The terrifying reality of existing as a woman
At work, an intoxicated customer howls the lyrics to a popular song to the friend at his side. Suddenly, he stops, turns towards me and plasters an expression of faux concern on his face.
“You look like you’re rushing. No rush. Hey, slow down, you don’t need to be so stressed.”
I frown and respond, “I’m not stressed. I work in a fast-paced bar, I’ve done this every weekend for the past four years.”
I then gesture to the line of people stretching to either side of him, reinforcing the fact that actually, I do need to rush and no, I’m not really bothered by it.
“Don’t rush for anyone, okay? It’s all good.”
I grimace and set his drink in front of him, wondering if he would have made the same comment had I been a man authoritatively shaking his cocktail rather than a woman without a smile on her face. An unsmiling woman is, of course, a bitch.
He furrows his brow sympathetically before leaving the bar, and I bite my lip to prevent myself from asserting that amazingly, I don’t actually require advice on how to do a job I am more than capable of, thank you very much.
During my break, I sit out the front of the club on the neighbouring business’s stairs in an alcove, coffee in one hand and phone in the other. I scroll aimlessly through my social media accounts, enjoying the time I get to sit down and be in my own company. It is 1am, the prime hour of drunkenness, and I make an effort to avoid eye contact with passersby. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work.
I ignore the voice of the young man who trails behind his rowdy group of friends, waiting for my response. My eyes remain fixed on my phone while methodically lifting the coffee cup to my lips.
He gives up and continues walking when I furtively glance up at him and don’t respond. Within ten seconds, however, he’s doubled back and asks how my night is going. My one-word answers and vacant facial expression don’t seem to be enough for him to understand that I would rather be left alone. Or, perhaps he does understand — he just doesn’t care.
A minute passes and I haven’t looked up from my phone once. He continues to ask me questions until he finally realises he’s not getting anywhere, and bids me a good night. How bizarre. After all, a woman on her own is simply begging for the company of a strange man whose eyes continue gravitating towards her cleavage.
Each day consists of a series of normalised micro-aggressions that all women learn to live with, that they are taught to live with from the moment they are born. Boys will be boys, right? Our brains are constantly ticking over the ways in which to protect ourselves from unwanted encounters, to read situations in an instant, to assess people and prevent the possibility of danger. I see the swagger of young men whose breath exudes the sickly smell of cheap beer and bourbon and I shrink into myself. My hackles are raised as they whistle at me. Sometimes I glare or tell them to fuck off but then they start to whoop and exclaim, “Ooh, a sassy one!”
Ironically, today I decided I’d drive to work rather than walk so I’d feel safer without the eyes of the hungry pack of testosterone-fuelled animals skinning me alive. On my trek back to the carpark at 4am after knocking off, I find myself surrounded by a group of five young men. I walk with my eyes resolutely focussed ahead of me. Regardless, one member of the pack approaches me and says coyly, “Hey, I’m not creeping on you. If I’m annoying you, you can tell me to fuck off.”
The bags under my eyes are pronounced. I’m tired and clearly not welcoming any sort of interaction — or wait, is it my red lipstick that makes him think I want to speak to him? My bare legs that are just asking for it, perhaps? I’m walking fast and he speeds up to match my pace.
“Okay. Fuck off.”
I leave him behind and attempt to overtake the group. One of them laughs and says, “Run, while you still can!”
Meanwhile, the one who approached me starts to shout. I can hear the blood thudding in my ears.
“Fuck you, fucking whore! Stupid fucking slut!”
Ah yes, so I never really had the option of telling him to leave me alone in the first place — I’m not entitled to make my own decisions but he is, and when I deny him the opportunity to do this he reminds me of my place as a slab of meat for him to ogle at and use for his own validation and pleasure. How dare I bruise his poor, fragile ego?
His friends tell him to back off but he gets louder and more violent. I choke back tears as memories of my past flood into the forefront of my mind (“slut! Fucking whore!) and I beg someone, anyone, God, to please not let it happen again (“you stupid fucking bitch, you’re fucking ugly anyway!”), to save me from losing whatever measly sense of autonomy and control over my body I had reestablished since the last time.
The other four men hold the snarling wolf back as I rapidly round the corner into the carpark, shaking with fear. He snaps and spits as I gain distance, and once he has passed, I let out a quivering breath. My only consolation is the sweet girl who runs to me after witnessing the last part of the scene and breathlessly asks if I’m okay three times before allowing me to proceed to my car. I smile and feel some warmth seep back into my frozen insides — women looking out for other women is a truly beautiful thing. This comfort is short-lived, however, because as soon as the angel leaves an inebriated man stumbles towards me while I wait for the elevator to descend to my floor. I instantly back away from him, terrified and furious that this could be happening again, and he glares at me and slurs, “God, I’m not trying to fuck you.”
My minute power in this world is unquestionably reinforced in these situations. They objectify me, scream at me, stare at me until I feel naked and disgusting and worthless. Yes, I am strong, I am brave, I am intelligent, I am fierce, but none of these things measure up to the crushing and pervasive force of the man who wholeheartedly believes that he is entitled to my space, my body, the man who follows me down the street, the man I have found myself in bed with, the man on the internet, the man in his car, the man in the media, the man making the rules, the man I interact with at work, in the street, at the shop on a daily basis.
I am so tired, I am so very tired and my heart hurts for all the people of colour, queerfolk, transfolk, femmes, victims of abuse and any other minority who feels this pain at the hands of god damn fucking white men every day of their lives, who also exist in this grim and frightening reality. Oh, and don’t even think for a second to “not all men” me — no, not all men, but enough men for me to feel terrified of them all.
A defeated, dejected, but still (somehow) defiant Dasha. I'm furious and exhausted and sometimes I fail to see the point in caring, but then I remember that fighting for what I know is right is what matters most to me. You can try but you won't keep me down, you fuckers.