By Jamisyn Gleeson
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: being a woman in 2021 is exhausting. It’s really no different to any other year. That’s not because there aren’t any amazing women out there – because there are – but because we’re still being held accountable for the actions of men.
As children, we’re told that we’re not safe and that we’re responsible for protecting ourselves. I remember my dad giving me taekwondo lessons at home, teaching me how to pull myself out of a chokehold in case a man ever tackled me from behind. I remember my auntie sitting me down and having me pretend that she was a man following me home, so that I would know how to converse ‘correctly’ in order to get home safe.
However, women should never be subjected to such teachings, because they give men an excuse to blame us when they attack us: we were taught the rules, so we should know how to follow them.
The Blatant and Ongoing Victim Blaming
In London, when Sarah Everard disappeared earlier this year, women were told to ‘stay at home’ if they wanted to stay alive. You might be shocked to hear that police gave this advice instead of telling men not to murder people, but then again, the patriarchy has always protected men from their own wrongdoings by faulting women for being attacked.
Don’t believe me? Well, let me remind you of the victim blaming directed towards Jill Meagher in 2012, whose murder was overshadowed by the beliefs that she should have dressed more ‘appropriately’ and been sober to avoid being attacked. Let me remind you how in 2015, Masa Vukotic was blamed for being stabbed in broad daylight because she chose to wear headphones and to be alone while on a walk. Remember how in 2018, Eurydice Dixon was posthumously told by Superintendent David Clayton that she should have been more ‘aware of [her] surroundings’– a sentiment that I later heard being said about Aiia Maasarwe, who was on the phone to her sister when she was murdered in 2019. More recently, recall how in March this year Brittany Higgins reported her colleague for raping her inside Parliament House,only to be labelled as an ‘accuser’ and to be blamed for threatening ‘the security of our nation’.
These are only five of many women who have been blamed for their own assaults and/or deaths. I remember them because the news of their deaths were widely reported on the internet, radio and television. But what about the women who weren’t reported about? In 2020, fifty five women in Australia were murdered by their partners – so why haven’t we heard about every one of them?
The Precautions We Take
It’s clear that many of our police officers, law enforcers and peers spend more time critiquing the ways that women ‘put themselves’ in danger rather than taking measures to prevent men from murdering. Hannah Bows – a Professor in Criminal Law – reminds us how:
Just two years ago the police issued similar safety advice to women in response to a number of sexual assaults … they were told to avoid wearing headphones or using mobile phones in order to be “alert” in their surroundings. But this advice ignores that reality that many women already do this, and more, to avoid harassment and violence from men.
These tactics are so ingrained in my life and the lives of my female friends that I was surprised to see men express their shock when hearing about them for the very first time on social media after Everard’s murder. Their shock reminded me that all women are expected to alter their own behaviour to avoid sexual harassment. If I dare to venture out for a late-night run or decide to walk home instead of ordering an expensive Uber after a night out, I am socially conditioned to do the following:
I place my keys between my fingers to let any potential attackers know that I’ll almost be home – where there is a locked door to protect me – and to also use as a weapon if needed; I send live locations to my friends; I keep my headphones in with no music playing so that I’ll know if the shadowy figure behind me, who thinks I’m deaf to him, begins to run; I decide on the houses I’ll sprint to if a man jumps out of the car trailing me and hope that the people living there don’t also have bad intentions.
I enact these behaviours to keep myself safe (or try to), subjecting myself to a discourse that focuses on my safety instead of my freedom. Yet, this still isn’t enough. Every girl and woman I have ever met has been sexually harassed – including myself.
Rarely have I gone one day without being yelled at from a speeding car, ogled at by a man, had my appearance commented on, or be groped. This shouldn’t surprise you, as 97 per cent of girls and women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives. Yet, despite these statistics, women are still being blamed for the actions of men.
Here’s where the blunt counterargument of ‘not all men’ comes into play. This is the statement I’m met with whenever I discuss sexism and assault, whether I’m at university, out at events or out at bars. It has been voiced by male and female professors alike, by family members and by friends. The hashtag #NotAllMen even trended above #SarahEverard earlier this year, showing how men’s egos are still being prioritised over women’s lives.
It’s obvious that, as columnist Richard Walker states, ‘not all men attack women and sexually abuse them.’ However, men need to recognise that because 97 per cent of sexual assault offenders are male and because not a day goes by where women aren’t sexually harassed, we are wary of all men. Walker agrees with my sentiment that our society hasn’t changed, stating that ‘sexism has been woven into our society for decades. If it was going to be removed by “nice” men it would be gone by now.’
It’s not our responsibility to make men change their behaviour, but this responsibility has been thrust on us anyway. Two of my male followers on Instagram have shared posts to show their support towards women following Everard’s death. One of these men apologised to me for his past misogynistic behaviour over a direct message. This is infuriating, because I don’t need his guilt thrust upon me. He just needs to know and do better.
So, what’s it like being a woman in 2021? I can only speak from my privileged perspective as a white, cisgender woman and my response is this: being a woman in 2021 is the same as it has always been: exhausting.
Jamisyn Gleeson is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne and has been published in Voiceworks, Room Magazine and F*EMS Zine. When she’s not writing, she’s drinking her body weight in coffee.