As International Women's Day approaches, I find myself reflecting on relationships and the dangers of being a woman even within small spaces that appear safe. As an activist, I have been well aware of the tide of violence against women worldwide, but lately, it is within the smallest of spaces, the subtlest of intent that I find myself more outraged at how the culture of violence intertwines with sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, chauvinism and male privilege to affect how others may view and interact with women, even when we are more knowledgeable on a topic. It then becomes the responsibility of men that become more enlightened to check those that resist female agency to operate in a space however she sees fit.
Not long ago, I had a conversation among three men that I'll name John, Gabriel and Mike that disturbed me. John, Gabriel, Mike and I were having a lengthy discussion that involved a well-known celebrity who had a public history of domestic violence.
John: ".... I think I was once watching a show where a celebrity admitted that he hit his wife harder than he hit any of his opponents in the ring."
Mike: "Well, maybe he heard a bell go off in his head like he was in the ring and just got ta punchin'." [laughs]
Me: "You think that's funny?"
Mike: [laughter dies down] "Just a 'lil bit [uses thumb and index finger to indicate an inch in width with the two fingers] funny, don't you think? Ding! The bell goes off in his head and he just swings."
Me: "No, that's not funny. There is nothing funny about domestic violence. It's a huge issue and part of violence women face at rates that is a worldwide epidemic. It's part of violence that make three women a day in the U.S. die at the hands of men, men that do things like what John described he heard that gets perpetuated and supported by men like what you're doing right now."
Mike: "Oh come on, it's a joke, and it's not condoning it. I'm talking about how he probably heard a bell inside his head, it reminds me of the skit about him, where every time something would sound like a bell, he'd knock someone out."
Me: "And so you are still going to go along with the joke, right? The 'joke' that's not funny even after I just pointed out to you that you're making fun at the expense of real people that are affected in off the chart numbers that die?"
Mike: "You're being so emotional about this. It's not like she died."
Me: "And so that would make it less funny? Because the subject of your joke didn't die, the many women that died is not OK to make light of, but it is to be made light of what they experienced that led to their deaths? Cause that makes sense."
Mike: "You see, you are too emotional about this. It's not that serious, it's just a joke. We're not even talking about that, we're talking about a popular show."
Me: "Too emotional? Don't pull that 'I'm the woman so I'm emotional' crap with me as if I'm overreacting. The fact that you're not 'emotional' at all about a national and international epidemic as a human being and as a father of a daughter is deeply disturbing. Maybe you should try being more emotional about it and maybe you'd get it."
The conversation continued to spiral downward from there. I was ridiculed, dismissed, talked down to and subtly threatened to be quiet by Mike to let him have the last word. I refused to back down just because Mike said so. John eventually voiced that he found the celebrity statement sick and that I was not being heard and the conversation shut down from there. Just like that, one man changed the flow of conversation.
None of the men thought that the conversation was worthy of unpacking the sentiment behind their words -- like the subtle sexism in making domestic violence a woman's issue, or the not-so-subtle chauvinism that Mike used to dismiss my feelings or even the misogyny of laughing at the prevalence of women dying at alarming rates -- until John spoke up. It was an emotionally draining defeat for me, seeing patriarchy came into play where my voice more or less had to be validated by another man to get other men to consider my points. Yet, the reality was, they did not reach the other men without it.
The struggle to transform the beliefs and behaviors of some men are affected by reigning attitudes left unchecked and biased education services that hardly ever challenge the constructs of masculinity in a conversation with men and women. There is a space where conventional activist methods just does not translate to the very ones that do not think the voice, body or even abilities of a woman are worth more than the lowest sum of her parts. Work with these types of men by other men need to be a focus as the movements of gender justice for women moves forward.