For over a month now, debates on sexual harassment and abuse have been raging somewhere or the other, from the shenanigans of Harvey Weinstein to the #MeToo posts to the list of Indian academics to Kevin Spacey’s terrible ‘apology’; with a deluge of perpetrators from different walks of life now under long-overdue and much-deserved scrutiny.
As always, most of it has been very disturbing, but I felt most directly affected when #MeToo started trending, when I was painfully reminded of some of my own most terrible memories, and I was torn between trying to remain closeted on social media and speaking up in solidarity with almost all the women, and some men, I know who have been victims of sexual harassment or abuse. Even after so many of us spoke up, I came across some posts, mostly by men, joking about the issue or at least wondering whether the extent of the problem was really as bad as this.
I know that to some who may be absolutely clueless to their privilege, none of what I say will matter. However, for anyone out there who is earnest enough to understand, here is an attempt to give a perspective after having lived as a man and a woman.
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I transitioned to female in the last few years after having lived for decades believing that I was male, and I can clearly see the difference in the two cases. Here, I will limit myself to talking about travelling or just being in public places as a woman and as a man. I do not have the same perspective when it comes to other sites of sexual harassment or abuse, e.g. intimate relationships, workplaces, etc because I am in a relatively protected environment in those cases.
our relationship with male privilege is tenuous at best, and non-existent at its worst.
This perspective that women like me have is often cited by some as an example of our male privilege, whereas in reality, our relationship with male privilege is far more complicated. Unlike cisgender men, we are often acutely aware from a young age that our self-expression is constantly policed and controlled, by ourselves for our safety and by others because they see us only as the gender coercively assigned to us at birth and force us to behave accordingly.
Many women like me are never able to hide their femininity enough while growing up as ‘boys’, but even for someone like me who locked up her gender identity so deep inside that she was barely even conscious of it, there was always a clear awareness that if I was seen as too effeminate, I might get into trouble. So our relationship with male privilege is tenuous at best, and non-existent at its worst.
Let me also confess at this point, that in learning to hide my true self, I internalized some toxic behaviour which I now realize may have been harmful to others. I may not have been a perpetrator or an instigator, but I was certainly a silent bystander, laughing along at a ‘joke’ and thus complicit in the rape culture which shames and silences victims and rewards the perpetrators. Even this awareness of our own complicity is something I have seen women admitting more readily than men do.
For anyone reading this who might be unfamiliar with some of the terms I have used, let me make it simpler. I knew even back in childhood, that that stare, that hug, that pat on the back, whether it came from a school senior, a family friend, a male teacher, any of these could be much worse, and was, in fact, worse for many children in this world.
Even if we don’t have the language to understand or express it, we know when things go wrong. I was among the lucky ones, and anyway with puberty and the increase in height, deepening of the voice, and growth of facial hair, it became easier and safer to go out alone in the world, even if it also meant a growing alienation from my own body.
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This is the part which is important for men to understand, especially cisgender, heterosexual men with typically masculine gender expression. I was able to ‘pass’ as one for a long time, so I knew that the most I had to worry about, even at unsafe times or places, was to keep my wallet and phone safe. That is all that most men need to be concerned with when it comes to personal safety.
When I started transitioning, though, I could clearly see how the dynamic changed. The concern for my own safety, or even for women travelling with me, that I felt when I could ‘pass’ as a man, was nothing compared to the visceral, unsparing, unending, pervasive fear that I feel now. And this is when I can blend in as a woman. For those who can’t, and whose transition is more obvious, the situation is even worse.
I am not going to write in detail about what I have faced as a woman. As someone who is still not fully out and still struggling with some of these experiences, that is not my objective here.
Instead, let me just divide the experiences I have had into some broad categories, and mention the differences I have seen from two sides of the gender galaxy. In my opinion, these are in ascending order of gravity, though I know that opinions can differ on it.
Even this awareness of our own complicity is something I have seen women admitting more readily than men do.
- Unwelcome glances or stares: This happens every time that we step out among strangers. Every single time. It is just… a fact of daily life. And it does not matter what we wear, where we are, what time is it, or who we are with. At best, those factors make a marginal difference, whereas when I could ‘pass’ as a man, it was orders of magnitude lesser. Very rare actually.
- Unwelcome conversation or gestures: e.g. catcalls, remarks etc: Far too many to count. Not an everyday occurrence, but still far too often for anyone’s comfort. Some of the worse ones remain etched in our memories, but most of it just gets lumped with the glances and stares as a part of daily life. Again, when ‘passing’ as a man, I hardly ever faced these.
- Unwelcome contact: e.g. touching, groping etc: Let me discuss this in the other direction. First, while ‘passing’ as a man for so many years, I was often in public transport or other public spaces which were extremely crowded, where everyone was squashed by people from all sides. In comparison, as a woman, I have had the privilege of more comfortable transport and other spaces, and I have not yet been in a similarly crowded situation with men around. Despite that, I can barely recollect any instance of unwelcome touching or being groped in all those years ‘passing’ as a man, whereas as a woman, I didn’t have to wait for those crowded spaces. It happened anyway. Several times, by different people in different situations. And these instances sear our memories, acting as constant reminders of our vulnerability in this sexist world.
- Rape or any other violent sexual abuse: I had a tough time deciding where to draw the line between this and the previous category. And whether to include my worst experiences here. I won’t say more. Except that I did not even have to think about it while ‘passing’ as a man.
So there you have it, a simple guide to how much worse the situation is for women vs for men, from someone who has seen two sides.
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Featured Image Credit: UVic