Suffering in Silence

One woman's story of street harassment turned George Mason from anti-feminist to women's rights advocate. Now, he urges more women to speak out about their experiences

George Mason, 1 March 2007

I've always been a liberal guy, yet until recently I was quite strongly anti-feminist. The truth is, this is not unusual: there simply are not that many male feminists. So why is this the case?

I certainly don't think that I was, or that most men are, misogynistic, at least not intentionally so. If you had asked me, I would have told you that both sexes ought to be treated equally. However, I would also have told you that the problem of unequal treatment had been largely solved.

Furthermore, my ideas of feminists were of women who thought that they were better than men, or who wanted things both ways: to be considered equal, yet given preferential treatment.

Although shockingly wrong on both counts, I believe this view to be considerably widespread. So it seems that many men are not feminists because until and unless they challenge the stereotype of feminism they will reject it.

The evidence has not led you to feminism, because you have pulled down a mental shutter; you are not giving it a fair hearing

How can such an absurd view survive? Firstly I believe that this negative stereotype prompts people to filter out evidence that would support feminism. For example, look at almost all prestigious professions (barristers, surgeons, chief executives) and you will see that men are decidedly over-represented. But if you believe that the problems of unequal treatment have been solved, it is very easy to accept that these imbalances will just go away in time, or that women could enter these professions, but simply don't want to.

In either case, there is no reason for you to worry about the imbalance, or act to change it in any way. The evidence has not led you to feminism, because you have pulled down a mental shutter; you are not giving it a fair hearing.

Why is it so easy to accept the conclusion that there is no sexism any more? I believe it is because sexism is now much less obvious than it once was. If women were denied the vote, or were openly paid less than men, we would easily see that something was badly wrong. But today women are legally protected from both these injustices. Pay discrimination today is both less pronounced than it once was, and far harder to prove to be occurring. It is therefore very easy to ignore: point out the pay gap to someone, and they will likely tell you "oh, that's because they take time out for childcare".

Why aren't their more women MPs? Why are girls given dolls and boys toy swords? Why does my university pool club have a separate women's competition? Why is so much advertising comprised of soft pornography?

Social prejudices are even more subtle, if you do not experience them directly. An example form personal experience is in order here. I was prompted to consider, and soon to adopt, feminism after a conversation with a female student in my first term at university. She happened to mention that she found it scary to walk the streets at night. I wasn't sympathetic, and I told her she was being paranoid and nothing was going to happen to her.

It is crucially important that you understand that I was absolutely confident in this statement. To me, women hardly ever got harassed, to the extent that it was not something to worry about, just as you don't need to worry about plane crashes, lightning strikes, or axe murderers. Of course, you know, and I soon found out, that this is definitely not the case.

My friend looked right at me and relayed a long list of horrifying personal experiences. Twenty-something total strangers asking her out, persistently, since she was fourteen. A man following her home, so that she had to walk around the block so he wouldn't know where she lived. Lewd comments. Never knowing whether any of this would progress to something worse, and so always worrying that it might. And all of this happening on a roughly weekly basis.

I can honestly tell you that I have never been so shocked, before or since. Because as a male I never see this happening, let alone have I had anything remotely similar happen to me. I can barely even begin to imagine what it must feel like, and I shan't even try to describe it here. The point is that this experience, which is to me an incontrovertible reason to be a feminist, is not available to any man, unless he is told about it.

I have never been so shocked, before or since. Because as a male I never see this happening, let alone have I had anything remotely similar happen to me

As soon I was told, the shutters came down. Feminism was something that made sense, and that was probably right. I started reading the articles on this site, and slowly I came to grips with the huge array of gender prejudices which subtly hold women back. I was filled with angry questions: Why aren't their more women MPs? Why are girls given dolls and boys toy swords? Why does my university pool club have a separate women's competition? Why is so much advertising comprised of soft pornography?

So: few men are feminists because men don't have access to the experiences that would cause them to become feminists. Therefore raising awareness is the way to go. But how to put the case forcefully enough? A statistic about the levels of harassment may well fail to do the trick; much more effective is a forceful, confrontational, attention seizing effort.

The crux of the issue is that things as they now stand are utterly and completely unacceptable. I took it for granted that I could walk where I liked, when I liked and be safe. I feel able do so without taking any precautions. Most importantly I would be simply livid if this ceased to be the case. I expect the vast majority of men are in the same situation. Because of this I have found it astonishing that many women seem willing to put up with the despicable treatment they receive.

On the one hand, I can see why this is the case. Sadly, nothing is going to change quickly. Ending harassment will be an extremely difficult process, and it will perhaps be impossible to completely eradicate the problem. Given this, the only way for women to live is to find some way of putting up with it. No one can be angry all the time; and human beings are capable of putting up with seemingly intolerable burdens.

Acceptance of harassment is something that must be challenged if feminism is to continue to make progress

But I think many cases go beyond this. I have spoken with women who just do not seem to think of harassment as a problem, or if they do are completely and almost cheerfully resigned to it. I was arguing with someone about feminism, and I told her the story of my friend having to walk around the block because she was being followed. "Oh yeah, that's happened to me," she said, the implication being "so what?"

I spoke to another girl I knew about harassment, and she admitted that she also experienced it often, and then remarked "I think it's just because we're young though", as if this could excuse it.

I am sure that this acceptance is something that must be challenged if feminism is to continue to make progress. Firstly because women must cease to accept inferior treatment before they become feminists, and secondly because they must kick up a fuss about this treatment if men are to become aware of it, and then to become feminists themselves. This can be attempted through protest and grass-roots action, but a crucial component is simply individual feminists convincing other individuals one by one. This can be done by kicking up a good fuss whenever harassment occurs, showing that it does happen and is not okay.

Feminism has achieved a lot, but we have not yet reached equality. If we are to continue to make progress, we must fight hard to highlight injustices at every opportunity: our reactions must be as large as the problems themselves. If women appear to accept unequal treatment, we may never be able to end it.

About the author

George Mason

George Mason is a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford. He has been a feminist for an embarrassingly short period, and is now attempting to make up for lost time.

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