I don’t pay attention to the real world on the weekends; from Friday evening to Monday morning I am on a self-imposed media blackout. It keeps me sane, and sanity, for me, has been in short supply lately. So I treasure it. But occasionally the world seeps in. Last weekend I heard snatches of what I thought was a massively bad joke; ramblings about wanting sex but not being given it. I switched the radio off; I hear far too much crap on the radio to be outraged constantly. But at work, on Monday morning, I read about Elliot Rodger; and I could not stop reading. Today, I’ve spent too much time reading the #YesAllWomen hashtag at the expense of my inbox. It’s been going since last weekend. It’s still updating every few seconds. It’s being tweeted by women mostly, and some enlightened men.
And I wonder, should I tweet too? Because like almost every woman I have also had the on-street harassment, the being called a bitch for resisting an advance, the mansplaining, the fear of walking alone to my car, the keys in my fist, the drugged drink, the comments about my clothes, and level of attractiveness and the lack thereof. And I’ve known it happen to every young woman I know. Every. Last. One. So maybe on that count, my voice doesn’t need to be added.
But these things have happened. They may happen again. It became a fact of life I simply, like all women, lived with.
But some things you can’t live beyond, because sometimes these regular “humdrum” assaults and fears go further. This isn’t about a rape, or a beating, or a sexually motivated assault. It’s about meeting a nice guy, falling love, getting married, having a baby, getting divorced.
I left. It doesn’t matter why, because we’ve seen that why does not matter. In a world where I have the choice to leave a relationship that no longer works, I did. But, I was asked, “Why did you leave him? He’s a nice guy?”
We’re told that our standards are too high as modern women. We want too much. There are so many nice guys out there if you just give them a chance and “lower” your standards. Why should we? Why is the “nice guy” the best I can hope for? Why should the companionship I want come from me lowering my standards instead of you meeting them? The “nice guys deserve it” attitude is only a step above “He doesn’t hit you.” And we now know the danger of the “I’m/He’s a nice guy.” He actually isn’t. Elliot Rodger, despite his insistence, certainly wasn’t.
He most certainly wasn’t after the divorce. My choice to leave was a result of me being “depressed”, or “my friend told me to”. Not that I had decided that I was unhappy, or that I wanted better for me. How could I possibly leave a “nice guy”? Well, I did. Because I could and I wanted to. And I moved on, and the moving on triggered a response now, in hindsight, loaded with the loathing and entitlement Rodger displayed.
After the divorce was finalised, and we’d decided our child would live with him, with us having joint custody, being equally responsible for her upbringing, he learned I was having what was then little more than a fling.
The response was: “Don’t think you can see [our daughter] while you see [my now fiancé].”
In the wake of Rodgers’ massacre, Liz DePriest at http://feministmomstudies.com/2014/05/27/yesallwomen/ recalls an essay she assigns in a lecture;
She writes: “The things I kept seeing in the #YesAllWomen conversation reminded me immediately of a class I taught several weeks ago. I had assigned Adrienne Rich’s 1980/3 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text available here) as well as a few of her poems. In the essay, Rich includes 8 characteristics of male power that were first articulated by Kathleen Gough in “The Origin of the Family” (1975). These are as follows:
“Characteristics of male power include the power of men (1) to deny women [their own] sexuality, (2) or to force it [male sexuality] upon them, (3) to command or exploit their labor to control their produce, (4) to control or rob them of their children, (5) to confine them physically and prevent their movement, (6) to use them as objects in male transactions, (7) to cramp their creativeness, (8) to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.”
Number four leapt out at me. Grabbed me. Shook me as his words had when I had heard them. But stayed with me as I, as have many many women and men, continued to read the now week-long #YesAllWomen tweets.
The words contain the rage we all recognise when we spurn advances; when we make choices men do not like; but this time instead of being called a bitch, which, sadly enough was expected, this was the response. The threat of robbing me of my child; of trying to control my actions through denying me legal access to my child.
The implications are there: If I can’t have you, no one can. You belong to me. You are my property and your decisions are not welcome nor taken seriously. And this child is collateral. An object with which to manipulate. To coerce. To force my unreasonable wants into your life.
The response was at best, irrational; at worst, well. At worst, a threat eventually carried out. And one expressed by a man who had once raged at the “women who take children away from their fathers”. It was simply the ugliest in a litany of hostile behaviour meted out as punishment for my choice. Which I remained silent about. To preserve some sort of peace because we had a child to look after. Eventually, he did something else and I got really angry. Loudly. Publically. I was castigated.
This revelation of the threat to mutual friends and his family has been met with silence. One almost as deafening as the cacophony of voices shouting my anger and grief down. I only talked about it almost two years after he denied me rightful access to our daughter. Because when that happened, I broke down. I was incoherent with grief. Unable to make a single rational decision or form a single rational thought. Unable to keep the fact that my world had fallen apart secret and silent. It spilled over everywhere. The unthinkable had happened; the threat had been made and I had ignored it. But my breakdown was proof that I was crazy.
Another, later, episode, before the final blow, should have alerted me. Again, an irrational response born out of unwarranted rage.
It was his weekend with her, but I took her as he’d made plans. No big deal. He travelled often and I did the daily duties. No big deal. It is my responsibility.
My daughter and I spent the day with mutual friends, and decided that he’d pick us up later as I knew I’d be drinking. Evening came and dinner was running late at our friend’s house. He called; I didn’t hear my phone, so he arrived at the time we’d set. And on learning dinner was late, was incensed. I asked him to hold on and have a glass of wine with us and we’d leave in a bit. We could even have made another plan. He continued to rage. I was selfish, and didn’t think about anyone else. He hissed this at me in private, then left the room, picked up our daughter and stormed out of our friends’ house. I don’t know if he said goodbye to them. He probably did. But I was not allowed a goodbye to my daughter. I had made a terrible grave transgression. Unthinkable. I had let dinner run late, in someone else’s home. I ran after him, pulling him, trying to get him to stop, so I could at least just say goodbye. I pulled at him and he dragged me, kicking and begging him to stop, while holding our daughter, down the path towards the street. He weighs in excess of 100kg and tops 6ft. I am less than 50kg, and shorter than 5ft. Any attempt to stop him would be a massive, visible effort. It was hideous. I was distraught. My friends told me to see a psychiatrist.
He stormed away with our daughter, who obviously cannot stop him, without letting me say goodbye because dinner ran late. I tried to stop him.
I need to see a psychiatrist; he doesn’t.
The intersection of crazy woman, nice guy is not lost on me.
The intersection of woman of colour, nice white guy with smart accent is not lost on me either. If I had been a white woman, and him a black, Indian, or heaven forbid, a Muslim man, the tables may have been turned. He’d be culturally backward, abusive. Treating a woman and a child like property. And we’ve seen that time and again with acts like these. Nice (white ) guys must have a reason. She must be crazy. He must be sick. Not a normal person.
Black men get the short end of that stick. They cannot even be seen as mentally ill to garner some sympathy or explain their actions. They are savages, barbarians. Nice (white) guys must have a reason; she’s crazy. The mentally ill aspect of Rodger’s actions are irrelevant. I am mentally ill. I do not think punishing my ex after a failed marriage by withholding access to our child is rational at all. I did not do that. I did not threaten to do it. I still have not threatened to do it. I do not think that a new relationship for him as an end of something for me. I left, knowing full well that adults move on beyond a divorce. It is outright irrational to not expect that, or to rage so madly against it.
I have simply tried to have my time with her. Because that time is not just with me. It’s with her maternal family; grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins; and time to learn her history through the eyes of people who have lived it. Not through the exoticising lens that many white people see things. Her heritage and family is her right; it is why South African law makes it a crime to deny access to a parent – because a family is every child’s right.
He does not see it as necessary, because there are so many cross-racial adoptions in this country. Because in the absence of a family, one of another race and culture is of course (yes I do believe this) a better option than no family at all. But our daughter is not an orphan. She has a mother, and a maternal family. But, to him, she is property.
It is a troubling pattern I’ve noticed in his family. One I am at this stage powerless to stop. I no longer see her. The final attempt to do so went beyond “look she’s crazy” right into “she’s an incompetent, uninvolved, dangerous parent”. Unchallenged allegation that has left me unable to trust in the competence of both the social workers involved, despite them being told about the threat. You’d think it would ring bells, but I do believe that me not having my daughter live with me stood against me. I must not want her. Regardless that, as a feminist, I believe that men are as capable as competent to care for their children as women are. That it is a learned behaviour, and not innate. Shrug.
The experience has left me broken; and, as he once threatened, without my daughter. If it had left me undisturbed, I’d probably be seen as unfeeling. You can’t really win here if you’re a woman.
The #YesAllWomen hashtag is a response to male entitlement, the dehumanising and objectifying of women and children (and yes boy children too). A response to the pervasive, dangerous belief that women and children are property and cannot make their own choices. This is psychological violence. I’d much rather be hit thank you. That way I can get my own licks in, and a bruise will garner me the sympathy the breakdown didn’t. Because a silent, bruised woman is much more deserving of help and sympathy that an angry one; I must not fight back, ever. Regardless of the circumstance, unless I am a woman constantly beaten up by her husband, unless the picture is the common one; the accepted one. Women who have been raped by people they know know this; only strangers and rape, so you had something to do with what happened to you.
The hashtag is a call to talk about how entitlement and objectification makes women and children, and men too, unsafe. It is an opportunity to show how this affects us daily; how silence is no longer an option; that female anger, like black anger, is justified, and not the product of crazy, savagery, runaway emotional silliness and oversensitivity. Or, my favourite, imagined slights and lies to get attention. That mental illness is not a marker of violence; that misogyny exists. It needs to be in your face now. It needs to grab you and shake you out of your complacency because lives are lost and broken by “nice” guys too; because sexism and misogyny does not need to look like a stranger assaulting you to be real; because it does not need to look like a woman battered to death before it is visible. Because it is practised in countless little almost invisible ways that cause at best, discomfort, at worse – well – we’ve seen at worst. I have. I almost lot my life. And I most certainly lost my child.
Some may want to think I am shoehorning my experience into a feminist paradigm, or that I am responsible for this somehow. Oh well.
As we have seen on the hashtag stream, that as much as there is empathy, understanding and sympathy, and a will to listen, there is a move to silence, dismiss, deny, disown, downplay. To, within the sphere of male privilege, as with white privilege, dismiss the structural problems and pervasive attitudes as “not my problem because I don’t do this”. To walk in the safety of never being challenged on your anger or your right to speak out because you don’t have to worry about it or have it shouted down.
The #NotAll Men response is asking for women to simply be silent. To simply accept that the men who do not do this, want a cookie for just being “nice guys”. It wants women to accept their fate, in silence, because female anger is not pretty, or accommodating, or sane. And women must always be pretty, accommodating, sane. Otherwise, nice guys get really, really angry. Because women must always be accommodating. Because even nice guys think women and children are property.