in different ways at different times in our lives, and I (unfortunately) happened to bare the brunt of whatever inner torment it was that this troubled soul was going through back then.

So first up, I get it. You were an angry teenage boy, and I was your punching bag. It sucked, and looking back on it? It still sucks.

10151044474404532But what sucks even more is that national surveys are continually finding that up to one half of Australian women will experience violence of a physical, emotional or sexual nature at least once in their lives.[1]
Women exist submissively in abusive marriages for years on end because they feel they have nowhere else to go. Girls in school giggle and laugh when boys make sexually inappropriate jokes about them, because to stand up for one’s self or to retaliate in any way might risk them being labeled as undesirable or ‘uptight.’ The workplace is rife with incidents of sexual harassment, male dominance in top corporate positions, and women who are simply under the belief that cannot progress in their careers beyond a certain point.

But this can change.

Because despite the ugly struggle imposed upon me as a young female, standing here today, I win. Although back then I may have felt broken into a messy smash of fine china, one by one, day by day, I put every last White piece of myself back together.

And if I am no one’s damaged goods? Then no other young girl or woman should be either.

Though I accept that abusers are not inherently bad people, that does not mean that I don’t resent the fact that to this day, the darkest corners of me still ache with a pain bigger than just myself. When a man tells me to shush, to calm down, or tells any of my girlfriends to ‘just relax sweetie.’ When I am alienated and criticised for saying exactly what l think, or when I learn that statistically, women in business are often too intimidated to speak out against the men in positions of power amongst them. I kind of can’t breathe a little bit.

It is a hard thing to explain; what it feels like to have your voice taken away, and all these things take me back to being 15.

To be standing in the school courtyard, and hear a whistle; the kind an owner of a dog makes to his canine at the park, to turn around and see your boyfriend clicking his fingers at you, demanding your presence by his side.

Any attempt to refuse him, disobey him or make light of the situation, is met by the kind of threatening glare one might expect from their opponent in a boxing ring. Only he wasn’t a boxer, we weren’t fighting, and he was looking at me.

A strong hand grips my delicate wrist, and my usually strong, determined, happy resolve begins to crumble. Today I am tired of trying, so I hush my voice in compliance, and a little bit more of something inside of me dies.

I don’t know what that something is yet, but I’m disappearing in more ways than one. I knew very well my voice box was there, and that my hands were more than capable with a pen.

But suddenly, to use either of the two in a manner that distinguished me from the wallpaper in the room was to put oneself at a suffocating risk of ridicule, mockery and derision. Both my voice and hands, two vital instruments of communication, became foreign objects to me. They were now in the possession of someone else, they were in the possession of man.

On the odd occasion I managed to steal back some autonomy, there was no telling where things would go. I think the constant threat of physical violence or the fear that it may be loitering can be more damaging than the actual act itself. It inflicts on ones already overwrought nerves a stringency that cannot be diffused. It is like being in a constant state of electrocution, and all you can hope for now is that the faulty fuse doesn’t blow up all together.

When night falls I am learning that you want things from me that I don’t think I’m yet willing to give you. They are things I have been taught to value, to save for the right time, the right person, and the right everything. Things all girls have the right to do with what they will. Up until this moment I was comfortable in thinking I was still a bright and bubbly teenager, casually strolling towards the big smoke of one day being a grown up.

But it is dark and you are angry and I am scared; and as you tell me I am weak and strange the doormat is ripped from underneath me. Suddenly I am second-guessing everything I thought to be true.

We have been here before and before, this power struggle in the dark, and I can’t bare to feel so pathetic as you made me feel those times ever again. With you in this blackness I am a child, a weakling. I am a frigid interruption to your end goal. The look in your eyes says I won’t escape un-bruised this time.

Humiliated, women become convinced they are without choice, and that this is what, as females, we were put on the Earth to do. Our brains tells us to stop being a hindrance and to comply, as he tells us to ‘quit whining.’ So on that night, like many other have done before me, I shut up, and I submitted. And millions of women across the globe did the very same thing at the very same moment, and are doing so before you finish reading this sentence.

Please stop, they will think. For it hurts and you are hurting me, and you are hurting all of Us.

In the months that followed I stopped talking, stopped laughing, stopped thinking, stopped believing, stopped eating, stopped living. I hated you but you controlled my every function, and sometimes you managed to convince me I was better off with than without you. Millions of women will stop functioning. And they will continue to do what you say.

That night something in me was lost, and though my heart still beat and my lungs still breathed, I could not speak for the longest time and I could not feel with hands so numb.

That night something in me was lost, and though my heart still beat and my lungs still breathed, I could not speak for the longest time and I could not feel with hands so numb. Even though I was at last free of his negative voice, it was usurped by the dialogue of chronic anxiety, depression, self-hatred and related illness.

But with time and strength and support I got through it – as many will. I was not, and am not alone, so please don’t look so shocked. The sooner we speak up about this the sooner things can begin to change. Because this happens all the time.

It has happened forever and it is happening right now and it will happen to our children if we don’t start trying to change two things:

  1. The way boys and men receive and react to what girls and women say, viewing them just as objects of pleasure, or as something to be possessed and oppressed. This must end.
  2. The way young girls and women view their own voices and bodies. They are powerful instruments of agency that exist not for the mere pleasure or entertainment of the opposite sex, but as vehicles to communicate their values and positions to a world that has unfairly thrown them in the face of adversity.

One fantastic movement that I would encourage everyone who wants to see these changes come to life is the United Nations Women’s HeForShe campaign, a project from the Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women’s division, which aims to raise not just awareness, but the voices of me and women all over the world to protect females still being ‘abused, objectified and silenced.’

HeForShe cites that as ‘women are half of the world’s potential and every single one has the right to a life free from discrimination,’ we need to speak up, support the voices of our peers and take our roles in changing the discourse seriously.

To everyone who has felt affected by this, work is being done. Things are changing. Men are beginning to speak up and out on behalf of you. Just take a look at this amazing article. As for me, I am fine. Which is fantastic, because it is living proof that women worldwide can be fine and stand up for themselves and one another, and that we do have a hope of fixing this.

To you, the pained soul who destroyed my young trust, I am going to thank you. You taught me lessons that will carry me through the rest of my life, and that I can now make sure I never have to learn again. I can support the people around me, I can write and share and be brave. I can educate my own children one day.

If only one person reads this, and benefits from the fact that my hands are no longer numb, that my voice is no longer silenced, well that is good enough reason for me to keep writing, typing, speaking.

I might even start singing..
My hands are small I know, but they are not yours, they are my own.
They are never broken.
We are never broken.


photo credit: Kate White www.said-jane.com/footprints/

 

 

 

 

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006), Personal Safety Survey (reissue), Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra. []

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