On January 20th, I took to the streets of New York City, protesting alongside 200,000 other feminists, demanding equality in the second annual Women’s March. With the recent onslaught of sexual assault accusations, beginning with Weinstein and permeating out of LA and into our daily lives, the March could not have come at a more pressing time. These accusations have taken shape and gained traction under the #MeToo movement, but where do we go from here? When does it move beyond the, albeit heteronormative, “he said, she said” and into the realm of this is a fucking serious fundamental flaw in society that needs be addressed at every angle in every level of every human being in order to eradicate the ingrained notion that women are inferior to men? Why not, say, now? It seems daunting and irreparable; the system is broken. I’m not saying that my suggestions in this article are going to eradicate sexual assault, but they need to be verbalized, or at least immortalized in the Amherst Indicator, for my own sake (if not society’s).
Put simply, what we need is a complete upheaval of our gendered socialization of children. Easy, right? Why, before a fetus is even born, are we purchasing pink “It’s a Girl” balloons or blue “It’s a Boy!” balloons, and why did society gender blue as male and powerful while pink is female and delicate? Why do mothers and fathers interact differently with their children? Why do mothers treat male and female babies differently? And how does this all translate into our adult behaviors? I’m not a developmental psychologist or sociologist (yet?), but it is evident that our sexual encounters (as with most encounters in our lives) are inherently dictated by our gendered socialization and the fundamental biases accompanying that. It is hard to imagine an eradication of gendered socialization, but we do not even need to revolutionize child rearing in order to better our current sexual encounters. What we need is communication, accountability, and empowerment.
Our sexual encounters could legitimately be revolutionized with communication. Women are taught from a very young age to prioritize the needs of others over their own, fostering the “nurturing” and “motherly” stereotypes. This is so problematic, especially in terms of sexual encounters, because it sets women up to struggle to voice their opinions and get what they want out of an encounter. But it also just hampers the entire sexual interaction; both participants should be enjoying themselves and making sure that the other is comfortable, and it should never be one-sided. Teaching women to speak up is not the panacea; it actually does nothing if men are not simultaneously taught to listen. What is especially jarring about the #MeToo movement is how many women have had similar experiences. It was impossible to scroll through social media without seeing a friend, family member, classmate, random acquaintance, or idolized celebrity voicing that, they too, had experienced sexual harassment or assault. How did so many women have such horrible sexual experiences? Why did so many men subject women to these experiences? We are not getting what we want out of sexual encounters because we are not being listened to, and it is hard to discern whether this is a blatant lack of respect from men or a genuine ignorance. Due to socialization, men are in positions of power, so they are not taught to constantly worry about what women are thinking or feeling, whereas women must be perpetually aware of what men are experiencing. We need to teach boys and men that empathy, which starts with listening, does not correlate to a fragile masculinity, and the entire premise of a fragile masculinity must be shattered. While women need to be more vocal and men need to be more receptive, it does go both ways: if someone does not speak up in a sexual encounter, the other person can check in and make sure they are enjoying themselves, as well. And, and this is such a big and, a woman saying “no” is not a flirty way of playing hard to get, it does not warrant further pressing, it should not be turned into a half-hearted “fine” or “sure”; it should be respected, validated.
But if we are encouraging women to speak up and voice discomfort, while teaching men to listen, we need to ensure accountability when this listening is violated. These men need to be held accountable for their actions, whether that means removal from positions of power, judicial sentencing, public awareness, education. We cannot let this continue. We cannot let these men continue to violate women and remain in positions of power, coddled by the patriarchy.
This accountability and enhanced communication will directly translate into women’s empowerment. If women know that they will be listened to when they voice discomfort, if they know that when violated, their assaulters will be held accountable, then they will gain agency. I think women gaining power often threatens men, and there has been a backlash against #MeToo: people blaming the victims, saying it wasn’t assault and just bad sex, saying no man is safe from “the reckoning.” But it is not the men who are unsafe because they are at risk of being accused; it is the women who are unsafe from the abuses of men in positions of power. We shouldn’t be scared for our men if we raised them in ways to ensure they would never violate a woman’s bodily autonomy, if we raised them to listen, to have empathy, to be aware of another person’s discomfort, to ask questions. And men shouldn’t be threatened by women gaining power; adding voices to the conversation will help everyone.
While the majority of this diatribe has been centered on underlying societal flaws, we cannot forget how gendered socialization is at the root of this. And it becomes especially interesting to analyze how gendered vocabulary in our everyday lives contributes to these stereotypes. The cliché statement of “words matter” that we learned in elementary school is applicable to this movement, as words have so much power in the systemic oppression of women. This is not some liberal agenda of political correctness, it is just common courtesy to think about the words we use and how they affect our own actions and perceptions while also influencing those around us. In terms of our everyday vocabulary, we can analyze the use of “pussy.” We are all sadly aware of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in which he said, “Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” This blatant entitlement to assault sparked outrage in the nation (not enough outrage to stop millions of people from voting for him), but we’ve heard “pussy” used derogatorily in our everyday lives. Children and adults alike use the statement “don’t be a pussy” to mean “don’t be a wimp,” goading their friends into doing something brave, for example. Why does the word pussy have a connotation of weak, something we shame men, and even women, out of being? Meanwhile, the word “cocky” has the connotation of being overconfident. It symbolizes power and boldness, bordering on arrogance. So, to be fair, cocky is not always used positively; it can be insulting, implying a lack of humbleness, but compared to the usage of “pussy,” it is inherently more powerful and less derogatory. Why can’t we change the way we use pussy and say, “Wow! John was such a pussy today…he jumped off the waterfall, it was so cool!” Reading this, and hearing it said out loud, might seem ridiculous, even satirical, but it then becomes important to analyze why we think using pussy with a powerful connotation is funny. This leads us to the realization that we have internalized the stereotypes; we are a part of the problem, as it seems outlandish to view pussies as powerful. When we internalize the connotations of pussy*, it translates into women being perceived as weak, which contributes an entirely new perspective to the issue of sexual assault.
This similar line of analysis can be helpful when thinking about statements like, “be a man,” or “manpower,” or “man up,” or “grow a pair.” If we really think about what we are implying it becomes alarming: only men can be brave and powerful. This gendering of words shifts out of our vernacular and into our political and vocational realms with titles like “chairman” and “policeman.” When we think about why we do not have a sufficient number of women in politics, we can simply look to the overt gendering of titles, which shows how the positions were not made for women, they were made without women even in mind. And how can we expect accountability if women have paltry representation in our legislative and judicial systems?
The #MeToo movement has been so powerful in illuminating the revolting prevalence of sexual assault in our society. Yet it also serves as yet another example of the impacts of gendered socialization on our society. When analyzing the #MeToo movement, it all seems to return to the patriarchy. But we are a part of the system: we have been raised to internalize these stereotypes, and we continue to raise our children to inherently value masculinity and its powerful connotations. From here, there is so much that needs to be done. We need to empower women through the promotion of communication in sexual encounters. We need to ensure that men are listening and are held accountable. In our everyday lives, we can watch our word choice. While changing the connotation of pussy and using it positively will in no way eradicate sexual assault in our world, it will at least empower women rather than send subliminal messages that their sexual organs are symbols of weakness. We can think about the words we use and how they impact those around us, how they can validate certain behaviors and alter others. We need to continue marching, fostering awareness, promoting change. And this is only the beginning.
*It’s important to point out that the use of pussy in this example is not meant to be trans-exclusionary; women without pussies deserve to be treated equally to women with pussies.