Here’s to Strong Women

When I was thirteen years old, I started to get into comic books. At the time, I was particularly partial to superhero comics. And as a young girl, I heard all the jokes about how, of course I was so absorbed in a genre that followed traditionally handsome, muscular men dressed in skin-tight clothing. It didn’t seem to matter much if I said that that wasn’t what drew me to the genre; everyone was simply convinced that that must be what it was.

I had a hard time convincing people that, when I opened a Batman comic, I didn’t do it for the sad, rich boy with abs; I was there for the tragic cat burglar who wanted love, but never at the expense of her freedom or independence. I wanted to read about the clown girl who fell head-over-heels for the wrong man, and then learned to recognize the abuse, and, with the help of her best friend (another woman who had faced mistreatment from an entitled and careless man) she got herself out of that situation.

I am, of course, talking about Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, respectively. Three fictional characters who are not only strong, capable, and fiercely independent – they are, quite simply, unapologetically female.

When I was thirteen years old, these were the sorts of fictional characters that I was attracted to, in all forms of media: power fantasies. More specifically, feminine power fantasies. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because she was allowed to (un-ironically) love shopping and make-up and gossiping, while still being able to kick some demon ass and stand up for herself. I loved Wonder Woman, because she was fierce and strong, but nurturing and loving all at once. I loved Xena, because she could be both warrior and princess without question.

When I was sixteen years old, my attention began to turn a little bit more toward celebrities, because I suppose that’s what you do when you’re a teenager (or, it was what me and my friends did, at least). The celebrities that I sought out were much the same.

I loved rocker chicks, like P!nk and Joan Jett, women who weren’t afraid to challenge what was expected of women. I loved celebrities like Lady Gaga, who insisted on expressing themselves in the way that they saw fit. I loved Emma Watson, and any woman who was willing to brand themselves a feminist or stand up for women’s issues.

I loved female celebrities who will go unnamed here, simply because there is not time and space to mention all of them.

When I was eighteen years old, I became more aware of the women in my own life, in my family (as you tend to do when you’re facing the possibility of moving out and moving on).

I heard stories about my maternal grandmother, and how much of a firecracker she had always been. I heard about this five-foot-tall woman, growing up with nothing to call her own and having to build her own life from scratch. I heard about the time that her own brother made fun of her until she could stand it no longer, and she stabbed him in the hand with a fork.

I remembered growing up with my mother, who was covered almost head-to-toe in tattoos and dyed her hair a new colour every week. I remember her pictures being published in tattoo magazines, her name being made as a small-time tattoo model, even when she had two fully grown daughters. I remember her telling me that the people who thought she shouldn’t be who she was at her age didn’t matter. I remember her telling me how important it was to be true to yourself, and to be proud of who you are, no matter what that means.

I remember growing up with my sister, who has never once considered not speaking her mind. No matter what, even if what she says is considered rude or incorrect, she will say it. If others tell her that she should be humble, then she will climb to the highest rooftop just to scream out how much of a gift she is to the world. If someone tries to hurt or slight her, then she will do precisely what she needs to do to protect herself, because that is precisely the sort of strong, independent woman she is.

Now, I am twenty-two years old, and I am more aware now than ever that strong women are a gift upon this world.

As women, we are too often told to be something very particular; we are told to be soft, humble, passive, sweet, whatever – my point is, whenever a woman does not subscribe to this limited definition of what a woman can be, the effect can be truly inspiring.

Because the fact of the matter is, women don’t have to be one thing. Women shouldn’t be one thing; there are millions and millions of us, and we are all different. We all look different, act different, think different, love different, and we should reflect all that in how we live our lives.

A woman who does not perfectly reflect society’s definition of beauty, and yet still loves herself and owns what she has, is a rare and beautiful thing – specifically because society tells women that they shouldn’t do that.

A woman who unapologetically owns her quote-unquote ‘unfeminine’ traits, like ambition or assertiveness, is, again, a rare and beautiful thing.

A woman who is, quite simply, herself, regardless of what that might mean, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And the reason why am I writing this, more important than simply reminding the world that strong women are a gift, is because we need to remind the strong women in our lives that they are strong, that they are amazing, that they inspire us. We need to support our fellow women, to encourage them to continue being themselves. Because we exist in a society that sometimes seems intent on tearing them down, but if we can remind them that what they do is important, then maybe they can find the strength to continue.

As women, we need to build one another up. We need to be there for one another, to make one another better, instead of constantly trying to prove that we are better than them. On top of telling women what they should be, society has also tried to trap us in a constant cycle of competition with one another: we must be the pretty-est, the most loved, the best mother, but the truth is, we don’t need any to accept any of this. We have the option of supporting our fellow women, of helping them to become stronger. Because we all deserve to be and feel strong.

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To The Men Wondering “What Can I Do?” #MeToo

Let’s create a scenario here: you’ve been hanging out with friends. It’s about two in the morning, and it’s time for you to go home. You didn’t plan on driving home, and there’s a short walk between the place that you’ve been staying and the bus stop. It’s late, dark, and none of your friends are planning on accompanying you to the bus stop because it’s only about five minutes away and no one else is heading in that direction.

So, you head out. As you’re walking, you become aware of how empty the streets are, so late at night. At some point, however, you become aware of movement behind you. You look behind, and there’s a man following you. No, not following you; walking behind you. He’s just another human being, on his way home like you are. You continue walking, but the knowledge of that figure behind you has not left the back of your mind.

You turn a corner, and just out of curiosity, you glance over your shoulder. The man turns the same corner, still walking behind you.

Your mind flees off to the stories you have heard before, of the girl who got off of work late at night, pulled into an alleyway and beaten. Of the man who was stabbed on his way home from the bar, and had to drag himself, bloodied and weak, to get help.

You become aware again of the fact that, if this man were to do something to you, help would be a long way away right now.

But, of course, something like that won’t happen to you. He’s just walking behind you. There’s no proof that he wants to hurt you.

Still, just to be safe, you reach into your jacket pocket and slip your house key between your middle and pointer finger. Just to be safe.

The man is getting closer. Your chest tightens. But nothing is going to happen. You’re going to be fine.

He’s getting closer.

He’s beside you now. Your breath catches, but he keeps on walking, going on with his business. You release your breath and, in your pocket, your house key.

Now, this man could be literally anybody. Maybe he was just walking home. Maybe he has a wife, a daughter, an elderly parent who he’s caring for. He could be a student, an off-duty cop, an activist who campaigns for the rights of the homeless. So, if that’s the case, were you wrong to be afraid of him in this scenario? Were you judgemental? Cruel? Should you have acted differently?

This is a question that I’ve seen asked from time to time, particularly in discussions around street harassment and feminism. I mean, I didn’t give a gender to the ‘you’ in the scenario, but many women, in the wake of the recent “Me Too” campaign, have come forward admitting that they do not feel safe in the streets. Heck, the scenario that I have just described has happened to me on multiple occasions, partly because of stories that I have heard, regarding horrors that have have happened to other women, and partly because I have had men yell at me in the streets, harass me, or make unwelcome comments, and the possibility that all it takes is one man to take it too far remains at the back of my mind every time I walk alone at night.

But in response to these women coming forward, there have been some men (or, at least, I’ve mostly heard men making these comments), who ask, “well, what are we supposed to do about it? Can’t you understand how bad it makes me feel, to see women afraid of me when I’m not going to hurt them?”

Every time I have heard these comments made, the intention behind them seems to be less, “what can we do to make you women feel safer in the streets?” and more, “don’t you realize that not all men attack women? You shouldn’t be so afraid of us; we’re not all going to attack you”. And, on the one hand, yes, not all men attack women in the streets. That is a fact. No one is saying otherwise. There are men who are genuinely good men, who actually do wish that women could feel safe in their presence and on the streets.

But there are also men who do attack and harass women in the streets.

According to a survey from 2014, 65 percent of women in the United States report being harassed in the street. Twenty-three percent report being sexually touched, twenty percent report being followed and nine percent report being forced to do something sexual. This is compared to twenty-five percent of men who report being harassed in the street, the majority of which are LGBT men facing homophobic or transphobic slurs. The organization that conducted this survey, however – known as Stop Street Harassment – admits that street harassment is an under-researched topic, so exact statistics are difficult to discern for certain.

And all that I know from my own empirical evidence is that I have been cat-called, insulted, followed, and screamed at by multiple men, simply because I happened to be in public at the same time as they were.

But then, this poses another question: although the majority of women are harassed in the street, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of men are harassing. I mean, we don’t even know the statistics of how many men engage in this behaviour, and who would admit to it for the purpose of a survey anyway? Perhaps the majority of men in the street are perfectly innocent, and if that’s the case, is it fair to punish the innocent because we’re so afraid of the guilty?

Well, in my personal opinion, in this scenario, we have to think about what, exactly, is meant by ‘punish’. How are the innocent punished by women who fear being harassed? In the majority of cases, they are punished by women refusing to speak to them, looking away, reacting rather generally with fear.

And why do women react this way? Because, when you’re on the street and interacting with strangers, it’s difficult to tell for sure who is going to harass you and who isn’t. Maybe the man walking behind you is perfectly innocent. Maybe he isn’t. End of day, you don’t want to take the risk, because if you do engage with him, then you run the risk of him thinking that you’re ‘inviting’ his inappropriate behaviour, or fixating on you more than he might have otherwise.

And, I mean, yes, it is a shame that women cannot be open and friendly with every single man on the street, but statistics and empirical evidence give a very convincing reason for why we shouldn’t. And men should not be angry at women for reacting this way; they should be angry at the society that forces them to react.

So let’s go back to the original question: “well, what are we supposed to do about it?”

If we want women to feel safer in the streets, then there are actually things that we can do, believe it or not.

We can not react with anger or offence when a woman does something to protect herself, even if she is doing it completely without immediate reason.

We can respect boundaries, not touch people who have not given us reason or invitation to touch them, and treat them like our equals.

And if we are already doing all of this, then we can keep an eye out for the people who aren’t. When our friends decide to make loud and unwelcome comments about a woman’s body, we can tell them to stop. When we see a man groping a girl in the subway (and she isn’t making any indication that she knows the guy, or she obviously isn’t into it), we can ask her if she needs help. We can walk with women who look like they are being followed, we can offer ourselves as company to make them feel just a little bit safer. The majority of the time, women who are feeling vulnerable and threatened will be grateful for your help. Even something as seemingly insignificant as watching out for a girl who is being yelled at, or walking up to her and striking up small talk can make a world of difference.

The problem is not women’s reactions to harassment. The problem is the harassment itself, and in an ideal world, when women stop having reason to be afraid on the street, they will stop being afraid. So this is what we need to focus on.

Acting Like A Lady

“Oh, come, come, sweetie. Don’t say those words. Ladies don’t curse.”

“Ladies sit with their legs closed, sweetie.”

“Ladies wait until marriage to have sex.”

“Real ladies don’t wear too much make-up, lest they lead the boys on and give them the wrong idea.”

“Real ladies don’t kiss other girls, because that’s not the right way to get a boy’s attention.”

“Real ladies like girly things, like make-up and shopping and gossip. They don’t enjoy sports or comic books or science fiction.”

Honestly, I could go on and on with these, but I don’t think I have to. Because I think that (especially if you were born female), you’ve heard at least one of these statements before, and probably countless others.

This idea of “being a lady”, being a proper, well-behaved young girl. Some people still say this to children of the genetically female persuasion. Some people still say this to grown women. I know I’ve heard it many, many times; very recently, in fact, I’ve received the complaint that swearing is “not lady-like”.

And I think that many people will defend this idea of enforcing “lady-like” behaviour in girls simply because it’s “proper manners”. Look at the example of telling girls that they need to sit with their legs closed: of course we need to tell girls that, because girls, more frequently than boys, wear dresses and skirts, and it simply isn’t polite for children to be giving you a view of their underwear.

Except, A) children engage in a lot of activity that isn’t polite because they’re children, and B) young girls are also capable of wearing pants, and young boys are never told that they need to sit with their legs closed (for more on this, look up ‘manspreading‘).

And, in fact, a lot of these behaviour that we tell girls to engage in from a young age really have nothing to do with manners. There is no etiquette-assigned reason for why we can’t wear dark eyeshadow or visible foundation. Polite conversation does not particularly care how many sexual partners you have had, so long as you are not going into lengthy detail about them at the time. And there is most certainly no manners-related reason why girls can’t kiss other girls, whether they are doing it because they are lesbians, because they are bisexual, or because they are simply curious and/or experimenting.

So, all of this considered, why do we tell girls this? What does “acting like a lady” really mean?

Well, if I’m gathering information from the above examples, a “lady” is quiet, innocent, virginal, takes up very little space, doesn’t attract too much attention, feminine, and heterosexual. In other words, she is the quintessential passive, submissive woman living under the patriarchy.

And allow me to take a moment to say, “fuck you” to that noise.

Because here’s the thing: women should be allowed to be whoever they are. They should be allowed to make noise without being worried that they will be rejected by society as “unfeminine” if they do. They should be allowed to take up space. They should be allowed to curse and wear make-up and kiss girls and boys and whoever the fuck they want, no matter who gets the wrong (or maybe right) idea about them.

And they should be allowed to do all of this, while still being accepted as valid human beings, rather than the horror stories that we try to steer our children away from.

Because, end of day, what we should be striving for our children and for, ultimately, everyone, regardless of gender or age, is that they have the ability to be who they are. And maybe some of us do fit into the mould of the “lady”; maybe, my nature, some of us are quiet and passive and not the greatest fans of sex or sexuality. But my point is that, while that should most certainly be accepted, so should the opposite. Nobody should feel forced to become anything they are not because society says that they should. Nobody should be pressured to “act like a lady” just because they happened to be born with a vagina. Because not all of us were born as “ladies”, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t women and, more importantly, people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve respect, or acceptance, or to be taken seriously.

So the next time that you most to correct someone else’s “un-ladylike” behaviour, question yourself; is this behaviour really “un-ladylike”? Or is it merely the behaviour of a different sort of lady?

And, please, never feel guilty for acting in a way that comes natural and hurts no one. A lady can do whatever the fuck she wants, because the beautiful thing about us ladies is that we are all, each and every one of us, different.

Me Too: Our Own Role in Upholding Rape Culture

We should live in a world where survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment feel comfortable coming forward, whether they are male or female.

We should live in a world where women (and, in some cases, men) can write “me too” on social media, and everyone behind their computers reads that and doesn’t judge them for that, but rather realizes that this is a huge societal issue that needs to stop.

And we should also live in a world where this doesn’t stop there.

I do believe that the “me too” campaign was, in fact, a good idea, because I think that there are many people out there (and men in particular) who don’t seem to fully grasp just how much of an issue this is for women or femme people.

In the past, I have told men about my experiences being catcalled, to which they responded by saying, “what! Why didn’t you call the police?” Because, what am I going to do? Call the police every time that happens? And, besides, it’s not like the police are going to be able to do anything; there are no laws against harassing a woman on the street.

In the past, I have had female friends cancel plans because they happened to take place in a sketchy area, where rapes were often reported, and my male friends responded by saying, “I don’t know what they’re so upset about! It would have been a good time, if they weren’t so sensitive.”

And I think we have all heard about that guy, the one who gets mad at a girl who won’t go home with him even though they just met, and rationalizes his anger by saying, “what? Does she think all men are rapists?”

No. Nobody thinks all men are rapists. But the thing is, women are taught to fear all men as potential rapists, at least until they get to know them well enough to let that fear subside. And I don’t really think that’s something that the average man tends to understand. In fact, almost worse, when certain men do start to see this in women, they don’t see it as a societal problem, but as a problem with the woman herself. She‘s too sensitive, she’s being judgemental.

He forgets that, if she were raped, then people would ask her why she didn’t take measures to prevent it; clearly, she must have secretly wanted it if she was in that place, with that man, wearing that outfit.

The thing about the “me too” campaign is that it’s all well and good to be aware that there’s a problem, but most women are aware, because we live it everyday. We know what it’s like to leave the house and need to walk with headphones in so that nobody mistakes us for wanting to chat, adopting our resting bitch face and staring straight ahead so that we get left alone. Women know what it’s like to tense up when a man walks too close behind us, to have a plan for what we’ll do if he tries to grope us.

For the most part, women know that there is a problem. And while there are some men out there who are also aware, who will be there for their female friends if another man crosses the line, there do need to be more men out there doing something about it.

And I don’t just mean being there for your female friend who got a little too drunk and is now being eyed by several creeps in the bar – although, don’t get me wrong, you should definitely do that too.

I’m talking about thinking back to every time that we might have been told “I don’t know” and interpreted that to mean, “yes”.

I’m talking about thinking back to that time when we touched or kissed someone that didn’t want to be touched or kissed, all in the name of “going for it”.

I’m talking about thinking back to that time when the one we were pursuing said, in no uncertain terms, “no”, and we figured that all we had to do was keep trying, keep making gestures, keep making them feel guilty and uncertain, because sooner or later, we’d win them over.

And I’m not necessarily trying to make anyone feel bad about themselves if they have engaged in this behaviour; all that I am trying to say is that rape culture is part of our culture, and there are many who aren’t even aware of it. Maybe we thought that we were being romantic at the time, because society has given us this narrative that this behaviour is romantic. But it is behaviour that we need to question. Because if the “me too” campaign has taught us anything, it is that this behaviour is common and it is harmful.

And if this behaviour is going to stop, then we all need to question it. Every single one of us.

Women cannot end the issue of sexual assault and harassment alone.

So let’s not allow the “me too” campaign to end with survivors sharing their stories and that’s it. Let’s actually open up this discussion. Let’s take a close look at what rape culture is, because the amount of people who have experienced sexual assault and harassment proves that this is not only being done by a few outlier creeps who nobody knows or speaks to by choice; this is a massive, societal problem. This is the result of a society that excuses and normalizes rape. That says that it’s perfectly romantic if we never give up on the person who has turned us down already, because they have to say yes eventually. That says that women who are flirtatious, or wearing a certain outfit, or going to a certain place, have already given their consent to whatever the other party wants. That says that men cannot be sexually assaulted, because they clearly want sex all the time.

And as uncomfortable as it might be to look at ourselves and our own behaviour, it is something that we need to do right now. Because we cannot control whether other people change or not, but we do have control over our own change. And if the “me too” campaign succeeds in little more than making a few people critically question their own role in upholding rape culture, then it will be worth it.

Me Too: Why We Need to Keep Talking About Sexual Assault and Harassment

If you have been active on social media lately, you might have become aware of the fact that every feed, dashboard, and home page has become an endless scroll of heartbreak. You sign on, and you receive an awful punch to the gut as you realize just how freaking common sexual assault and harassment is, all by reading those two little words that actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all those who have experienced it to post:

Me too.

Nearly every woman who I’m friends with or following on social media has posted it, and some men have as well. I have seen it posted by close friends, family, and people who I haven’t spoken to since high school. In some cases, it wasn’t a surprise, and in some cases, it was.

And all of a sudden, I find myself transported back to the first time that I realized sexual assault and harassment wasn’t just a horror that existed; it was commonplace. Back to being thirteen years old and discovering the statistic that one in four North American women would report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Back to telling a group of my three closest friends this statistic, and upon doing so, having it strike me for the first time that, if this was true, then chances were that one of us would be assaulted at some point in our lives. These were girls that I cared about too. Close friends of mine who I didn’t ever hope to see get hurt, not in any shape, way, or form.

This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was in that moment that I first realized just how astounding this statistic is. And the thing is, the statistic isn’t even where it ends. It is estimated that for every 100 rapes that occur, only 6 are reported to the police. I have known women who were raped, and then discouraged from seeking police involvement because it was her word against his and they didn’t think that they would be able to do anything with that. I have known women who were raped by their boyfriends, and then didn’t seek legal involvement because they cared about him, or because they didn’t realize at the time that what had happened really was rape. I have known people who were raped and then didn’t come forward because they didn’t want to deal with the shame that would inevitably follow.

In short, I have known too many people who have been raped. And none of these people even count toward the statistic of ‘one in four’. So, yeah, to this statistic that caused me such horror when I was thirteen years old, I call bullshit; the number is much, much higher than that.

And that’s just rape. This “me too” hashtag encompasses much more than that; it includes sexual harassment as well, like being groped without consent, having others make obscenely sexual comments toward us, or being offered unwelcome “rewards” (like raises, or a job) in exchange for sexual favours (etc.). And it seems like every woman has a story to tell in this regard, even if she hasn’t been sexually assaulted.

Let me take this moment to offer my own “me too” to this discussion.

So what do we do with this information? Right now, the internet is over saturated with “me too”s, but what do we do about that?

Well, personally, I think that this whole “me too” hashtag is actually starting us off in a good direction: we need to talk about it.

And I understand; not every survivor of sexual assault or harassment necessarily wants to talk about it right now. PTSD is a real and terrible issue that should be considered in all this, and nobody should feel pressured to talk about a trauma that they aren’t ready to discuss.

But, that being said, societally, we need to start talking about this, and we need to talk about it now. This isn’t just some horror that we hear about on the news; some senseless tragedy that we can’t understand but will never touch us in our cozy little lives. This does affect us. This affects every single one of us, in one way or another, whether you’re the survivor, or you’re the person who chooses not to hear the survivor out because you just don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. Either way, we’re all involved.

We need to start educating our children on consent. We need to start telling our boys that their worth doesn’t come from dominating others, or that they’re any weaker or less manly because they were assaulted. We need to start telling our girls that it doesn’t matter what they were wearing, or if they were drinking, or where they were at the time; they still didn’t deserve it, and they still deserve justice, or at least the right to feel safe in public.

We need to stop doubting survivors when they come forward. We need to listen to their stories when they try to speak out. We need to encourage others to come forward, and we need to create a safe space for them.

And this “me too” hashtag is a great idea, if for no other reason than that we can’t log onto social media without coming across it right now. It breaks my heart to see how many people have dealt with all this, because I wish we lived in a world where people (and predominately women, femme, or female-identifying people) felt safe to go out in public, or go to work, or even take the fucking bus. But at the same time, this hashtag is a great method of forcing us to realize just how common this issue is, how it has affected so many. It helps us to realize that we aren’t alone in all this, and that’s a wonderful thing for people who have been silenced (which many survivors have) by society.

But at the same time, I hope that this conversation won’t end with this hashtag. It’s great that we’re talking, but we need to keep talking; we need to keep drawing attention to the issue. Because only by spreading awareness and continuing the discussion can we enact real change.