So you should know that I got groped on my way home yesterday at the metro station – by a man who thought that it would be okay to touch an Asian girl in a short skirt, that asking again and again when I said ‘no’ would somehow produce a different answer.
You should know that in the seven weeks I’ve been in St Petersburg, this is the second time something has happened to me on my way home. A man followed me to the doorstep of my apartment my second day here. I’m three-quarters through the second-year Russian language syllabus, and I still don’t have the language skills to understand what he said to me – but one doesn’t need years and years of language learning to comprehend sexual advances when they are made.
You should also know that this is not a ‘Russia problem’, and that Russia is by no means an ‘unsafe’ place. The same thing has happened to me in Paris last summer – a forty-something year-old man hit on me openly and thought that expressing interest in me automatically permitted him uncomfortable physical intimacy.
These are not encounters I like talking about, and I am not blogging about them to signal how good-looking I am (the way some men would suggest I take such incidents as compliments). I am recounting them to remind myself that I’m actually pretty lucky, because men have only succeeded in terrifying me to this extent.
Even though I’ve had fend off stares from men while waiting for my friends outside metro stations around the world more times than I should have to, my experiences have always been sharply contrasted by most of the guys I personally know. Most of them offer to walk me home in the weeks after an incident happens, or express that I should send them a text message when I get home safe. None of them have ever tried to take advantage of me, no matter how intoxicated I happen to be.
For this, I count myself fortunate – because I have never had to go to the hospital, court, or a psychiatrist. Never has a man, or group of men, stuck any kind of foreign object inside me or fondled me without some form of consent. I have never been sexually assaulted. I have never been afraid to fall asleep. I have never had to relive a night over and over again in courtrooms or in my dreams.
I consider myself lucky, because this is not a problem with Russia, or Paris, but with men who feel they have a right to a woman’s body, who exist in just about every city in every country. I am lucky because Singapore is a pretty sheltered place for a girl to grow up (albeit not without its own problems), and I never personally felt unsafe as a woman until I started to live abroad for extended periods of time.
If I had lived in Singapore my whole life, maybe I wouldn’t need feminism. It was easy for me to brush off cat calls and lewd comments – the same way every woman has to in order to exist at all (which is another problem for another blog post).
So I guess, in a way, I’m writing this for the old me – who never experienced anything worse than lecherous stares and teenaged boys’ attempts to take indecent photos up schoolgirls’ skirts and post them online. While they are each small examples of what needs to change about the world in itself, there is a kind of sheltered fortune in being able to get into a taxi by yourself and not be afraid.
If you can brush off cat calls and ignore them like I used to, I suppose this post is also for you, because you’re incredibly lucky.
You’re lucky – because you haven’t experienced something that has made you terrified of walking home every night, that has made you turn and watch your back every five steps you take, even when it’s bright outside. You’ve never had to be afraid of the dark, of sleeping alone, of groups of men standing by the steps of a metro station, of any stare by any random man.
It has taken me twenty years, going to school at an ultra-liberal women’s college, and living in the suburbs of a Russian city to feel a constant, haunting paranoia about my existence as a woman. Whatever trauma I have experienced is a fraction of what my friends, and others who have survived sexual assaults have been through. I am reminded every time that there are girls out there who have survived gang rapes and genital mutilation, who have been sold into the sex trade or have been taken as sex slaves, for whom my sheltered brazenness is not an option.
But even then – even with the luck I’ve had so far – if I hadn’t been groped, hit on by forty-year-old men, or been talked into non-consensual sex at any point in my life, maybe I wouldn’t need feminism. No matter how deep a sense of anger, injustice and sympathy I felt for sexual assault and sex trade survivors I met and whose stories appeared on the news, maybe I would feel no personal connection to ‘feminism’ and its fight. I would feel no personal, deep-seated fear and vulnerability about my very existence and position as a woman.
If you don’t need feminism, I still hope you never discount its importance for those who need it – for anyone who has ever felt unsafe walking home alone, or might have been passed from man to man and abused by every single one, or has been the victim of men who assume that we ‘would have said okay’.
Until it happens to you – until little encounters with men cumulatively chip away at your ability to feel safe anywhere – until you have reason to feel paranoid about your body and your very existence as a woman, it’s hard to imagine why people make this huge deal out of rape culture, or why it breaks strong, beautiful women the way it does.
It’s easy to call activists against rape culture ‘fragile’, or dismiss their claims as part of an inability to ‘just deal with it’. It’s hard to imagine why women make such a big deal over receiving sexually suggestive comments on the streets or online, why non-consensual sex can break someone, or why some women feel the need for activism – until it happens to you.
The problem lies in this great ‘until’ – the very notion that it could happen to you. Maybe it hasn’t – but as long as you exist in this world as a woman, there is a possibility that you could get groped on the metro, that you will get followed home, that strange men will undress you with their eyes and grab your bum on a crowded bus.
Why should you be considered lucky just because you haven’t had encounters of this nature? And if you haven’t been sexually harassed, why might it still happen to you?
The goal of most consent activists I know is simple – that we create a world where every sexual act you perform with another person is done in complete and mutual consent, where public spaces can be entirely safe and nobody needs to worry about getting touched inappropriately when walking down the street, no matter what time of day.
Every time I leave for a trip, no matter how long, my dad tells me to ‘dress ugly’. He tells me not to wear makeup, not to show skin or wear short skirts. He tells me not to be pretty. He doesn’t need to tell me why. He doesn’t need to tell me that because of the prevalence of rape culture, my decision to be unapologetic in the way I dress – to keep wearing bright red lipstick and wear crop tops – is considered an invitation.
Even if I had never been sexually harassed, the fact that we live in a world where my father has to tell me these things – which is the same unfortunate reality in which my female friends must make up stories about non-existent boyfriends before men will leave them alone – makes this my fight all the same.
Feminism, or any kind of sexual consent activism, is not just a fight for and on behalf of every woman who has ever been sold into the sex trade or sexually assaulted. It is fighting against the notion that you should consider yourself exceptionally lucky if you have not encountered some form of sexual harassment.
It is the fight against the very possibility that something could always happen, and that makes it both your fight and mine. Our shared existence as a women means it could always happen to any of us – and why wouldn’t you want to change that?