2017, for me, will be remembered as the year that things broke.
Illusions of democracy were shattered, not only in the country of my birth, but all around the world. Dreams that my generation had been clinging to, dreams of being able to work your way to a good life, of being able to build a solid future for yourself if you followed the rules, did the right thing, worked hard – that all broke. Our collective capacity to handle bad news broke, as many people I know started tuning out, unable to process the daily trauma of another corruption exposure, another assault on basic human rights by Trump. But most importantly, the levee of silence around sexual harassment, and the abuse of men in power broke. And it's about time.
The carefully clung-to notions of who we believed we were – good people who did good things – broke, as revelation after revelation of sexual predators broke the internet, revealing not only that these men weren't crazy weirdos you'd find in a dark alley with a coat, but the ‘nice white guy, father of daughters, head of the next big startup, upstanding CEO, much-loved news anchor, director, actor, comedian’. And, let's not forget, the President of the most powerful country in the world.
Our hearts broke, as we realized that these men were our brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, and not only had we been living alongside them all along, but many of us had been protecting them. Not deliberately. Not because we wanted to. But because to accept this would mean accepting the unimaginable: that we were complicit in these crimes, too. That the unspeakables – rape, assault, abuse (psychological and physical) – these are things that happen to other people, not to us. Not to me.
I recall an instance in which a friend was telling me about a sexual encounter with a boyfriend of hers. I listened in mounting horror as what she was describing to me was rape. I suggested the notion to her, and quickly backed off as she went through a rapid cycle of the first two stages of grief: denial and anger. The latter was directed at me. Her boyfriend was a nice guy, she insisted. A wealthy, white guy from a good family, who went to a private school. He was just ‘a little hotheaded’. A few months later, after seeing a therapist, she would come back to me and we would have this conversation again, only it would end slightly differently.
“You were right,” she said. “He did rape me. I realize I made this whole story up in my head because at the time I couldn’t leave him and frankly, I was scared of him. But mostly, I didn’t want to admit it to myself, because it would have destroyed me. Plus, I always thought rape happened to other women. Poor women, who lived in townships. Not women like me.”
I have heard versions of this story so very many times, something in my heart twists in agony when I think about it. I have heard similar stories from men, but the inverse of it.
“This one time, I brought a girl home and I managed to have sex with her without even kissing her.” I asked him to tell me more, not knowing what this statement meant. Was he bragging? “I just kept taking her clothes off, and when she protested I teased her, and then I just kept going. I guess I wanted to see how far I could push it.” He was bragging. He had a self-satisfied, smug expression on his face, as if he'd accomplished something, which dropped very quickly when I responded with: “You mean you raped her?” The man in question was a well-brought up 'gentleman' who worked in banking. This was one of his party stories. You’d use the word ‘laddish’ to describe him.
“You know I’m really hurt by what you said,” he told me later, referring to my rape comment.
“How do you think the girl feels?" I asked him. 'She probably still thinks about it every day. Will probably fear sex, and men, forever.”
That’s what I want to ask these men who flail around, screaming about how traumatic it is to be told their behavior isn’t okay. You’re traumatized by being faced with a mirror? But what about the person you hurt? His response: “That’s not very nice. I think you should apologize to me.”
This is also the year my patience broke.
I spent a lot of my twenties ‘managing’. Managing expectations – mostly male but female too – around what it means to be a white woman in South Africa, which is an especially conservative society with a HUGE traditionalist and authoritarian hangover from the days of Apartheid. Nowhere is this more present and more hidden behind a façade of progressive pseudo-cosmopolitan gloss than in Cape Town. White Capetonians love to think they’re hip and progressive worldly citizens, but most have never travelled much beyond the winelands, and if you probe a well-travelled foreigner who has spent enough time here, they will confirm what I’m going to say next: white South African women play dumb to manage the egos of white South African males. Quite a statement. Hectic, bru. But don’t take my word for it. Ask them.
This is for a number of reasons, mainly related to survival. The average white South African male remains a dangerous animal, possibly more so now than ever. Much the way a racist believes #blacklivesmatter is an attack on white people, so white men believe that the drive for equality is an attack on them. His entitlement, his temper and his inherited belief that he belongs at the top of the food chain has not been challenged until recently, and this has made him angry. He’s the spoilt child who has been raised to believe he can do whatever he wants, that he's the most important, and he’s only now discovering that to be not entirely true. Now he’s mad. He’s taking this out on the people closest to him – white women. That’s not to say he doesn’t take it out on black men and women, as he’s been doing since the first settlers arrived on African shores. And I am in no way disputing the fact that POC have it way worse than white women, but I am a white woman and I can only tell my story. White men come home to us, and it’s easiest to kick the dog in the house. So it’s easiest for the dog to stay out of the way. To be nice. To behave as the master of the house has trained her. Sit, Bitch. Quiet, Bitch. Don't ask questions, Bitch. Look pretty, Bitch. Cook, Bitch. Process my emotions, Bitch. There's a good Bitch.
And then there's the great undeniable fact that, if you’re a woman, you’ll probably be broke, and stay broke.
White men remain economically in charge, which means white women still depend on white men for survival. Acutely aware of this, white men take advantage of the situation. They know we depend on them, so they see it as a free pass to behave as they wish, at home, in the boardroom. In Harvey Weinstein's case, in hotel rooms and pot plants. And they count on the silence of the people who depend on them the most. They insist on it. The spoken / unspoken threat: if you don’t, I’ll kill you. I'll kill your career. You'll never work again. Physically, emotionally, economically. Fucking deal with it, bitch. Oh, and your tits look nice today. Want to see my penis? No? Well, here it is anyway. By the way, I'm going to call you a slut now. And so we, as white women, whether consciously or unconsciously, learnt to soften ourselves into the negative space of these dangerous men. Even the less dangerous ones, the nice guys. It is instilled in you from birth as a woman: your role is to fill the negative space around a man. Prop up his weaknesses, spackle up his holes. Don’t let him ever know he’s inadequate. To quote my friend Helen, “There’s nothing more dangerous than an unfuckable man,”. Never, for one minute, let him think he is lacking. And do it with a smile and an effusive display of gratitude and cheer. Or else.
Faced with this reality, white women who don’t recognize their psychological conditioning, will close ranks to protect these men by turning away from anything that threatens their illusion of safety, including white women (or WOC) who speak out, or simply want to live a life of their own agency. A life in which they make their own choices, about what they do with their bodies, how they earn their incomes, how they choose to express themselves – especially if it’s in a way that’s not in relation to a man. Don’t want to get married? Crazy. Don’t want to have children? Crazy. Want to express your opinions on either of the above, or on anything else, really. Crazy. They will use labels – “ja she’s a hectic feminist”. "What a troll." etc. The mere fact that ‘feminist’ still has negative connotations in South Africa is telling. Here, white women still flinch at being associated with the notion of being equal to men. Lol.
When you’re gaslit for so long, so hard, your ability to tell what’s real and what’s not, breaks.
These women don't always know they're protecting an age-old patriarchal system, because in order to make peace with the state of current reality, to get through the day, to survive, they have had to tell themselves a story that it’s not like this, that these men in their lives aren’t abusive – that they really do love them, and women who say otherwise are crazy. They have to tell themselves that they are happy, that they are #blessed. And they have to believe it, because to admit otherwise would mean intense emotional trauma. It would mean they've been living a lie.
White women put men like Trump in power over a woman like Hillary Clinton. White women let everybody down. White women put white men over all women, always.
They will believe their cheating male partners over the woman who informs them their partner is cheating. Because women have been conditioned to believe that men are superior to them in everything, in order to survive. Because we have been taught to routinely dismiss women.
For many of us, 2017 broke what we know to be reality, which I believe is the best thing that’s happened to our collective world society in a long time, despite the trauma. But it’s going to take us a while to accept what it means for the next phase of reality. Some haven’t accepted it, and remain in the first stage of grief, clinging in denial like Jack Dawson onto a chunk of what was once known as The Unsinkable Ship, slowly freezing to death in the icy waters of the Atlantic. But it was Jack who drowned, and Rose who survived. And women are masters of survival, because we have to be. The #metoo movement broke the levee, and I hope for all of us that the flood washes away the filth. I have faith in us. It's time to fix what's broken. Because things are very, very broken.
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