I started speaking to a man who I often see at the gym. It’s always idle chit-chat — this and that about our workout routines, our careers, etc. — until one day, he asked for my number. Innocently, I think. We were talking about how he was a nutritionist, and how I was actually looking for some tips on how to cut down on my sugar cravings (a fruitless mission, I might add). I gave it to him, said good day, and went on my merry way.
The true horror of it all? I didn’t tell him that I’m married.
I’m a friendly person. I’ll talk to almost anyone who approaches me. It’s a quality that has gotten me into trouble in the past, but I consider my friendliness to be quite an asset.
Some of my friends have considered my omission problematic — by virtue of not mentioning my husband, I could have inadvertently been leading this poor chap on. After all, how could I possibly carry a conversation with a man without pointing out the giant wedding ring that I never take off?
Would you like to know the truth? I purposely didn’t mention my husband during the conversation with Gym Lad, because my partner doesn’t “own” me as society would have it.
Any woman will tell you that the only surefire way to get rid of unwanted attention is by mentioning a significant other. In my case, I’ve noticed a substantial difference in how men react to my relationship status since I’ve been married. If saying that I have a boyfriend was like throwing a wrench into a situation before, mentioning my husband now is like throwing a Molotov cocktail into it: the interaction is instantly no more, as if my wedding ring were the guy’s only real barrier to having a shot with me.
“I long to have an interaction with a man without being made to feel responsible for his possible sexual attraction to me.”
And why is that? Ultimately, whether the men who hit on me are conscious of it or not, there is an inherent level of respect a man has for another man, especially when it comes to “his woman.” Like a special, treasured rock back in pre-civilization times, the challenging man views a woman as the prized possession of her partner, and not an independent entity that has her own thoughts, feelings and opinions. It appears as though our societal expectations have yet to evolve with the times, and that the only thing that dictates this “ownership” as acceptable behaviour is that it’s how things were done in the past. Our patriarchal dance, which has existed long before we have memory, lives on.
I long to have an interaction with a man without being made to feel responsible for his possible sexual attraction to me. I’ve been in more relationships that I’d care to admit to in which my guilt was instantly ignited by talking to a man who wasn’t my partner. My self-policing was done as a means to keep the peace, and to deflect any accusatory — and, at times, abusive — behaviour.
Subsequently, the context, even if it was a conversation about a school project, was irrelevant. If I didn’t mention my boyfriend — the apple of my eye and the light of my life, obviously — I was doing something horribly wrong, and these men would see an apparent lack of partner as an invitation. I would feel dirty, selfish and, at the worst of times, that I deserved every insult that said boyfriend threw at me, a thing that I know fully recognize as gaslighting at its finest.
I want to cut the notion of sexuality and attraction out of these conversations. Interactions between genders always seem to boil down to sexuality on such a base level that it’s considered morally corrupt for a woman to not think about how her body, her body language, and her overall demeanor can affect the person with whom they are speaking. This concept, when you really think about it, is completely absurd.
Deeper still, the concept of a woman being sexualized for simply existing is becoming an increasingly insidious prospect. The recent headlines involving Billie Eilish, a minor who has gone out of her way to not be sexualized, is proof that trolls will take a woman’s body in any state as an invitation to comment, gawk and masturbate to their heart’s content.
The list of travesties goes on. A few weeks ago, there was a new story about a pastor in the United States who asked for women to not expose their shoulders in church. This was meant to maintain the “purity” of the congregation, and to keep the men from having sexy thoughts about shoulders, because I guess that’s a thing. Of course, it’s the women who are at fault for existing.
“It’s clear now that being a woman anywhere in any situation is an invitation to reduce us to our sexuality.”
The #MeToo movement is full of examples. Over the years, blaming suggestive clothing and the “she was asking for it” excuse have been the unofficial motto of trashy men who firmly believe that the appearance of a woman’s body is enough of an invitation for sexual exploitation and abuse. This is especially true with women of colour, who experience sexual harassment and assault at an alarming rate due to stereotypes regarding their perceived “hypersexuality.”
Although #MeToo has helped to further some of the conversation regarding these issues, it’s disturbing that there are men who have justified their pernicious behaviour through a woman’s right to exist.
It’s clear now that being a woman anywhere in any situation is an invitation to reduce us to our sexuality. Never mind that we want to walk the streets, or go to church, or have a conversation with a stranger in peace. God forbid that we should leave our homes without a male chaperone as well, and if you’re a woman of colour, God forbid that you should do anything at all. It’s no wonder that the same sort of people with a bizarre church-shoulder fetish are the same ones who denote romantic partnership as a form of “respectable ownership.” They’re all too busy policing our bodies to respect that women have boundaries.
I won’t take part in it. As a woman who refuses to be reduced to her broad, swimmer-styled shoulders, I no longer want to be a part of the patriarchal idea that a married woman is only to be respected by virtue of her husband’s presence. I have better things to do than play into a role that I didn’t even audition for.
I know that letting go of the concept of “ownership” as a hall pass is difficult for some women to let go of, especially when it appears to be the easiest way to avoid unsolicited attention. It is, however, a piece in the puzzle, a learning opportunity that can help society see every person as valuable, and it’s important to understand that human interaction is about more than the most basic of instincts.
I told my husband about Gym Lad, by the way. He didn’t even look up from his phone when I told him. I relayed my lack of “husband reference” in our conversation like a confession, my terrible previous relationships and patriarchal guilt creeping out through every word.
“Cool,” he said nonchalantly, as if I were reading him the menu at a restaurant. It was the perfect response. I think we all deserve to be free from that guilt.
This article first appeared on HuffPost Canada Personal.
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