The older I get, the more I realise that the personal is the political. The old adage “the standard you choose to walk by is the standard you accept” has never rung quite so true. Malevolence is not the true enemy of human kindness, it’s ambivalence. And when enough people suppress a quiet dissatisfaction with a social expression, the aforementioned social expression becomes a standard, and when it becomes a standard, it becomes an ingrained cultural norm that requires a concerted effort to pull from the roots.
And we all know weeding the garden of human decency is gruesome work. To point out the ingrained biases in ourselves and others is confronting, which is why people are quick to react adversarially to preserve these biases. To the average person, justification reads like, “Who are you to judge me? I am a good person.” And to an extent, they’re right: every villain thinks they are the hero of their canon. The world would be a strange place if self-awareness was so honed as to prevent anyone from ever making an error in judgement that saw another hurt.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise then that when a group of male friends back home were sprung by a mutual female friend for maintaining a Whatsapp group which, amongst the usual banter, was used to share compromising photos of their romantic and sexual partners without consent, the reaction was one of anger and defensiveness. The female friend, upon expressing her disgust, was immediately treated as if a traitor; accused of histrionics, of making mountains of molehills, of having some disloyal agenda. But she held fast, determined to have the necessary emotionally-exhausting conversations with each individual regarding how their actions – from passively viewing these images to actively sharing them – were equally harmful, criminal, and cruel.
Sadly, but not surpisingly, the clique closed ranks. Several resorted to emotional blackmail, even going so far as to threaten to terminate their individual friendships with her if she would not let the issue lie. Despite this, she persisted with encouraging them to do the right thing by closing down the Whatsapp group, and contact the women involved to both disclose their actions, and apologise.
Considering the ongoing insistence that the sharing of these images was harmless, none of the men involved were comfortable with informing their sexual partners of their photos’ divulgence. And this, I feel, is extremely telling of the undercurrent of semi-self awareness that ripples through issue: if the act of sharing these womens’ images without consent was not an inherent misogynistic criminal act, then why were these men so anxious to conceal it from the victimised parties?
The female friend’s persistent challenging of these attitudes were grueling and came at great personal cost to her, something that I sadly only learnt of long after the fact and from a different party. But ultimately, a modicum of progress was made. Some perspectives changed, some apologies were made, and some women were contacted to explain how their images had been used with a request for forgiveness. Others, unfortunately, opted instead to double down. Such is the way when emotionally immature people who, fortified in the privilege of never needing worry about the commodification of their bodies, are confronted with how their so-called harmless fun victimises others. Curiously enough, the staunchest proponents of the “it’s not a big deal” camp were seldom the individuals who shared any pictures in the first place. It would seem that in this situation, the bystander effect – or perhaps a mere combination of guilt and defensiveness regarding the exposure and attack of “secret men’s business” by a woman - remains a powerful psychological motivator.
It is not a complicated exercise in empathy to determine the moral failings of this situation, and the countless others that have seen revenge porn increasingly criminalised across the western world. These women shared their bodies with a partner, an act of inherent vulnerability in a world that perpetually shames them for having a sexual appetite, even as they are burdened with unreasonable expectations to play the part. They trusted these men with their physical bodies with the expectation that to do so could be reciprocally enjoyable, not to mention void of commodification and objectification. Instead, that trust became the basis of mockery – the images were used to flaunt a trophy, to denigrate the women for being so arrogant as to think their bodies were their own, to shame them through covertly laddish bro-culture.
When the personal is political, placing one’s sexual vulnerability in another person is an innately political act. It is unpleasant to think even sex must be seen in this light, but the reality is that sharing someone’s unclad body without their consent is criminal, and with good reason: in the process of sharing or passively receiving these shared images, we are perpetuating a socio-political norm that shames women for daring to embrace their innate sexuality, even as we try to nurture it for our own satisfaction.
This is beyond “boys will be boys” or “we meant no harm” or “I was just so proud to be with a woman this beautiful.” This is “look at what I snapped when she was going to the bathroom the morning after” and “the image stopped being just hers when she pressed send” and “I thought the guys would find it funny” and “who the fuck does this slut think she is to demand I keep this private?”
These men have been my close friends for many years. We have laughed together, cried together, exposed our soft underbellies, and celebrated each others’ successes. I know them to be, at their core, well-intentioned people. But their actions victimised other women and I’ve struggled to reconcile the ways in which they have treated me – a girl “friend” rather than a girlfriend – by contrast to the women who sit lower down the hierarchy for trusting them with a side of themselves a platonic friend has no need to. It is when good people go to extraordinary lengths to preserve a status quo that repeatedly oppresses and humiliates others that the true degradation of their moral character becomes apparent.
I don’t know how these friendships will play out when I return home. Maybe by virtue of writing this piece, I will have negated my right to have them in the first place. But what I do know is this: uprooting ingrained misogyny is dirty work, and I would rather be elbow-deep in filth than ever be passive when women are treated as prize pigs or a cheap punchline for daring to have sex. And if that precludes me from remaining part of the clique, then so be it. If norm-challenging women are unwelcome anyway, then maybe I never was.
And now I think of it... even in its innocent heyday, there were never any women in the Whatsapp group in the first place.
Hello, friends, stalkers, former lovers, and family members who read this blog to support me, but always wind up finishing an article with a crinkled nose, borne of semi-disgust and disappointment.
This is just a quick post for me to announce, with great excitement, that I have become a regular contributor to Uncommonlot.com.au, which is a space for unusual, dangerous ideas from mouthy agent provocateurs.
The site has freshly launched my examination of sex negativity, gender construct, and the peculiar dance of veils that women must perform to court a lover.
The piece is linked below, entitled (somewhat charmingly):
You can also find an older post, borne of these very archives, freshly dubbed:
Thanks for reading, and don't hold back in your thoughts. I'm a true lover of lively debate, and impassioned response to my opinions will only ever aid me to discern whether I am more or less offensive, in general, than that one time I retaliated to a guy's negging so hard, he cried.
(Trigger warning: sexual violence)
I don't remember a time when I haven't grappled with the notion of angry feminists, be they young, old, bra-burning or bra-padding. There was something about the notion of outrage in conversations around gender equality that unsettled me. Perhaps it was because I had inadvertently absorbed the societal messages that tell women that they need to be, above all, nice. Nobody likes an extremist. I don't like extremism. Therefore, it made perfect sense to approach social justice issues with a calm and thoughtful inoffensiveness. After all, it's more palatable to be passive than to be aggressive.
As I struggled with my identity as a feminist, I fell down the usual rabbitholes: the "I'm an equalist/humanist" debacle, the "real feminists aren't aggressive" reassurances to people who would never be persuaded, the stoic conviction that if I was polite and considerate enough, even the most outrageous bigot would find no fault to pick my arguments for equality, and would soon experience a reality check.
I had a fascinating conversation with a peer around the notion of shame that evolved my understanding of its place in gender dynamics. How pervasively shame rules our lives, dictating expectations so subconsciously that people don't even consider why they do the things they do. So much of it, in the form of victim blaming, is perpetuated in campaigns to teach women to be safe in public spaces so as not to entice harm.
And so I internalised this shame.
For years, I crossed the street at night to avoid men approaching from the opposite direction. It's never been something I've thought twice about. For all my fervour to be valued as a capable human above my gender, I was socialised to play the pantomime of "not looking like a victim". At night, I walked with tall posture, gaze directed towards some imagined horizon, house keys studded between my knuckles. Yet despite all this, reality tittered in the back of mind, chiding me with the harsh reality that despite all efforts, I may still be a target to the wrong person. It wouldn't be my fault, per se, but then, the voice reasoned, I should have known better. This voice taught me to feel audacious and reckless for daring to catch a metropolitan train, or walk the suburban streets at night.
But it is not negotiable to me that blaming a victim for the manner in which harm befalls them is unfair. This is a fundamental tenet of my belief system. So, then, I began to wonder, what of self preservation?
Only then did I realise that despite my smiles, my logic, my softly-softly approach, I was angry. And I had every right to be.
Because there is no fucking reason for a person to ever feel ashamed of patronising a public space. It should not feel like flying too close to the sun to innocuously go about my day. Shame, the cruel arbiter of blame and fault and guilt, motivated all of my decision-making, and that revelation sickened me. Especially when I learned that these fears, this self-policing, this abject fear of some malevolent "other", was not the internal monologue of any of the male friends I asked.
There is a big, wide world out there that women are terrified to occupy in case their confidence is interpreted as arrogance, and arrogance is an invitation for trouble. This is why I am an angry feminist. This anger motivates me to do something to change the way the world works. For some, this anger will be off-putting. I know this, and I've made my peace with it.
I am livid that despite Australia being a privileged country of relative opulence, women are groomed before they have the capacity for critical thought to act as chameleons. We are asked to fundamentally change ourselves to match the environment in which we have entered, as a defensive measure against harm. I am outraged that in the 21st Century, any teenage girl, when asked, can detail a veritable novella on the ways in which she tries to render herself as less of a potential victim, but teenage boys cannot confidently identify sexist attitudes that contribute to this fear. I am furious that so much discourse is dedicated to the male fear of sexual rejection, whilst by contrast, women are tarred and feathered as "hysterical" when their greatest fear is that men will rape or kill them.
Over the weekend, my teenage sister was preparing to go for lunch with some girlfriends. As I passed her in the hallway, my mind immediately started tallying up the low neckline, short skirt, long hair and bare legs, as perhaps an outfit that may court unwanted attention. My instinct was to suggest that she change her clothes. This was followed by a second thought: why did I consider it to be any of my goddamn business? She looked great, she felt confident, and, having been raised by the same parents, I knew she was aware of the realities of a sexist (and potentially dangerous) world out there. But this did not intimidate her into dressing in a style that did not feel like her own. I respect that immensely.
It's was not my right to police the clothing of an autonomous individual out of some self-righteous notion of "protecting" her from harassment or harm. People who hassle women are solely responsible for that. Feeling proxy-shame for my sister's clothing choice was more of an indictment upon my attitudes than anything she had done. That, right there, is what is known as rape culture. It is a term rooted in academic validity, and yet despite this, the phrasing is derided for being a weaponised, hysterical radical feminist conspiracy theory. Because when feminist theorists attach a label to the ways in which society marginalises women, people are reactionary, defensive, and hypercritical without offering any justifiable alternative. Why is there often so much pushback against calling things as they are when it comes to identifying the ways in which we live in a gendered sphere?
Women live in an unmalleable society that expects us to be fluid and ever-changing to accommodate it. To armour ourselves in long-sleeved shirts and hide away in our homes after dark and change ourselves fundamentally to give way to a sexist world. That's not fair. Why should people be forced to compromise if they don't want to? Why is the expectation on women to be easygoing and flexible for the benefit of societal rigidity? It baffles me that people are more comfortable with fighting for a status quo wherein women are expected to negotiate all manner of decisions and behaviour, rather than addressing the disparities of a system that actively works against half the population.
I once dated someone who identified himself as a feminist, yet he was also a traditionalist in many respects. When the topic of the future arose, I was perpetually treated with contempt for wanting to preserve fundamental aspects of my identity that I was expected to yield. Despite how progressive this man gilded himself, he considered it my responsibility to take his name if it came to marriage. He wilfully refused to accept that I, too, have been attached to my name for the same number of years as he was to his own, and was in no hurry to sub it out for a surname that, coupled with my adjective for a first name, made me sound like a B-grade superhero.
He also hefted the expectation that because he wanted children, I would bear and birth them. My tentative inclination towards remaining childfree was ignored. The decision of how I would change my name and my body was easy for him to make, because it required no compromise on his behalf.
Sure, sure, his defence was that he was "traditional". But my attempts to find neutral ground on something I had no obligation to budge on were for nothing. All my suggestions were, to his mind, extreme. But why was "if having the same surname is so important to you, we could choose a new one together" considered so radical? Or "I come from a social work family and would prefer to foster or adopt if I changed my mind about having kids" not acceptable? Those suggestions were weighted by a willingness to negotiate. But they were loathsome to him, a rejection of the "gift" he was offering me... to be his little wife.
I am an angry feminist because I am frustrated and furious with the double standards of a world that sees only two genders, rather than a spectrum, and consigns us all to one side or other. The anger does not fester inside me, like poison. Instead, I harness it in the hopes of facilitating change. I refuse to perpetually bend over backwards for an inflexible world that tells me "you are the woman, and there are expectations of you", be they to avoid my own assault as incited through fashion or access to public spaces, or to perpetuate someone else's gene pool, or to heft a family name on my shoulders that does not feel like my own.
I have nothing but respect for people who make these decisions for themselves without discomfort. I'm sure life is easier when every choice is not a battle.
But I don't want an easy life. I want an empowered one. To that end, I will never compromise my autonomy for a world that doesn't care for women who make life inconvenient. I am not ashamed anymore.
And if my reckless impetuousness sees me sink into a deep puddle of moralistic head-shaking, so be it. At least I'll make some ripples as I go down.
Because everything on earth becomes trivial after the loss of a loved one, it only makes sense to go fully trivial, and bury yourself in the inanity of life. Rave at what really grinds your gears, only as long as they're at arms' length enough so as not to hurt you. Rail against the unfairness that small cars driven by female P-platers will almost always be more frequently tailgated than any other car or driver, that hangovers are getting worse, that music doesn't speak to you like it did when you were fourteen and every line from every song made you feel like you were going through a horrible break-up with someone you've never even met, but loved profoundly. And nothing, nothing is more trivial than lamenting that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. So that's exactly what I'll do.
It's no secret that I'm a feminist. I'm okay with the title, though I'm not okay with the reaction that it elicits from other people. And if I wasn't entirely sure what being a feminist actually meant, I would be confused by my decision to be one, too. I absolutely adore silky, satiny, lacy underwear and shirk all undergarments in shades of beige with a disdain that Wall Street executives probably reserve for, well, poor people. I seriously contemplated buying a pink car, because the engine specs were decent, and as far as I recalled from my childhood, my Barbie never looked bummed out when I pushed her around in her giant, pink convertible. I got all giggly when I had the good fortune to meet Cosmo Jarvis, a musician so amazing that I foolishly struck up a conversation with him about the world's least-sexy topic... Reddit. Yeah. Talented and attractive people make me dopey.. If you were looking for quantifiers of femininity, it's safe to say that I'm a Girl with a capital G.
Being a feminist doesn't preclude me from these facets of my identity, which is sweet, because I wouldn't sacrifice them for any cause... well, except for the pink car bit, which ended up being an insane whim. Fun fact: most cars that come in pink are of a heinous shade, and can be bettered by other similarly-sized cars that aren't pushing for a twee "I don't know how to check my oil, I'm a girl!" demographic.
Being a feminist means acknowledging and accepting that there is something wrong with a status quo wherein women who are murdered receive less sympathy if they just so happen to be sex workers. It means finding it unsettling when female sexual predators are given more lenient sentences for the molestation of children than men, because "that's the luckiest ten-year-old-ever". It means believing that nobody, man or woman, should be mocked for asking for emotional support through a trying time.
On a tiny, trivial platform, it means understanding that some differences between men and women are inane, moronic, and unreasonable. It means acknowledging the sensitivities of the unspoken word and the implied negotiations between individuals, be they of the same gender or otherwise. In short: it means doing away with the fucking notion of the "friendzone."
For those unaware (or blessed by virtue of having never experienced unrequited infatuation), the friendzone is a simple concept: that if you play your cards incorrectly upon getting to know someone whom you are romantically interested in - that is, by not projecting your "best self" or someone else's self altogether - then you will be consigned to the friendzone, a dark and decrepit place in which you are forever to be seen as "nothing more than a friend." Every person who has ever been told "I care about you, but just want to be friends" by the object of their affection has felt the burn. Rejection is hard. But for some people, there is an inexplicable need to react to rejection with aggression. To denounce the spurning party for "only wanting jerks/sluts", allowing bitterness to taint any interactions with the object of one's desire until their intended paramour awkwardly extricates themselves from a poisonous man-o-war embrace. All the while, these sad, insecure people thrash around so wildly in the so-called friendzone that the entire friendship, which was a privilege and not a punishment, is decimated beyond repair.
Here's the dirty little secret to avoiding the friendzone: don't be an entitled jerk!
Sure, it's unfortunate when the person that makes you want to watch musicals and frolic in meadows isn't smitten for you. It's a bummer. Really. But guess what? That person was adult enough to be honest with you their feelings! They think you're a friend!! That means they want to be able to support you through ups and downs, as lovers and partners traipse in and out of your life through revolving doors, and hope for you to be a similar supporter for them on their adventure, too!!!
How can this kind of mutual respect and camaraderie seem like something "less" than dating when they're both completely awesome, albeit different, things?
This might be controversial, but I'm of the opinion that there is something far worse than the friend zone: being hefted bodily into the "girlfriendzone". You will know if you are currently in the girlfriend (or boyfriend) zone by the breadcrumb-trail of passive-aggressive implications that you're "leading [someone] on", or being resented if a friend or acquaintance's declarations of everlasting adulation aren't met with immediate enthusiastic reciprocity. In the girlfriendzone, "that's really sweet, but uh, that's not how I see you" is an invitation for the spurned to pursue you more aggressively, because whilst your words weren't encouraging, you didn't sound totally committed to the rejection. By contrast, stating plainly "I am not attracted to you" seemingly means "I'm literally a succubis, and the knowledge that I've broken your heart helps me get over the edge when I'm having evil, sinful bedtime hijinks with some other guy. Oh, and the guy is a handsome jerk. He probably plays some kind of team sport."
When we consign meaning to our interactions with the opposite (or same, or non-binary, whatever you like) sex, perceiving other people as potential nemeses with whom we must negotiate a relationship through butted heads and gender warfare only perpetuates the adversarial nature of dating. If people see one another as mere conquests, begging to be taken, they disregard the other person's autonomy through necessity. Nobody likes being told who or what they are. Is it not utterly entitled and patronising to imagine someone else telling you that they know what's best for you, even as they refuse to consult with you about it?
If the friendzone is a sad, poorly-lit room hosting a Lonely Hearts Club, the girlfriendzone (or boyfriendzone) is a noxious pit of snakes over which people suspend each other with Bond-villain level wickedness, declaring the ultimatum: "return my affections, or become dead to me!". When I think of it like that, I sure know where I'd rather be.
I'll be the first to admit that I've been guilty of the self-indulgent "why don't they like meeeeeee" pity party in the past. Spoiler alert: it did nothing for me. All it did was ostracise people who could readily have been good friends, if I hadn't set my scope so narrowly that I figured romance was all they had to offer me.
I dated someone for four years. We were friends for many more before that, despite the fact that he had feelings for me. To this day I'm not exactly sure why, but people who didn't know either of us particularly well felt invested in the slight that my friendship had inflicted on him. I was called all kinds of cruel names for my supposed "selfishness" by people who had never actually asked him how he felt about our friendship. I was blasted for confining such a "nice guy" to the friend zone, whilst still being so presumptuous as to enjoy his company. Yet when we finally had a discussion about the belligerence of those accusations, I was reassured that my friendship was more than enough for him... until one day, we both decided that it wasn't. And I'm sure that for neither of us were those years of friendship a waste of time. Not surprisingly, all the mud-slingers faded into obscurity sometime after, where they damn well belonged. And if we hadn't dated? Then heck, he'd have still been a good friend for however long we may have remained friends.
Since re-entering the land of single people, I won't lie, it's been interesting. It's a merciless meat market out here, though I'm having a blast. But in getting to know people whose intentions aren't always of the PG realm, I have had to learn to assert boundaries in a big way. And from various nasty little girlfriendzone experiences, I know enough about my principles that when somebody tries to guilt trip me or assert dominance over my favour, I recoil. Vocally. I'm less soft and malleable than I once was, but I like myself better this way. The people I've discarded for befriending me with ulterior motives were never really friends anyway, so it's not as if I've lost anything of value.
So when your heart gets all fluttery at the sight of a message from your pal, but its contents are a lamentation of the ways her boyfriend is being mean, and she just wants to hang out and be allowed to feel her feelings with a friend, don't immediately assume that it's some sick game. Because this is someone who has trusted you enough to be vulnerable around you, and, implicitly or explicitly, is optimistic that even if the boyfriend goes one day, you won't.
And when it's framed like that, does friendship really feel like such a second prize?
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.