By Diana Gener | Managing Editor
I was having dinner with a good friend, and she was talking about “consent” and the difficulty that women have setting boundaries. She talked about how many times she felt men didn’t ask for consent to kiss her, and how many times it was “socially understood” that a man complimenting a woman anywhere at anytime should be something that the woman felt good about. Or when she had drunk a little bit and then realized that someone was trying to take advantage of her condition and, still, didn’t say anything about it – as if it was her fault.
Listening to her, I realized I had also had this thought process innumerable times. How many times had I felt that men didn’t ask for my consent, or misunderstood my body language? How many times had I been bothered in a public place by someone approaching me in a sexual or romantic way that I found annoying, but I had still smiled and said, “Thanks but I am so busy” instead of “Get the fuck out of here”?
Answer: more than I would like to recognize. And it had always felt natural, as if this was the way life always has been: men acting, women deferring. But when I looked below the surface, into the small details of my life, I found a block of ice upon which my independence, my freedom as a woman, had foundered.
I was born in a country where, I thought, sexism wasn’t a big deal, at least compared to other countries where women were barred from school and shoved into marriage. I was free. I could choose to get married or not, I could choose my career, I could walk the streets alone at night, I could make decisions about my own body and my integrity. On the surface everything looked kind of even between genders, besides the fact that women are still held out of the power positions in politics and big businesses (and that’s a big thing, don’t get me wrong). But deep inside, in small details, I started to realize how brainwashed and blind I was.
Childhood memories: at home, my father’s opinion always seemed to be smarter and more important than my mother’s opinion. When I was watching TV and a woman spoke, it seemed to have less relevance than a man doing the same–instead, she was judged about her appearance. When I developed myopia as a child and went to the doctor, an old white man wearing glasses, I remember being in the doctor’s waiting room and looking at the pictures that he had hanging up on the wall: old white men wearing glasses. At the end of the visit, he said, “Don’t worry: smart people wear glasses.” He pointed at the pictures on the wall. I thought: “Why are they only men? Aren’t women smart? Why aren’t there women wearing glasses hanging up on pictures in the wall? Women don’t wear glasses? Am I the only one? Why are women almost naked in magazines rather than hanging up on walls with other smart people?” I was very confused.
Then I learned about Susan Sontag, Ingeborg Bachmann, Orianna Fallaci, Frida Kahlo, Joni Mitchell, Virginia Woolf and so on and I didn’t feel that weird. Smart women were there but they weren’t hanging up on the walls as often as men. And to be hung up on walls gives you power and recognition. Gives you security. I learned about “witches” being burned in the Middle Ages in Spain and in other European countries. These were women who didn’t want to be submissive to men’s supremacy, women who were smart and free. For so many years in so many cultures, women have been mistreated. I guess even though things are different now in some countries, old habits still remain in those small details. Maybe just in words, gestures, or tone. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
For so many years I felt too bad to say what I really wanted to say. I felt bad saying “No, I don’t wanna do that now,” and I still feel bad when I hurt someone’s feelings. I guess women have learned to repress their wishes, to serve others and to be compliant. Even though we think we are born in free countries where we can do everything as we want, we still have so many small details that prove how far we are of being who we really are.
Now every time that I say “No,” it feels good. And every time I am rude because someone is being intrusive–I feel good. I have less guilt. Let me be clear: I am not saying that men shouldn’t hook up with women or feel attracted to them. I am saying that I, as a woman, have the right to process this as I want and react as I want, in a positive or a negative way.
I came back to my house thinking about all this and I found that my roommate had rearranged her room. She put a nice desk in the middle of the room, in front of the window, with a lamp and a chair. She had made an environment in which to work and create.
Seeing that room reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf says that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I say: not only fiction. A woman must have her freedom to grow and exist. And if there weren’t pictures of women hanging up on my doctor’s office walls, it is because historically women have been deprived of their own rooms, money, opinions and wishes. This has left us in a position of possessing less power, less security, in ourselves. It is time to recover the boundaries that we thought we could set between our bodies and the world. Say “No” if you wanna say no. Be rude if you feel someone is bothering you. Don’t feel guilty. Be a woman completely. Be a human being. Be who you truly are.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 Women’s Forum issue.