Holly Wanliss-Orlebar writes about their experience of everyday sexism and its ever-present nature
If you think women dress sexy just for men, think again!
After a big night of heavy drinking and patriotic uproar watching England beat Denmark in the Euro 2021 football semi-finals, zombies arrived to work the following Thursday hanging but still in high spirits. Eager to share the tales of our evenings and in dire need of a break, we headed off for our mid-morning smoking interlude. Ready to divulge where we watched the football, who with and what we thought about the game, we walked over to the staff smoking area where a friend working at the bar and Neil, a middle-aged chef, sat in deep conversation as they eagerly fired up their cigarettes in the rain. Having become accustomed to Neil’s eccentric stories about sexual interactions with women, we weren’t keen to speak with him, as interesting as he thought they were. Nevertheless, overhearing what seemed to have become a heated discussion, we asked them what they were talking about and the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’ became a reality as Neil went on to give us the run-down of his evening. Though somewhat eventful, we found ourselves especially unimpressed by this anecdote.
After a long day of cheffing, he’d headed to his local pub the night before to watch the big game. There had happened to be a brawl between two overly intoxicated lads over a girl, whom Neil described as wearing a top with her “boobs practically hanging out.” Apparently, the fight started because one guy had been caught by the girl’s boyfriend “staring at her tits, naturally.” A classic tale.
However, as Neil went on, we found ourselves baffled by the undertones of sexism that he so easily embedded into the story. Telling us that the boyfriend had no right to be angry when his girlfriend had turned up in a top like that and suggesting that she “should have worn a cardigan” if she didn’t want to be ogled at. For Neil, the girl was begging for attention from men and “naturally” all the men couldn’t help but look. He seemed to think it was a woman’s responsibility to dress modestly to avert men’s attention without acknowledging the need to regulate the source of the sexualisation, the perverted gaze. It didn’t occur to him that a woman had a right to self-expression and her decision to wear an item of clothing could be independent from sex and men. Our friend that had previously been seated with Neil had clearly been shocked by what he had heard just a few minutes before we arrived and, locking eyes with me, shook his head disapprovingly as he swiftly removed himself from the retelling. We, equally as stunned by his comments, tried to enlighten Neil on his distorted perspective as our friend had obviously attempted. With no progress in correcting him, Neil went on to try and persuade us that her top was like someone’s head being covered in tattoos. As in, the tattoee wanted people to look and people couldn’t help but stare. An unfit comparison, to say the least.
As Neil’s odious closemindedness became more and more irritating, my co-worker turned to her phone trying to escape the conversation, while my other colleague and I, silenced and unresponsive, just sat there as he spoke. In that moment, we seemed to unanimously decide he wasn’t worthy of anymore of our time and energy. While I had had this strong sense of responsibility, particularly as a woman, to call Neil out and defend the girl he spoke about, his inability to acknowledge the offences he had made in his story and our inability to get through to him overwhelmed me and the others with a loss of hope. One that could only be expressed through our passivity towards him. And yet, I found myself unable to shake off the guilt and disappointment for failing to convince Neil, despite having originally made my best efforts to correct him.
This sentiment and dilemma are what motivated me to write this article. It prompted me to reflect on how women today are constantly being put into uncomfortable situations where we must choose between challenging certain behaviours at the cost of emotionally exhausting ourselves or simply turning a blind eye, going silent, and in the end, feeling disheartened and part of the problem because we didn’t or couldn’t effect change. As I commuted home that evening, I also couldn’t help but feel upset and angry, more generally, that in the 21st century, men still wouldn’t admit to making an active choice to sexually objectify a woman. That for some, not looking wasn’t an option.
Hearing such an unjustified opinion in casual conversation meant Neil wasn’t even aware of the serious implications of what he had said or perhaps he didn’t care. It sounded like the exact kind of male-centric thinking normalised by the patriarchy that warrants rape culture, slut shaming and victim blaming. I wondered how many men had seriously convinced themselves into legitimising their sexualisation of women by claiming they couldn’t help it, or that the girl was inciting their attention simply by choosing to wear a flattering top or a short skirt. How many men mistake a woman’s self-expression as an invitation, rather than an excuse for sexual objectification and what consequences does this leave for women today and in the future, if we are unable to convince them otherwise?