This article was originally posted in the April 2018 Features Issue of The Underground.
Growing up, I used to hear things like “boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, girls go to college to get more knowledge” around the schoolyard and in the classroom. I saw it as a teasing/flirty nursery rhyme thing; I never put too much stock into it. But now I’m starting to think there’s some truth to the saying.
I’m not suggesting that all men are secretly extraterrestrials, just that we are very different than women. Now, I know that some of these differences are a matter of biology and physiology: bodily structure (like the number of ribs and hip shape), genitalia, the presence of certain hormones and chromosomes and things of that nature. But the differences I’m interested in discussing are differences that are the result of how men and women are taught. Specifically, how men and women are taught to behave as men and women and what it means to be a man or a woman.
Think of it like this, biology and physiology dictate that if you are a woman that means you have breasts. Learned behaviour would dictate that if you are a woman that means you have to keep your breasts concealed. (Otherwise, you’re a slut). I’m interested in the latter.
You’ll notice that in my descriptions I haven’t mentioned transgendered people or people who are intersex, and there’s a reason for that. Not to be purposely discriminatory but because of what we’re taught and the way we’re taught, being transgender or being intersex are completely foreign concepts.
Being intersex means being born with both male and female sex organs or other sex-specific characteristics. Being transgender means that you identify with a gender other than the one you were born with (I.e you were born a male/man but you feel as if/you identify with being a woman). In both cases, people don’t entirely identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. A majority of people don’t fit into that category, you may have heard this being referred to as being cis-gendered. The reason being intersex or being transgender doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit with most people’s understanding of gender is because most of us were taught to think of gender as a binary. Binary means two. Two options: a or b, it is or it isn’t, you are or you’re not. There is no sometimes a, sometimes b, no middle ground, no alternative option.
Binaries are nice because it makes it easy to separate things into two neat categories. Nothing falls outside of the two categories and people are not encouraged to consider anything outside of those two possibilities. But for transgender and intersex folks, these categories are insufficient because they fall outside/in the middle. Just because they fall in the middle doesn’t mean their feelings or experiences are wrong or don’t matter. Or worse yet, that they don’t exist. The fact that the organizing system doesn’t properly apply to them doesn’t mean that they’re flawed, only that the system is.
Imagine this, growing up you were taught there is red and there is blue and only these two colours and all the objects are either red or blue. If this is what someone was taught and all they ever knew was red or blue, the second something purple comes along it would throw them right off. As far as this person is concerned, purple shouldn’t exist and isn’t something they comprehend. But this purple thing does indeed exist, by all accounts has always existed and is a thing in-and-of-itself, distinct from red or blue. Because of the gender binary we’re taught, we’re not even given the proper language to talk about or understand what it means to be transgender or intersex.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to understanding gender as a binary is that it doesn’t put everybody into a category. The other problem with gender binaries is the fact that it does. Binaries are a simple way to organize something but it’s also quite limiting. A binary determines what the categories are—male or female, red or blue, solid or liquid—and what factors or characteristics qualify (or have to be present) something for one category or another. Binaries and binary categories can be damaging because they dictate what things that fall into the categories “should” be like. These are known as normative claims or norms. Based on these gender norms that have been put in place, if you don’t follow the norms or agree with the normative claims than you must not be normal.
The gender binaries and the norms developed from them determine what the categories are—man and woman—as well as what classifies someone as one or the other. Because we’re taught about gender this way, this is how we understand ourselves and each other and in turn how we act and treat others. Basically, all you need to be a man or a woman (or at least to be classified as such) is meet certain criteria. These criteria are based on norms and stereotypes. For example, as a woman you’re supposed to like pink; blue is for boys. As a man you’re supposed to dig sports, ladies are into fashion. Women are supposed to want to settle down and be prude, men are supposed to be wild and unfaithful.
These attitudes aren’t ones we’re born with, they’re learned. Your biological sex—what reproductive genitalia you’re born with—is something you’re born with, your gender—your interests, your attitudes, how you’re expected to act—is learned. It’s the nature vs nurture argument, basically. Which leads me to the point I wanted to raise: because we’re force-fed gender norms and develop different understandings about ourselves and the opposite gender, we have a weird way of treating and understanding one another. Some of these differences are small and hard to notice, sometimes it’s not until someone says something or points it out that we realize the discrepancy. For me, one of those moments came while I was writing an article about rape culture.
Back in high school, there was an incident during the last semester of my grade 12 year that rocked half of our grade and completely changed the landscape at school. One weekend at a party, a friend of mine, Elaine, drunkenly agreed to have a picture of her taken while she was topless by one of my other friends. That same weekend, another friend of mine, Amanda, took a couple nude pictures of herself using her phone to send to her boyfriend at the time. The following week, all the pictures were shared amongst a group of boys via a BBM group chat. I was part of this group chat. Things took a turn for the worse when the pictures were circulated outside of our BBM group.
The hallways were ablaze with gossip. “Slut.” “Whore.” Soon enough, the whole school had heard about the photos if they hadn’t seen them already. “I wanted to hide my face wherever I went because most people had seen my naked body,” Amanda told me. Eventually, the photos ended up online and the police had to get involved. Amanda and her family were threatening to lay charges against some of the guys in our group, who were judged to be more guilty than others. This incident took place between the “cool kids” in our grade and needless to say caused a lot of division and animosity amongst us; most of the people involved in the incident don’t speak to each other to this day. Amanda and Elaine felt betrayed. “I lost a lot of friends because of this,” Amanda explained. She felt betrayed, like people she knew and once considered friends “exploited me like they didn’t know or care who I was.”
During the interviews, and while writing and researching for the article I felt an incredible amount of guilt. Although I was judged as being one of the ones who were less responsible for the fiasco than others, I felt awful. Not only because these women were my friends and I did nothing to stop the situation from escalating but because of the damage we caused them. Both Amanda and Elaine ended up dropping out of high school. Elaine was so distressed from the ordeal she lost more than 20 pounds and spent most of her time in her room, surrounded by darkness with little contact with her friends and family. That broke my heart.
I felt like by writing the piece and trying to educate people on rape culture and why it and the situation was so problematic, was my way of making amends for my role in the incident. I learned a lot from the experience and was glad to earn the forgiveness of Amanda and Elaine. Unfortunately, not everyone felt this way.
One day I was having lunch with a friend from high school, who was also a part of the BBM group, and I told him about the interviews with Amanda and Elaine and the article I was working on. He responded “Serves the bitch right,” and laughed. I couldn’t believe it. How could he think any of what happened was their fault? The answer was right in front of me all along; rape culture.
Rape culture, a term first coined in 1974, refers to attitudes towards non-consensual sex, patriarchy and gender inequality inherited from one generation to the next. According to feminists and some sociologists, staples of rape culture include name-calling, sexual objectification and victim-blaming.
Rape culture also plays a part in other gender-based issues our society is currently dealing with. The #metoo and #timesup movements aim to address and combat rape culture directly by publicly addressing it and holding those responsible accountable. The responses to these stories alone have highlighted further discrepancies between the way men think and the way women think.
First of all, there is the issue that so many women have come forward with harrowing stories of sexual assault but seemingly no man knows a sexual assaulter. Or at least no one is willing to admit it.
The first step towards changing and dismantling rape culture is by making the dialogue about sexual violence towards women supportive and survivor-centric, according to Shannon Giannitsopoulou, 27, co-founder of feminfesto. femifesto is a “grassroots, feminist collective based in Toronto” as Giannitsopoulou describes it. Giannitsopoulou is critical of mainstream media and the legal system, finding both to be guilty of “questioning and blaming [survivors] for their actions instead of asking why would someone enact that violence?” she said. For femifesto, the most problematic aspect of rape culture is the attitude people have towards survivors of sexual violence, in particular, the attitudes of the media and people in law enforcement. In December 2013, femifesto released a Media Toolkit designed to help media outlets on how to be respectful and supportive or survivors in the way they report issues of sexual violence. Femifesto’s main objective is to shift rape culture into “consent culture” by changing the way people think and speak about issues of sexual violence.
A Toronto Police survey from 2007 revealed that 44 per cent of survivors of sexual violence are concerned about the court’s and the police’s attitudes towards sexual assault. And 50 per cent of survivors don’t believe the police can do anything about it. When Emily brought the matter to the police, she said they hurt her more than they helped her.
“The police did nothing. They basically blamed me when they came to my house. I didn’t feel any better once the police got involved, I actually was appalled at the way these officers talked to me and my parents,” she explained.
Statistics have shown that survivors can’t rely on the legal system for justice as only 3 of 1,000 reported cases of sexual assault end in conviction and only six per cent of all cases are reported. If survivors don’t feel as if they can be helped by law enforcement, who do survivors have to turn to?
Earlier this year Toronto got its own all-female ride-sharing service, DriveHer. founder Aisha Addo is excited to finally get the project off the ground nearly two years after she conceived the idea
Touting itself as an alternative for women who may otherwise feel uncomfortable or unsafe to ride in male-driven vehicles, DriveHer has secured a licence from the city to operate as a private transportation company. Its insurance coverage is provided by Northbridge Insurance, and all the drivers underwent a rigorous background check, according to Addo.
Users of DriveHer will have a range of access to services through the app, including pre-scheduling options, safety tips and built-in emergency buttons in case they need immediate assistance while in the car.
While the company will initially operate in Toronto and the GTA, the plan is to gradually expand throughout the country.
Addo, who is also the founder of Power To Girls Foundation, said DriveHer is both about the safety and empowerment of women. In a male-dominated industry like taxi driving, incidents of sexual harassment, prying personal questions or lewd comments have been reported in Toronto and across the country.
Last year a Halifax cab driver was acquitted of a sexual assault charge involving an intoxicated female passenger. The judge outraged many in the community when he notoriously declared that “a drunk can consent.” The decision has since been overturned and a new trial is pending.
Another Halifax cab driver is on trial this week facing sexual assault allegations.
By putting more women behind the wheel, Addo believes female passengers will have an option to choose instead of feeling threatened or trapped.
“We do hope that every woman will use our platform, but it’s okay if some of them want to use other services,” she said of potential backlash from other industry operators. “There’s no segregation. I just want women to feel safe when they are on a ride.”
Now it’s easy to see this and think that this is discriminatory and an example of the Left’s reverse-ism but take a moment to reframe your thinking. Instead of asking why someone would invent something like this ask yourself why would someone think that this is the best or only solution?
When I was talking to a friend about it at UTSC he commented: “whoever has a problem with this idea clearly has never felt unsafe in a car with a stranger.” It’s hard to blame someone for doing something to feel safe. What we need to look at are the actions and attitudes that make women feel unsafe, especially men. Whether it’s nonconsensual contact or staring a little too long, it’s important as men that we identify the things that make women feel uncomfortable and work to keep them from happening in the future. Listening, self-reflection, open and honest dialogue and genuine efforts to improve will be necessary to see the changes so many are demanding come to fruition.