I was sitting on my couch, staring out the window as pedestrians ambled the streets of Amsterdam, rugged up against the 2-degree chill when I saw it, floating from the apartment above: a solitary, swollen bubble. Then my eyes adjusted to the distance, and I saw another, and another. Everywhere, bubbles.
At the sight of them, I had but one thought:
Someone has just fallen in love.
Because we don't go blowing bubbles arbitrarily at 11am on a Friday from a residential apartment block for any other reason, do we? Or am I just the fickle eccentric who's captivated by iridescence, tethering it in some nebulous neural way to love, and giddiness, and the goodness of life?
Maybe it's projection on my part; maybe the 11am bubble-blowing bandit isn't in love, but rather, the emotion is simply on my mind. Having enjoyed, until recently, four years of unrelenting and unapologetic independence, the thought sits clumsily on my mind. How, I wondered, Would I know what is rattling around behind the sternum of some phantom bubble blower?
To love is to love, but to be seen loving is to subject oneself to scrutiny. Perhaps this is why so many people fear the word; we don't reach our mid-late twenties without a healthy portion of baggage. It's the only way we're allowed to keep passing "Go", and in my social circles, there's as much originality to our neuroses as there were unappealing tokens on the Monopoly board:
1) The Wheelbarrow: Still dating the partner from the first year of university, the Wheelbarrows are either as besotted as they were from the first day, or locked into a mutually-assured destruction of resentment and sunk-cost fallacy. Either way, they've got the next 15 years of their life mapped out;
2) The Racecar: Newly extricated from a long-term relationship, the Racecar is bracing for the long winter by hastily locking down their new partner, since they've already put in the emotional labour of preparing to settle down, just with someone else;
3) The Cannon: Voraciously, insatiably single... but less available for friends than they are for the endless stream of Tinder first-dates who all sound inconsequential initially, but soon become villainous in the retelling when there is no second date;
4) The Boot: The Boot's been beaten down by love, constantly trapped in the will-we-won't-we dance with some abusive ex-partner. They'll circle back around this routine to a few more times than is wise before they realise they're not in love, they're just scuffed and unlaced and don't know how far they can limp along on their own.
As someone who's been each of these Monopoly metaphors at some stage or other, and more (don't ask me about my stint as an iron), I can empathise. Humans are categorically unable to live life without clumsiness, which is, in itself, quite sweet. Everyone wants someone to warm their bed as the world is ending, but the ways in which we pursue happiness - within ourselves but especially with regard to our love lives - can make us seriously bloody hard to love.
Romantic relationships are often dysfunctional and ill-fitting from an outsider's perspective, and why wouldn't they be? People put so much pressure on their partners to make them happy, but happiness is a fickle target that sees us punish ourselves and the people we love for not fulfilling an expectation that doesn't align with the adorable doofiness of being a human being.
Because there are bubbles in Dam Square which means that someone is in love and frankly, I hope it's you. It should be you.
But we've gotta sort out our yardstick for what that means.
People measure the quality of their life by how often and intensely they feel happy, which is wonderful, delightful, perfect... if it works. But happiness as a feeling is quite thin without the weight of unhappiness to create a counterpoint to it. Someone can slog through the emotional equivalent of Dante's Inferno, hungering for a day when happiness will return to them, but such is the nature of the beast: like a blocked nose, you don't notice the moment that unhappiness disappears. You'll go straight back to taking the ability to breathe for granted until the next time it clogs. So to hunger for happiness as a measure of a life well-lived places an unrealistic burden on oneself.
I try not to let myself lean on the word "happy" as a defined objective these days. It stops me from falling into the logical fallacies of thinking: "If I did/owned/was X, I'd be happy". It's like a shining beam of light from the heavens illuminating you in its thrall - pretty spectacular, but eventually you're gonna wanna go get something to eat and wash your hands and maybe have a nap without having to just linger in that one spot for the rest of your life. You change depending on the context in which you live, so your feelings of positivity should too.
For example, owning a home wouldn't necessarily make me happy, but it would make me comfortable. I would enjoy having a space that's truly mine, where I can invite guests around at any time, to choose every stick of furniture in the place and be allowed to do something more interesting at an auction than when I was a kid and my Dad would let me accompany him under the condition I did not, at any time or for any reason, raise my hand.
Likewise, I love my career deeply, but making more money in my job wouldn't necessarily make me happy - it would simply give me more options, which I could then use for the things that do make me happy - like a trip to somewhere I've never been or a meal at a fancy restaurant, just because. So with this in mind, it makes sense that I don't think happiness should be found in the actual getting of the guy or the girl you have a crush on, despite this seemingly comprising 90% of the mental and interpersonal angst of the people I know. Making like Ash Ketchum and just choosing someone shouldn't be the happiest point of a relationship (though for many it is)... it should be the prologue to a big adventure full of highs and lows, doubts and growth, and a conscious decision between both parties to keep actively deciding to stay on the path they've stepped onto as a team.
The dating game places so much pressure on people to carve their ideal soulmate into the uneven marble of another person, but carving is a brutish craft when the raw materials are a human being. A "fixer-upper" relationship, or one contingent upon one party changing, is painful for both people: there is resentment from one for having to "guide" the other into becoming who they should be, and hurt from the person who soon realises that the love that was given to them, seemingly in good faith, is, in fact, conditional on the happiness they bring their partner.
So maybe we shouldn't aim for happiness. Maybe we should aim for satisfaction.
Satisfaction is a sensation that is as longitudinal or as brief as we want it to be; it removes the value clarifiers we place on everything (for example, in a failing relationship: "Does my partner make me happy, or did they make me happy?"). Satisfaction is more readily identifiable than happiness - it's warm, content, and a little self-congratulatory - the latter of which may seem a bit indulgent, but is not. In fact, the personalisation of satisfaction is why it's more sustainable than happiness in the first place: by feeling like we've contributed to our satisfaction (in some big or small way), we have some degree of control over it. An issue with the way we perceive happiness is that it is fickle and fleeting - circumstantial, bestowed upon us by someone else, contingent upon more labour to keep it. But satisfaction does not wither on the vine if you don't keep feeding it - it is there whether you focus on it or not, and unlike the way recall happiness, it is not tinged with sad, bittersweet nostalgia. It simply is.
Happiness is posited as a destination, not a process. Satisfaction is a more navigable marker that, when manifested properly, can be applied to both lives and lovers without forcing upon them the immense burden of perfection that is associated with "making happy".
And, to be a little less metaphysical: Dating is a dog's breakfast. If we can't laugh at ourselves, we're fucked.
Picture it like shoe-shopping. You haven't had your size fitted since you were a teenager and you're not totally sure what fits and you're still gravitating towards slutty thigh-high boots or Converse high-tops and it seems like everyone is just yanking shoeboxes off the wall, squeezing themselves into a pair that fits like Cinderella's slipper on her step-sister's girth, and strolling out like it ain't no thang. Meanwhile, boxes are scattered in your wake, spewing their contents left and right, and all you can think is: "How firm are restaurants really on the no shirt, no shoes, no service rule?" because this is a waking hell and you'd rather be barefoot for the rest of your life.
Not a super happy metaphor there, right? You're not wrong. Happiness cringes from that kind of discomfort, and I don't blame it. But satisfaction is a little more tongue-in-cheek, happy to salvage a good story from a bad experience and still call it a victory of sorts. Case in point: I've rarely heard a story about a threesome that wasn't, at its best, tempered with some disappointment or at its worst, an outright disaster. I know, Hollywoo keeps telling us the 'D' is silent if done right, but the way the stories are painted, it seems there's always one selfish link in the triangle, or someone's kinda gassy, or one person feels left out and ends up creating a colossal drama. Not happy times, not really, but salvageable if you know how to laugh at yourself.
But it's not sweet. It's not pretty. It's not happy. And the movies promised us all that and more - perfection in threesomes, and love, and cleanly-resolved arguments, and bad-boys tamed by the girl next door and that there's a Sandra Dee in leather for any guy who thinks he has the crude tools to change a person into an archetype. No wonder we're unhappy.
I suspect - though I'm not married to this theory - that maybe the best part of sex and love is actually the moment when all parties look at each other with excited anticipation, asking silently: "Are we really about to do this?", whilst knowing that yes, they will. Maybe we're not obsessed with love, but with antici...
I've seen the cognitive dissonance first-hand, and certainly more than once. For so many of my friends, the first kiss with Prince(ss) Charming has was vastly more exciting than the second, let alone having to hunker down for a year or two with them just to be a good sport. A kiss can feel like happiness - for what is infatuation if not capturing a butterfly in your hands and feeling its wings flutter within the hollow of your palms? - but maybe we're chasing the wrong sensation. After all, the real story always begins after the Happily Ever After rolls... and who's to say that story isn't more satisfying?
Not every part of life can be as pure or euphoric as bubbles floating by your window. But it can be content. It can be calm. It can be beautiful.
And it can be conquerable.
As an advocate for human rights, my work has seen me skew organically towards expertise in combating gendered - and particularly sexual - violence.
Every single day, I spend hours wading through the words of those who have suffered and survived. I have pushed aside my spare time, my hobbies, even my health because I believe that for each person brave enough to share their stories, there should be an opportunity for them to yield some small comfort in return. Perhaps it's a platform through which to be heard, a connection to help them heal, or a change in attitude or ethos or culture spawned by their story that mean, one day, they might be amongst the last people who have that story to tell.
With #MeToo tearing down all the flimsy constructs we have societally created to protect abusers and diminish survivors, there is a lot of emotion taking place. People want justice, they want action - but what can be done?
For many of these cases, the best was an offer is a change within ourselves.
There are action points you can take - today - to support survivors of sexual assault and change the culture that enables their abuse. They come with no financial cost, but they demand consistency and commitment.
Wellbeing for Women Africa has launched its first Master Document, Action Points for Changing the World: Sexual Assault, which examines the grey areas of sexual consent within which so much sexual abuse takes place, dismantales the logical fallacies that protect abusers and diminish the voice of survivors, and provide a tangible list of actions you can take to recognise the problem so that you can be part of the solution.
Unless we stand boldly against sexual assault, we are complicit.
Read the Master Document here at www.wellbeingwomen.org
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of legacy lately; the ways we try to smear our sticky thumbprints on the ledgers of history so that something outlasts and outlives us.
For as long as there has been humanity, there has been a desire to transcend it. We can’t be sure that cavemen didn’t scratch their carvings into walls just for decorative purposes, just like we can’t be sure whether Van Gogh smeared oil on canvas specifically to keep bringing lumps to the throats of people long after he couldn't see it for himself. We plug in our headphones to goosebump as the doomed lungs of dead musicians croon us a chorus, and we know it’s not logical but dammit, it feels like they’re speaking directly to us, doesn’t it?
And it makes me wonder how much our fear of death influences the actions we take in life.
If asked, most people I talk to say that they couldn’t bear to be immortal, to watch their loved ones be born and live and die, over and over again. Me? I’m not so sentimental. Or maybe too much so. Whichever it is, I can become smitten with a thousand different faces and chase their stories like a bloodhound on the scent of a rabbit. If I was doomed to outlive everyone I'd ever cared about, I doubt I could forget those I’ve lost, but I'd still find ways to embrace new challenges and new friends from it.
Then again, I may just have that rationale because I’m scared of death. Quite scared, as it goes.
I didn’t used to be. It was an abstract concept; “Things to do before I die” with the word ‘die’ in a whisper. But then people I loved started flickering out like candles in a drafty corridor and suddenly the realisation that I might not have the luxury of a long life began to calcify in the back of my mind. It only became conscious recently, but it had been germinating in the grey matter for who knows how long before.
It started with a novel. I’d been a scribbling, scapping kid from my earliest years and I’d journeyed with my friends etched in fiction for so long, I wanted to contribute to their world. I took the plunge as an adult after losing the thread partway through a Young Adult trilogy I’d begun in my teens that, sadly, is lost on an old hard drive somewhere unknown to me.
But this wasn’t me writing about my friends and our adolescent drama, this was a proper novel. I didn’t just want it to be good: I wanted it to be cataclysmic. I wanted to be capable of writing something that changed the face of literature and shook university English professors by the lapel, spitting frothily into their faces, “But do you get it?!” It’s always been my way to start by dreaming big and then paring it down to reality, and this was no exception.
I was twenty-one years old when I finished my first book, Softly Screamed the Devil. While it had a lot of heart, the execution left much to be desired. Regardless, I pressed on with writing because I knew it would hurt me more to stop than to keep going. A novel a year, more or less, as I learned to prune and pluck my style into the truest expression of myself. And yet to this day, very few people have ever read my manuscripts.
Why labour painstakingly for hundreds or even thousands of hours, to cultivate something from the ether… only to bury it in some folder on my computer or stash in hard copy on the bottom floor of my chest of drawers?
For the same reason I wrote, of course. I’d worked so hard to create something that would outlive me, but it wasn’t yet right; not perfect. And if sloppy craftsmanship with my name attached went out into the world, so much the quicker that both of us could be dismissed forever.
A book is so easy to skim and then discard. A legacy in written by oneself ink is not as potent as a legacy scribed by others in legend. I think I must have known this, somewhere deep down, when I finally slipped from being a person with a job to a person with a career.
The International Development sector fascinates me endlessly; we work so hard to combat abstract concepts of human suffering such as female genital mutilation, human trafficking, and famine, all for the benefit of people we will never meet. Altruism comprises a significant part – those who know me are equal parts unsurprised that my bleeding heart has found a place to outpour its tenderness and amused that my cynicism can bear to navigate bureaucracies like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to do so – but a sector fed on selflessness alone wouldn’t be a sustainable one. Ergo, there are other factors at play.
Loving what I do in my day-to-day work has always been a huge driving principle of my (until recently) shrug-emoji career aspirations. But as I’ve found my groove in the work I do, I’m recognising the things I need to create, and fuel, endless drive: room to grow professionally, autonomy to make decisions, and scope to work with and for the interests of numerous parties being chief amongst them.
International Development is full of people with equal and greater passion to mine. These people live and breathe their metrics of impact and grind away for decades in academic study and professional development, spurred by a burning hunger to leave even the smallest dent in their area of expertise. And I’ve also met people who spruik lives saved with the same lacklustre indifference of an insurance salesperson without a quota; people who are simply happy to have the place of their employment – a label of audacious idealism – written on their resumé without any follow-through. I don’t ask them why. It would be arrogant to assume that I am the only one whose drive is motivated by ways to leave something behind. Then again, it might be petulant to assume I'm not.
It comes back to the old conversations we have about marriage and family and children, doesn’t it? How people navigate the complexity of whether someone is compatible enough with them to share an intertwined generation, and whether that bond can endure a nonbiological connection (adoption, fostering) if conception proves impossible.
With millions of children around the world in desperate need of a home, I often wonder why for some people it’s a carte blanche, “I want my child to be biologically mine”, while others collect foster kids like Pokémon cards.
Sure, the simple answer is that humans are complicated beings. I’m not disputing that. But I wonder how much, if anything, a fear of death influences our more passive worldviews. Whether we need the child who outlives us to contain those nuggets of our DNA before we are willing to accept whatever comes after, or whether the gaggle of children who, at one time or other, are housed beneath our roofs are expected to go on and spread the gospel of the guardians who did them such kindness?
It might seem a pessimistic train of thought, but honestly, I feel nothing but compassion for these hypothetical people and their hypothetical priorities. We’re all just trying to live a life worth eulogizing before the clock hits zero. This does not make us arrogant, nor dangerous – so long as it doesn’t consume us – it’s just human. A hard-wired (possibly biological) imperative. And in a way, it’s kind of beautiful.
Two years ago, on a dry, arid day in the foothills of Shan State, Myanmar, I truly believed that I was about to die. What astonished me was not the revelation itself, but how quickly – and I mean quickly – I made peace with it. Even as my heart rattled against my sternum as if trying to break free and save itself at the expense of me, I thought with a dry amusement that this was perfectly appropriate of the life I wanted to live: mysterious circumstances, a foreign country, and insurgents in the area – a perfect storm for a diplomatic scandal.
At the risk of spoiling this story, I did not die that day. But the calm of my resignation stayed with me for another year, at least. Only recently did I realise that it had faded, when I also noticed that I’ve reverted to working myself to the bone in my fickle pursuit of immortality.
So I’m doing it right, this time.
I’ve come back to Softly Screamed the Devil in the last few months. Five years leaves a lot of time for your skill to grow and your heavy-handed use of five-dollar words to diminish. But the book still has heart in a way that makes me feel forgiving of my past, car crash-clattering-keyboard bandit self. This book may not be taught in high school English classes, but now that the world has become bigger and more vibrant to me, I don’t think that’s ever really what I wanted. I just wanted somebody I’d never met to see my name on a book sleeve and feel a frisson of anticipatory excitement, of, “What’s she written now?”
By the year’s end, I hope I will have found time in my busy schedule to have completed these edits until it is in a good enough shape for me to start feeding to those closest to me for feedback – the real kind, where the jugular sits just below the skin. By then, I will ideally have finished slapping together the resilience I need to handle the criticism it will undoubtedly incur, and grow from it.
I’m measuring the way I leave my mark on the world differently; through friends made, conversations that linger, and lives made better through my love, advice, honesty, or sympathetic ear. It’s liberating because it gives me permission to be mediocre, if mediocrity is in store for me. Maybe one day, I’ll accept that my name will mostly likely be lost in the wash of history. The world is interconnected enough for that to even be appealing, with some rationalisation – after all, for every person immortalised, there is a contrarian objector to everything they stand for. I’ve always been a person who prefers to hit 80% of the specs on the first attempt than exhaust myself in building up to an even hundred; I don’t have the energy to defend a legacy from the grave. It's not like I'll be around to glean any satisfaction from it, anyway.
But it’s nice to imagine that at least for the lifetimes of those who love (or, one day, have loved) me, I might be remembered. After all, what do we live for if not for the lives we’ve changed, we’ve made, we’ve moved?
Do you want to know my biggest secret? It might sound silly, but I've always fantasised about walking into my own surprise party. I want to know how the sensory overload feels when a sea of my friends and family convene in secret, just to blindside me with the knowledge that I am worth suffering bitten tongues and anxiety-inducing covert planning just to gift me that pure, euphoric moment. I can imagine no more perfect way to look foolish, nor to feel loved.
If only there was a way to know if that's what death feels like. If it was, maybe I’d stop living like I’m trying to beat the devil.
But maybe I wouldn’t.
That’s what makes it fun.
CW: mental health, violence.
Fun fact about me: I fucking love barbershops.
There's no great story to it since, I've never actually been inside of one. I have no beard that needs trimming, no sideburns that need sculpting, no nose hair that needs twizzling or evaporating or setting on fire (or whatever it is that those scary motorised thingies do).
But during my long, boring days in London, the ones when I couldn't afford to do much of anything and all the people worth doing things with were at their respective places of work, I found myself creating my own entertainment in much the same way bored children do with a handful of rocks. Eating a bowl of bun cha in one of my favourite Vietnamese restaurants one slow early-winter afternoon, I realised I had a voyeur's ideal vantage point into the bustling barbershop across the road.
The seats sat on raised platforms that cast the customers like a spotlight-bathed thespian on a stage. They gazed lovingly into their own reflections as a kingdom of cuttings lay scattered at their ankles, oblivious to the queue of waiting patrons seated against the glass. From their pedestals, I had a perfect view of each snip and coif, as I chewed on my own rumination - Is it time I moved away again? Where would I go? What if I don't find what I'm looking for out there?
My questions began to simmer, then still, as I became increasingly enchanted by the scene across the road. Though it was a day like (I presume) any other in the barbershop, I was seeing something entirely different altogether. The importance of these stores in the lives of men made an abrupt and perfect sense to me: they were part necessity, part performance piece, and part bastion of vulnerability.
Yes, vulnerability. Because as I sat in that seat for over two hours with my noodles all but forgotten, subtle markers of it began to show. There's a surprisingly intimate quality to the way a man cocks his head back to reveal his throat to a stranger clutching a straight razor. But like contact sports and auto-erotic asphyxiation, a clean shave seems to be one of the few times that people can justify manually overriding their natural instinct to protect their pressure points in exchange for a payoff that, one would assume, outbalances the risk.
I've never been with a man who didn't turn into a quivering kitten the moment I raked my fingernails through his hair. Given many of my girlfriends seem to have the same opinion as I do when it comes to my own - it's long and tangles easily, don't fucking mess with it - it's interesting to me that the majority of the men I've felt comfortable enough with to head-scratch have had almost the exact opposite reaction to how I'd have responded. But when a barber rakes a fine-tooth comb through an inch or two of hair, I wonder: does their scalp sing? Does it sizzle? Does it purr as that feline, limp-lipped, heavy-lidded stupor falls across the face of the customer?
I don't know. After all, I was creeping through two layers of glass and a four-lane highway. But when one of the barbers revealed one of those plush, round brush and began dusting the stray hairs from a client's neck and shoulders (with me supplementing the floof! floof! floof! noises in my mind), I wondered if perhaps barbershops were one of the last bastions of heteronormative male-on-male intimacy.
Then I wondered why they had to be.
It's no secret that I find the concepts of masculinity and femininity fascinating, particularly when we critically analyse where the line is drawn between what is ingrained in us internally, and what we have been socialised to believe as fact. As the world increasingly develops a greater understanding of trans, queer, and non-normative identities, people are becoming more inclined to put what it means to be male, female, both, or neither beneath the microscope to better understand ourselves, and others.
For a while, I held the belief that I was a tomboy growing up, but these days, I think I was looking for some retroactive continuity. Whilst the days of finishing schools and stuffing oneself before a meal so as to give the illusion of a bird-like appetite are behind us, many of my major personality traits as a child (and, admittedly, now), are still considered abrasive when embodied by somebody with female anatomy: loud, cocky, cheeky, blunt... All of which are are, traditionally, not only associated with masculinity, but considered reflective of great male leaders. So to paint myself as a tomboy justified this raw femininity within me - though, of course, I was no less feminine for it. I wonder now at what age I was when I felt like I had to justify my failure to be the quintessential little girl.
And this fraught nature has not abated with time. I can only speak to my own experience, but I'll openly admit that being an assertive woman doesn't always greatly endear me to people. I'm awful at the dating game because I don't know how to play-pretend at being pursued. I either seem to stand my ground in a "try it and I'll bite your head off" stance, or I'll throw caution to the wind and do a little pursuing of my own. Supposedly, men resent the pressure of feeling an obligation to constantly drive the momentum of romantic relationships, but I've never been interested in a guy who seemed too chuffed about me doing it for them. My attempts to play up and play the game usually have the opposite effect from my intention; it turns out that the thrill of the hunt only applies when you're not the prey. No wonder I've never been much of a sprinter.
So why is it that even against the backdrop of love, romance, and flings alike, my new benchmark for male vulnerability was set by a bunch of Shoreditch hipsters getting haircuts at 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and not by any of the men who'd ever murmured "I love strong women" to me with a measured curiosity as to whether this refrain was, in fact, the Konami code to getting into a feminist's panties?
When it comes to dating, I hold the opinion that emasculation - like closure - is nonsense. Not that it doesn't exist, nor that people don't believe in it. Instead, let me put it like this: I know myself well enough to know that I'd struggle to date a guy who believed that if I were too bold, too brazen, too bossy, too me, that he'd somehow be made less of a man. Because at a certain point, a man who believes he can be emasculated by his girlfriend will inevitably have it comes to pass. I'd never want to be with someone who needed to me to compromise who I am to wrap his masculinity in bubble wrap. Though this is the origin of the term "masculinity, so fragile", gender doesn't even have to be the justification for it: I simply don't have the patience to coddle an insecure partner.
But male intimacy is a beautiful thing, whether it's platonic or romantic, or between men or towards women. It's necessary for connection, companionship, introspection, and even to facilitate well-balanced mental health. But because the notion of being a man is so intertwined with never seeming weak and never opening up, many men seem to find the idea of being emotionally expressive or physically intimate with another man (and no, I'm not talking about sex) so jarring that it borders on frightening. I mean, damn, most men can't even stand side-by-side at urinals without being scared another dude might peek at their junk. (Meanwhile, drunk girls sardine-pile into nightclub toilets with their jeans around their ankles, just to ensure a drained bladder doesn't derail a good banter - but hey, that's another post in itself).
Toxic masculinity, so named for its pervasive harms, isn't just some pet peeve of mine; it's an active killer of men. The data confirms that men who consider themselves "self-reliant" are more likely to confidentially report suffering from depression, suicidality, and other negative mental health markers, but are less likely to seek mental health support for fear of looking weak or emasculated. What I appreciate about the concept of toxic masculinity is that it places male needs at the core of its definition: what is toxic about masculinity isn't that someone is a man, but rather that the "brand" of being a man carries an often-unchallenged social expectation to be stoic, emotionally distant, and quote-unquote "strong", even though it's been proven time and time again that these characteristics are categorically harmful. Toxic masculinity pressures men to suppress any emotions that may make them appear vulnerable to others, instead of diffusing them by sharing. Accordingly, men in droves appear to be self-selecting away from support networks, and it's reflected in the statistics of suicide.
I've seen a harrowing number of amazing men lost to suicide, though it doesn't have to be that way. I don't pretend to have a catch-all solution for a complex issue, but I think it at least starts with letting go of the idea that emotions are shameful. As wild a fantasy as it would be if think-piece writers could reshape the world with a compelling-enough argument, masculinity is so much more nebulous than the surface level to which I've been able to scrape here. Why is gender such a loaded term - a source of salvation for some, and a prison for others? Why do we bemoan gender norms and then recoil from any attempt to subvert them? Why would some men rather die violently than confront their very real need for emotional support? Why ?
Short answer: I don't know. But I really wish I did.
Until that day comes, there's not much to do but try to generate meaningful conversations and encourage critique. But for all of the men who are taking their journeys at their own pace - the ones who are suspicious of mental health support systems and never let their mates see them cry - I hope that at least you're keeping on top of things. Eating right, exercising a bit, keeping clean. Whatever makes you feel good.
And I hope you're getting your hair cut in barbershops. I hope you know the guy who tapers your fade by first name. And I hope that when you walk out, you can't quite put your thumb on why you feel a little better than you did before.
Do you remember the first time you encountered injustice? How it rankled and burned at the inside of your stomach, leaving you flustered and indignant?
I don't remember the first instance - I was probably being told off for some hijink my old brother had lead and I, the wide-eyed toddler who would have followed him anywhere, came along for the ride - but I do remember one of the more recent.
For context: I work in International Development, where high-level change-makers across the planet come together to find solutions to some of the most pressing issues globally. My remit is in the improvement of standards for health, wellbeing, and gender equality in Africa. These conversations are meaningful, and important - the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are the guiding principles to create substantive impact in emerging nations, and they are intrinsically bold.
In September 2016, I had the privilege of attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where one of the key themes across a number of meetings I attended was the need for greater youth engagement.
"We need young people to be involved in development across all levels!" said one old white man, whom my colleague informed me in whispers had been in his role for eleven years, and had worked in two other NGOs in the room for the twenty-six preceding.
"Africa's youth need to be trained in this, now, so they can be the leaders of tomorrow," agreed an old white woman, who had entered the sector after a reasonably successful career in government, as was a common career trajectory for reformed politicians.
"We need more young people involved in decision-making processes," said another old white man, nodding towards the young woman seated beside him. I later learned that, contrary to the allusion made by her boss, the girl was actually his Personal Assistant.
Injustice. Definition: when old white people have spent decades hogging the sector's microphone, and still somehow have the audacity to say that we collectively need to put young people - Africa's young people, especially - at front and centre, without meaningful follow-through.
Maybe when I was younger and the world was simpler, I could rationalise this "not in my backyard" mentality. But when so many organisations have worked so hard and for so long to achieve sustainable development, and then come to these meetings and pay empty lip service to innovation and accountability - true accountability - when it comes to youth, it's hard to bite your tongue. The solution to so many systemic issues is tied to youth engagement, and yet nobody seems to realise that this is an opportunity, not an obligation.
I came away from my first United Nations trip exhausted, excited, and inspired - not least of all by the young leaders I met along the way. In the International Development community, there is a maddening status quo in which all youth events run outside of the formal schedule, and were populated largely by those outside of the high-level spaces. It seemed to me that the establishment figures who spoke of youth engagement so often were all for it, so long as they didn't have to be involved. Which was a shame, given the youth fora seemed to present solutions that directly impacted the predicaments I was hearing in the high-level own sessions.
The discord between these two complementary platforms irked me; youth engagement was the flavour of the month but nobody was actually capitalising on some of the bright ideas I had been lucky enough to hear first-hand.
But by the tail end of the year, a new professional opportunity arose: an advocacy platform was going to be built, and a youth focus was preferred focus. All it needed was an analysis of gaps in sectoral capacity, and a carefully-defined brand to fill them.
Nobody else was doing it, so we did.
Wellbeing for Women Africa launched this month, and with it came a new dimension to global advocacy for African development. Wellbeingwomen.org is a digital platform within which experts in African development beneath the age of 30 create editorial content about their areas of expertise - fostered professionally, academically, or through lived experience from the very frontlines - on the subjects of respectful relationships, mental health, gender equality, and reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health.
It's been hard work to pull the platform together, and I'm proud of the strides we've made even in our first month. The Youth Partners on our platform have toiled in low-level jobs, volunteered for months, travelled to conferences on their own dime, and worked hard to achieve some semblance of recognition that can allow them to work in the International Development community at a level reflective of their value. Some of them have been fortunate, but many have not. By giving these young people a global platform, our mission is to foster a new standard of accountability in the International Development sector, in which those who are capable and willing to take a seat at the table can actually be engaged.
There are many ways to defeat injustice. At Wellbeing for Women Africa, ours is to incentivise and encourage other organisations working in International Development to collaborate with, and elevate, their greatest untapped resource: the young people who are eager to contribute their wisdom to the conversation. Because trust me, wisdom is the only way to describe some of the pieces we've had the privilege to run.
I hope that you, dear readers, will join us and change the conversation.
I live for the moments in which a stoic tension breaks; that flickering wariness before our desire to be seen decides that the risk is worth taking. I live for the moments in which a person realises that yes, it is safe to cock their head and reveal the soft hollow between curved jawline and the elastic thrum of the carotid artery.
I fall in love flippantly. Sometimes it's the old Israeli man behind the milk bar counter with a blotchy stick-and-poke tattoo on his forearms, which he explains were inked onto him by some near-forgotten friend - one whose name makes his eyes mist from some sepia-toned memory. Sometimes it's the woman in the gym who grunts from the depths of her lungs as she hoists an impossible weight over her head with hypnotic artlessness. Sometimes it's the dark-eyed twenty-something with the lazy grin and cocksure attitude, who knows enough of the world to bite their tongue whilst someone with half the wisdom speaks with twice as much confidence.
Is it fair to calling it 'falling in love' if I don't actually want to become a part of these peoples' stories?
The women in my family have known grief. Generation after generation, they have birthed their sons into caskets, clutching the minutes, months, and years of life with a lovestruck anguish. When the first clod of dirt strikes varnished pine, they farewell all that was of their boy, and everything he'd one day become.
And yet, they keep bearing sons.
There have been times that I've wondered if my heart has become hard from loss; whether the weight of coffin after coffin has sunk it southwards, nestling against the walls of my womb that have been licked barren by crematorium flames.
"I love children," I tell people as I gush and coo over their sticky-fingered toddlers.
Then I remember that I am not - have never been - a source of life, but merely the dumb ghost who holds vigil over graves. That my lifeblood is anchored to the restless tap of fingers on keyboard in time with that one, endlessly looped Elliott Smith song, and not in the delicate practice of life-giving.
The last time I buried somebody I loved, the eulogy that fluttered in my throat struck a peculiar dissonance with the slow calcification of my insides. Despite the plaintiveness of my words, I'd long since turned to stone. For the half year afterwards in which this deadening persisted, I wondered, with indifference, if the full spectrum of human emotion would ever return to me. At the time, it was but a mere thought experiment: I couldn't muster enough feeling to worry.
"Other peoples', I mean."
And yet, I keep falling into scatterbrained love.
Because there's life in human error: all of our petty, our uncertain, or slipshod stumbling through shifting sands to the future we won't know if we want until we arrive. And I love you - I mean, I probably do - for the exact reasons you can't quite stomach yourself today.
There's pure joy to be found in that brief moment of hesitation before a person attempts to pronounce a new word for the first time. If our tongues are paper wings, then the Icarusean audacity of stammering something we want to express, but don't yet know how, must be the way it feels to fly.
At every funeral I've ever attended, the mourners shoulder the collective weight of an oppressive, stifling cloud of misery. But humans are not made to stay static in suffering, and eventually - whether the sound flees from traitorous lips or is offered with a considered reluctance - somebody will be the first to laugh. Every single time, that light slices up and down the room, scandalising us all for a heartbeat, before we realise that we are still standing, we still feel something, and that joy might not be lost to us forever.
Hours pass at these affairs, and conversation gradually gains momentum as we try to coax the anxious knots in our stomachs with the aid of wine, or canapés, or smalltalk about one another's hobbies. Laughter begins to punctuate the tension, and as it increases in frequency and volume, the plaintive weight slowly deflates like a tired balloon. We leave with dark-circled eyes from lost sleep and suffering, but also with the first creeping inkling of maybe that we are still too overwhelmed to slip beneath the magnifying glass to inspect. We know we are walking wounded, but we still remember - if only mechanically - how to laugh.
To the first person who laughs at a funeral: your journey is your own, and there is no need to manufacture the intersection of what belongs to you, with what belongs to me. But in that brief moment where you forget yourself, there is a stranger savouring an opulent, anonymous moment in which she can love you.
I, like just about everybody else on earth who doesn't innately cringe at the words Harry Potter, have recently seen J.K. Rowling's latest film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Since then, I've happily fallen into the pop culture analyses of it all: the hints to racial politics, depictions of a pre-Depression New York, critiques of the dickish decision to cast Johnny Depp, and - my absolute favourite - the significance of Newt Scamander, the Hufflepuff hero we didn't know we were waiting for.
For the fandom, the difference between each of the four Hogwarts Houses is practically etched in our muscle memory: Gryffindors are brave (but obnoxious), Slytherins are cunning (but slippery), Ravenclaw are wise (but smug), and Hufflepuff are... Sweet? Loyal? Maybe a little "soft"?
I grew up in the nineties, where people still adhered to the John Hughes-esque grouping of cliques as a tool for self-identification. In the age of Pokémon cereal and Friday nights in the aisles of Blockbuster hour upon indecisive hour, we'd gradually come around to notion that girls may not be so inferior to boys after all (thanks, Spice Girls). Still, there was a lingering presumption that people had to be defined by some strict parameter or other. So we pledged ourselves red or blue, an answer in a Dolly magazine quiz, or - go figure - a Harry Potter house.
To be specialised at something was to claim it for your own. Everybody, deep down, hungered to be the best at something, and so to make a decision as to what that would be was a triumph in and of itself. The accolades associated with specialisation have their own peculiar counter-reaction: a snobbery against generalisation.
I get it. I do. When I was a kid who devoured books literally every hour of the day - to the point that teachers and parents alike were forced to confiscate them - I staunchly determined that I, ever the Ravenclaw, would be an author when I grew up. This, I told myself with all the binary indignance of a child who will undoubtedly change her mind about her 'calling' a dozen times before adulthood, is my destiny.
Flash forward: at age 21, I've written a novel. The year after, I wrote my second. Then came a third, and now, I'm editing my a fourth: my first ever nonfiction book, and my most demanding project. But can I rightly call myself an author, to the exclusion of all other identifiers? Hell no. Between grinding my teeth in front of Scrivener, I've flirted with an array of different hobbies, and, like writing, mastered exactly none.
When you're rolling off a running list of a person's greatest hits, it's only natural for it to sound impressive. Take me, for example: nabbed black belt in taekwondo, travelled solo across four continents, written four books, toured internationally as a Spoken Word Poet, represented gender equality initiatives at the United Nations, and have lived in Lyon, London, and soon, San Francisco... but these are mere morsels of one vignette.
I meet people who inspire me every single day. I count my muses amongst friends, family, and colleagues who have risen to the ranks in any one field in which I've dabbled and made it their own: the Olympic fighter, the perpetual freelance traveller, the published author(s), the expatriate who lives and breathes in only their alternate language, the social media celebrity, the PhD candidate, the International Development expert who delivers their own programs on the very frontline: these are the specialists who have made lives out of their identifiers, and the definition of humbling is to project my fair-weather dalliances against their expertise.
I can understand why people like me might feel defensive about how "society" (quote-unquote) values specialisation. There is a weight tethered to the expression 'Jack of all trades, master of none' that cannot be denied, even as people collectively are more forgiving of people who have carved their own paths. Success is no longer defined by the stereotypes of our parents' generation, because there's simply no way to predict who will be the most accomplished person at your high school reunion: you could flip a coin between the person who chased the White Picket Fence and caught it, and the one who sold all their belongings to haul a stick and bindle into the sunset. Never before have sabbaticals and self-determination been so encouraged, but many of the generalists I know still seem to foster a misplaced anxiety about having to be forever 'on'. It could be that they have difficulty committing to any one thing. It could be that they don't quite know where their skills are best suited. It could be that they're secretly scared that if they double down on one thing, they might fail.
But it's okay. Perhaps that just means we're all fostering a little bit of Hufflepuff in us. And in this social justice era, there's never been a better time to embrace our own vulnerabilities. I suspect I'm that deep down, I'm more Hufflepuff than Ravenclaw. After all, I'm soft edges and too many kisses and a sensitive spit-fire and a marshmallow heart. I play video-games on easy mode because I'd rather know how the story ends than conquer an unconqueable AI. But I am ambitious, and curious, and swallow new information with the recklessness of Kirby in a bookstore, and I'm loyal, and ferocious, and can breathe fire when I have to. There isn't a Hogwarts house that fits all of that cleanly... Possibly because nobody should be filed into categories so staunchly in the first place.
I'm not sure I believe anybody is innately destined to be an expert, just as I believe nobody is innately meant to be a generalist. People are too wonderfully complex to live by binaries. Maybe being a Master of something is less of an insight into character than a reflection of one's ability to commit to a decision.
I may not be a published author yet, but perhaps that's just because I still need to work on my attention span.
I'm giving in. I've told myself, time and time again, that I wasn't going to weigh in on the 2016 United States Election. I told myself that it was too hot of a mess, that too many (far superior) commentators were offering their much more sophisticated opinions. Not to mention the minor fact that I'm not American.
But today is the eve of the vote count, and I have friends from Texas to Washington State to Boston all threatening to really angrily post on Facebook if the results take a dark turn. Only problem is, nobody can agree which candidate represents the dark turn.
The two nominees for this election are a career politician who has alienated her voting base through a lack of feminine charisma and giving off a general "Lizard Person" vibe, and a mouth-frothing oligarch with a hair-trigger for tantrums and a hearty contempt for anyone who isn't also a crusty old white man who also inherited and mismanaged a financial empire into (four) bankruptcies.
Sure, the latter candidate might start jabbing the Big Red Button after he mistakes it for the trap door that hurtles any advisor who dares defy him to a Russian bear pit... but he boasts an anarchic charm to a voting bloc who don't appreciate - or, dare I say, understand - the purpose of a sprawling, decentralised Government.
Like, it's structured that way to basically circumvent this entire mess, guys. But cool. Glad you're feeling heard.
2016 is the year that fiction becomes reality. Our media diet has consisted largely of shows like House of Cards that pique our appetite for controlled political chaos. We cheer when Kevin Spacey's character decides that when he doesn't like the way a table is set, so he flips the entire thing. And now, life is caricaturing art, crafting the ultimate showdown between the Old Guard of the Political Establishment, and a Wildcard Dictator-in-the-Making.
It's starting to feel like the Season Finale of America, and since I'm an author of politically dystopian novels, I'm beginning to think I might be well-placed to offer a little commentary after all.
With so many bit characters having been killed off in their primes (see: Barefoot Prince Bernie, Sir Jeb of the Pitiful "Please Clap"), and a new scandal spewing forth with every 24-hour news cycle, we've boiled down the tastiest morsels into the Soylent mush our political palates have come to love. We've barked bite-sized shorthands of complicated topics as fact rather than opinion, silently congratulating ourselves for our brevity.
But how can we blame ourselves? We're merely mimicking what we see on the T.V.
"He's Russia's puppet!"
"She's a war criminal!"
"He doesn't pay taxes!"
"Even women don't like her!"
"He said: 'Grab her by the pussy!'"
"Email servers! That's a crime! Can't trust Gmail!"
As a matter of fact, the barb about the emails is the only one I can't allow to slide past the goalie without comment. Whilst political sledging has been fundamental to these Blunder Games, we mustn't lose our humanity when innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire. I'm not talking about Hillary - fuck it, she's laughing all the way to the White House - but Google. Poor, innocent Google, whose corporate motto is Don't Be Evil, even as their integrity is constantly denigrated by politicians from both sides of the floor. Hand to heart, I'd wager that Google's C-Suite have mopped up rivers of tears with fistfuls of hundreds ever since the email scandal broke.
When two behemoths go head-to-head, sometimes it's the quaint village underfoot which sustains the most damage. Maybe it's the Mexican immigrant who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the American economy, but can never legitimise his career path for fear of deportation. Maybe it's the woman enduring a risky pregnancy who needs Planned Parenthood services to help her bring her foetuses to term. Maybe it's the people of Flint and Standing Rock whose very real human need for clean drinking water is being skimmed over in the media in exchange for breathless "Oh no they di-in't!" commentary.
Or maybe, just maybe, it's the humble little multinational conglomerate who just wants to give the Secretary of State (and potential future President) the best damn email server she could ever hope for.
Regardless of how things turn our tomorrow, let's be honest with ourselves: it's been fun. We've bloated ourselves on bread and circuses, and are now approaching the brutal finale. It's come down to a candidate who allegedly defended a child molester and a candidate who, allegedly, is one. But there are millions of people whose lives are riding on this outcome, and when so many people are this deeply invested in such a sinister narrative arc, any outcome bodes poorly for us all.
This is no case of good versus evil. Life - and leaders - are too ambiguous for that. By this time tomorrow, we may well see the streets of America flooded with rioting Republicans whose anger, or joy, demands violence - maybe well before a frontrunner has even become evident. And even if the Democrats snatch victory from Trump's eerily tiny hands, there's no going back to the way things were. This election cycle has snapped Pandora's Box wide open, flooding the political arena with a venom and fury that can never be re-filed cleanly. However this show ends, there will be a sequel... and it will come with no guarantees to the quality of cast or plot.
So in the spirit of clashing dystopia with reality, culture with mob mentality, and democracy with pageantry, I'd like to finish with one concluding observation, borne through enmeshing two of my own beloved cultural icons, T.S. Eliot and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
This is how the world ends: with hard knocks, and orange arseholes.
It's been quite some time since my article about the cultural consciousness of Cambodia was launched on The Big Smoke, yet I somehow forgot to post it here.
A country with a complex political identity, Cambodia struck me as a place that had never truly moved beyond the intergenerational trauma of its 1970's genocide.
Click the link below to read:
Trigger Warning: Sexual violence, stalking, victim-blaming.
The supposition that just about everything on earth bears a gendered aspect seems, to many, wildly disproportionate. Hypersensitive. Paranoid, even. Yet beyond the standard “blue is for boys/pink is for girls” dichotomy, there appears to be no shortage of situations, places, items or even sentiments which are, by definition, gendered.
Maybe it was from a youthful fixation into Phoebe's skills of premonition in Charmed, maybe it was the way a seemingly endless stream of aunts patted my mother’s pregnant belly when I was seven years old and cooed, “It’s a girl. A woman knows.” Whatever the source, I learned from a young age that intuition was a woman’s work. After all, they needed some yin to counterbalance masculine yang. And as it was understood, men had all the wisdom.
It is hard to explain to my male friends just how diligently women analyse their place in the world around them. How we do not just vibrate with alertness walking urban streets at night, but even in seemingly “safe” places – we scout the back seats of our cars as we unlock them, scan crowds perpetually to discern if any one person is acting erratically or paying excessive attention. Most adult women have clocked the guy who has crossed the busy public space (park, common room, airport departure gate) to “coincidentally” take the seat by their sides long before the man has given any indication that he will, ultimately, try to strike up a conversation. We live and breathe our negative space, ever mindful of the risk that some other would sooner consume that in which we stand.
We do not do this from a conflated sense of self-importance. No, this is merely the tax paid for passing as femme in a world that does not permit us to be passive in our own self-protection. And even when we are on high alert, we may still find ourselves trapped at an awkward impasse in which we are ensnared in an unwanted conversation due to the societal expectation that women be “nice”. Despite our cautiousness, we may still find ourselves zig-zagging down side streets to give the slip to the guy at your heels whose footfalls have begun to pick up pace – because fifty-fifty odds mean nothing if the choices you have are "unwelcome conversation" or something more malevolent. Sometimes our bodies are held by hands which slip past both our physical and social defences, to encroach upon the chalk-line etching of space which is labelled mine, an abrupt reminder that to assume is to ascribe the intentions you have to those who might not. And when such a violation occurs, the secondary violation begins: questions as to why we permitted ourselves to be trespassed upon. Like we had a choice. As if all the defensive measures in the world can ever truly keep us secure if someone is determined to take us at all costs. Those who posit such judgemental devil's advocacy don’t seem to hear themselves. When they instruct women and girls on the ways in which they can be “safe”, what they're really saying is: make sure he hurts some other girl, instead. One who isn't you.
This is why intuition is a feminine duty. It is the first line of protection against danger, a subtle alert to its presence before our consciousness has mapped the source of threat. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is a book collated through several decades of investigation into the predictive techniques which allow us to pre-emptively recognise these so-called “non-anticipatable” capacity of humans to violence. It should, in my opinion, become mandatory reading for people of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of gender. de Becker maps articulately and logically the array manipulative techniques deployed by those with malicious intent to ensnare victims – usually women – in situations beyond their safety. Moreover, it also details methods with which one could predict disgruntled a colleague's capacity to commit workplace violence, or determine which threats of assassination against celebrities are credible, as well as techniques to dissuade and deter stalkers. It is a lengthy and confronting read, but one that has vindicated so many of the unconscious methods of self-preservation I deploy in my day-to-day.
I am fortunate to have been raised by parents who always encouraged me to verbalise my feelings, even if they did not agree with my conclusion. When I was twelve years old, my family were visiting some family friends at their home. The family had many children, all of whom I had known for much of my life. However, as my age reached double digits, I began to sense an increasing discomfort whenever our families spent time together. I could not understand where this feeling had come from, or why, but it would not be shaken even as I tried to suppress it. One day, I was passing the oldest son in an otherwise deserted hallway, and he, several years older and substantially bigger than me, reached out to squeezed my backside. We children had been coquettish, sometimes whispering rumours of the adult universe we were still so far from in blanket forts. But this was not holding hands or playing house with apron and frying pan (cringe). This was new, and aggressive, and adult in a way I did not totally understand.
I reeled on the teenager, clamouring for any pithy burn I could recall from any 90's era Hollywood movie, and spat, “You can look, but don’t touch.”
Why did I say that?, I wondered as the words left my mouth, I don't even want him to look. In this unfamiliar context, I could not shake that peculiar, naïve feeling that children so often experience that even though I had been the one to regurgitate the line, I did not quite know what look really meant. All I knew was that I didn't want it.
Less than an hour later, I (truthfully) told my parents that I felt nauseous and wanted to go home. The father of the boy who had groped me, well into his sixth beer of the day, laughed as if I had told the greatest joke on earth.
“She’s delicate, isn’t she?” he said, eyes agleam, “And throwing out five dollar words, too. Where did you learn to say nawwwww-zee-yusssss, sweetheart?”
There was something in his tone that was malevolent. Dark. The slow drag of the adjective smacked of a derision that I didn't understand, the kind with a festering, corroded edge. Deep within me, something flared. It sparked in my stomach the way I had felt whenevere I moved to cross the street without looking both ways, and was pulled away from an oncoming car by a friend or loved one. It was the sense of danger, and despite the lack of substantive justification to support the sentiment, I felt afraid.
When the night ended and our family returned home, I told my parents what the son had done, and explained that I did not feel comfortable spending time with that family anymore. It seems that in most stories of children coming to parents to state some ineloquent discomfort, the parents in question tend to disregard, deny, or devalue the child’s emotional response. Fortunately, my parents had instilled an awareness in me from a young age that my personhood came above the tribe when personal security was involved. They heeded my concerns, reassured me that my feelings of discomfort - not just around the boy, but the man as well - were reasonable. I was granted permission to stay home whenever they went visiting that family, or actively make plans spend time with friends and family to my own choosing.
Perhaps that minor experience seems uneventful. It's no harrowing origin story, that's for sure. But perhaps my pervasive discomfort from that day forwards in the context of that family was all I needed to sidestep some greater future misfortune. I did not know at the age of twelve that something as innocuous as a fleeting grope could be the first step down a path of sinister escalation over time, but as I aged up, I certainly learned. In that house, some mysteriously toxic stormcloud of masculine aggression had rendered me headstrong enough to refuse to ever return to that house, with those people.
In the grand scheme of stories, stories we hear from women so often who have been harmed by others, this account comprises only a small slice of potential violations I could have endured. In the years to follow, I had suffered a great number of even greater severity. But when 1 in 6 Western women is likely to be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, we cannot afford place enough stock in every preventative measure that is available to us, when failure to adhere to these "preventative measures" leads to victim-blaming. If the lengths of our skirts and the routes we walk home and then men we entrust with platonic friendship are all considered self-inflicted causes for which we can be faulted for our own victimhood, then it is only fair that we give credit to the hyper-attuned instinct of intuition which is so often denigrated as a hallmark of histrionic femininity. If we learn how to identify mechanically the oftentimes subtle signs of danger, or what de Becker refers to as "Pre-Incident Indicators" (PINS), we can come to understand intuition... not as a hokey pseudoscientific theory, but a legitimate and credible means of assessing threat.
Girls become experts in self-preservation long before pubescence. This awareness grows with each incident of catcalling, of unwanted male attention, of strangers brushing up against you on an otherwise empty public transit – all of that starts young, younger than you'd think. The neighbour boy's breach of my bubble, whereupon he squeezed me so hard that it left a bruise, was not the first time I had been subjected to such a trespass had happened. It was just the most memorable at the time of writing. On average, even twelve years of age is far later than the average female's experience of sexual harassment or violation. No surprise, then, that we evolve into suspicious adults.
I am of the not-so-quiet opinion that it should be mandatory to educate young people on how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships, as well as providing them the skills to identify and disengage at the first whiff a potentially abusive dynamic; to recognise lovebombing, or crazymaking comparisons to former partners, and encouraged helplessness. Intellectual understanding of such dysfunction does not come easily to most - even I, well read on the subjects of emotional abuse, briefly entertained a partner who attempted to dissuade me from the medication I was prescribed to treat a chronic condition on some hokey rationale of concern, despite the absence of any side effects from it.
He's trying to influence your health choices, a voice in the back of my mind whispered, Be careful.
I stood my ground on the subject, and on a number of other subjects that arose during our brief (but too long) time together. Within a few days of that debate, he was gone. Though intellectually I felt sad at the loss of a companion, a wave of relief - the source of which I could not comprehend without both time and distance - washed over me from the very moment the door closed behind him. I had sailed close to some submerged cliff face, but my intuition had helped me critically decode the siren song and remain on course.
Friends of mine can be incredulous when discussing my sense of intuition, concerned that I may be using it as a shorthand to overreact to otherwise inoffensive stimuli. I accept the possibility that this could be true, but ask this in kind: if i feel safe and secure from avoiding a person or situation which has struck me as viscerally unsafe, would I have gained much by denying my own feelings? Sure, I may inadvertently push away, for example, the man who could be a great love of my young adult life... but ultimately, if my first instinct whilst meeting that man is deep discomfort, how great a love story are we really likely to have?
And though the bulk of this piece has spruiked intuition as the great barometer for threat, it serves a similarly beneficial purpose: to guide people in making educated decisions in moments which, across a the greater context, might be perceived as reckless. I have driven twelve hours down the West Coast of the United States in the car of Craigslist strangers, hauling in the back of my mind an innate certainty that I would be perfectly safe, and it was so. I've altered travel plans after crossing paths with people on the road who appeared to be of like mind, only for those same people to enrich my life utterly as we shared an array of experiences in some unexpected, new terrain. I've had good feelings about certain places, or people, or moments which more or less have panned out to be deserving of my faith. For this, too, I can be grateful for intuition: not fear, but a heightened awareness of opportunity.
Intuition is what helps us all gauge our safest path through the sprawling jungle of life. And it is what women like myself unconsciously calibrate on a daily basis to discern and ameliorate personal threat. So when a woman – be it a friend, partner, child, or even yourself - verbalises discomfort with regard to something or someone in a way that she cannot express clearly, but for which she is clearly distressed, be mindful of the manner with which the cogs in her mind turn. Believe her. We are so socialised to be pliable and polite that a desire not to be should be examined closely for clues. Intuition is a largely unconscious process, but more often than not, what it tells us is worth consciously heeding.
It is better to be impolite than in danger, and as de Becker says: "A man's greatest fear is that a woman will laugh at him. A woman's greatest fear is that a man will kill her."
Excerpt from the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.