A couple of months ago, I decided to buy myself a big, fake diamond ring to wear on my ring finger when I was alone in public. This decision, I admit, was equally the product of a dangerous obsession with accessories that sparkle as it was with the desire to deter unwanted attention from strangers. After a series of terrible personal experiences on the TTC, I was convinced I had found a perfect solution – one that would discourage unwanted confrontation while simultaneously satisfying my shameless affinity for diamonds. Awesome.
I looked online, and after days of ridiculous debate over a dozen different styles, finally managed to pick one out. Of course, to ensure it looked as real as possible, I tried reading some of the reviews. The first one I noticed said something like this: “I love this ring! I bought it to wear while away from my boyfriend in public to get rid of unwanted attention and it has, so far, worked great.” That sealed the deal. About 3 days after that (I know, strange coincidence) I heard a woman complimented on her ring as I was leaving the TTC. Her reaction was similar: “oh, thank you, but it isn’t real, I just wear it on the subway so people leave me alone.”
At first, this ring-wearing thing seemed harmless –an easy solution to an unavoidable problem – but my sudden awareness that many other women were all thinking up the same solution bothered me for days, though I was for a while unable to think of any reason why.
Before I go on, let me describe exactly what it was that precipitated this whole dilemma.
I ride the TTC almost every day. And certainly if I don’t, I still end up leaving my house unescorted to get somewhere somehow, unless it’s one of those really special occasions where I actually get to sit inside all day. But for as long as I can remember, leaving my house didn’t always just mean getting to where I needed to go – it has truly, more often than not, meant being honked at, whistled at, commented on, stared at, or otherwise approached by men as I pass.
I will be more specific. Not too long ago, I entered the subway to begin the long journey from school to home, and having been in the library until night, was lucky enough to board a train that was fairly empty: I could sit where I pleased and had plenty of extra space to throw my books. A man entered the subway with me, and decided he would sit in the seat right next to me, despite the dozens of empty seats on the train. Suspicious from experience of what was to come, I opened a book and tried to look as focused as I possibly could – a tactic I’ve made habitual over several years, despite the fact that it does not usually work. This time was no different from the others. I do not remember what he said to me, but I answered his initial questions with short and stern responses that were meant to block further conversation by implying that I was not enjoying how much he was invading my personal space. This didn’t matter to him. The talking continued on and on. He asked for my number – which I knew was coming – to which I replied “no, that’s okay.”
I continued with an increasingly agitated sounding “no.” Getting frustrated, this man decided he would begin to utter profanities at me, calling me every name he could think of to offend me before getting up and walking to the other end of the subway. No one else on the subway paid recognition to what was going on: the most I got in terms of acknowledgement was a man about 10 seats over staring and laughing at my situation, as if to say “wow, was that guy crazy or what?”
That guy wasn’t “crazy.” His behaviour was not an ‘irrational’ one as crazy would imply; it was a symptom of the discourses that make up our social culture. So with this I ask: What culture is this?
A culture in which we have raised men to understand that women are theirs to approach, bother, talk to, hit on, objectify, or stare at as much as they want to?
What is this society we live in that has led men to feel that by virtue of their sex, they are entitled to conversation with us simply because they decided they were going to start one?
I did not lead this man on, but despite this he persisted as if I was obliged to speak to him just because he wanted to speak to me. Despite my obvious irritation, he still asked for my number, and became enraged upon my refusal. Forget my desires or feelings towards him, how dare I have the audacity to refuse him his?
I don’t want to blame this man. While his decision to curse and try to belittle me was inexcusable, I do believe that perhaps he wasn’t consciously thinking “I’m going to annoy this woman until she cracks” – or that even if he was, it was entirely his fault. I am also not trying to imply that all men think and behave this way. My generalizations are a tool to bring to attention the culture in which we are raised, because I do believe that most men who act this way have been conditioned by a specifically patriarchal culture. I’ll use this short video to illustrate my point:
I highly doubt the man speaking in the video – let’s assume he’s their father – had any conscious intent to teach his son and daughter gendered patterns of behaviour. Yet, repetitive endorsement of gendered behaviour in these seemingly innocent scenarios are exactly how women’s oppression becomes normalized: it is just the way that a lot of us are raised. The video may be “cute” to some – and no doubt that’s part of the reason it was even recorded – but the little girl in this vdeo is being taught that in order to avoid being touched, she needs to give something to the person touching her. And when giving up what she has doesn’t work, she’s told that perhaps its just her the boy really wants. .
She’s learning that her body is okay to give up when the boy won’t stop touching her, and that her requests to be left alone are insufficient. She is being taught to be passive, to be compliant, and to submit her desires to appease someone else’s.
On the other hand, the boy is being taught to persist – that if he just tries hard and long enough, his desires will eventually be met. He is learning that her voice is something to be ignored, and that it’s okay to continue with what he’s doing despite her frustrations.
What happens when these lessons continue into adulthood? They come, in part, to define the social systems according to which men and women behave. These lessons create an entire environment conducive to experiences like mine, where my ‘no’s’ must be repeated, and my refusals are adequate justification to be called profane names. So needless to say, incidents like this incident on TTC are what inspired me to get a ring… a big, flashy one that people wouldn’t be able to miss, so that I can end conversations before they even start.
Sadly, my solution engendered another challenge, because the ring does say something. It wards off strangers by telling them “it’s useless, don’t do it, I’ve already been claimed by another man.”
I have been coerced into playing society’s game, and it was so easy for society to coerce me into believing that I found a way to beat the system – the one that makes me reluctant and even sometimes fearful to leave my home. All I really did was provide affirmation of how deep the problem goes.
Women have been taught that the way to triumph over persistent, unwanted male attention is to buy into the very construct that creates it. In this context, for example, the solution is one that provides ‘freedom’ (and this does not always work) from the unwanted attention of some men, while rendering women no more than the property of another.
Our culture has created the illusion of choice: would you rather be the property of libidinous strangers, or the property of a man that society has been ‘gracious’ enough to let you choose?
A man can sit next to a woman, know he’s bothering her and ignore it. He can proceed with his compulsion to hit on her, and then debase and humiliate her only when he decides he’s gotten the point.A woman can outright state, very clearly, that she has no desire to speak to the stranger bothering her, and either be ignored or be demeaned. But a ring that implies a woman’s involvement with a man can stop the conversation before it starts. It can do away with her discomfort, her frustration at being ignored, or in some cases can do away with putting her in a position of being verbally demeaned, just by virtue of it being on the ‘ring finger.’ In simpler words, in cases like these, a man doesn’t even have to be present to have a voice louder than a woman’s.
Men have the power to lay claim to another person through some symbolic object, warding off other men almost automatically, but a woman’s verbal or physical requests to be left alone seldom mean she will be. Either way, women are often walking into a trap. We’re solving one problem by subscribing to another – and perhaps this is not obvious because we are too preoccupied with trying to find a way to stop it.
When I attempt to relay this issue to others, the typical response forces me to internalize the unwanted confrontation. “Look at the bright side” says anyone I’ve ever told this to, “at least guys think you’re pretty.” In other words, the “bright side” (the side that’s supposed to make women feel happy about this way-too-common situation), is the fact that at least we can feel ‘validated’. At least we can take a sigh of relief, as if without this stranger’s affirmation of our external beauty, it would be implausible for us to feel happy with our appearance.
When I bought a ring to solve the issue, I was really buying a temporary solution that only reaffirmed patriarchy. I felt trapped, and unknowingly attempted to free myself through a solution that only reinforced the paradigm that created the problem in the first place. Solutions like mine don’t change the issue – they just hide it.Whether or not the inclusion of an engagement ring to our marriage paradigm altogether is harmful remains a question for another day (I believe, for my own reasons, that there is much good and a lot of meaning in it as a social symbol).
What I am discrediting and calling into question are the other assumptions and ‘protections’ that come along with this symbol: it is a symbol that I am owned, and it is, apparently, only by submitting to this ownership that I am guarded against unwanted attention. An imagined male gaze protects me from the very real and violating gaze of another male.
Why is it perfectly normal for women to be unable to mend many of the issues they face in society without bringing men into the picture? How have we contributed to the standardization of oppression so much so that, indeed, the standardization has actually worked?
I have provided merely one instance wherein a woman is powerless to help herself. Here, the only way to avoid objectification for many women is to include the very sex that has created the problem in their solution. I have provided merely one instance wherein the ways in which society conceptualizes sex raises women who are powerless and oppressed. But these instances are everywhere, and sometimes, like what I did here, we come up with solutions for problems that actually feed the issue.
Maybe what we need to be doing is not only questioning our social issues, but also questioning our solutions to them, as well. Perhaps the solutions we think of do not facilitate change as much as we’d like. Perhaps, without critiquing our solutions, we allow the normalization of women’s oppression by contributing to the invisibility ourselves.
We do this by stopping an issue in such a way that fails to address the social realities continuing to fester in our society. Band-aid solutions can sometimes work quite well, and in my case a band-aid solution was a viable option for avoiding a quite literal conversation I didn’t want to have. Maybe, though, this is only a safe thing to do when it doesn’t inhibit thinking about the more complex social discourses it feeds into. Maybe band-aid solutions can perhaps be a method through which to address, think, and talk about our issues, instead of a way to avoid them.