Thursday, March 30, 2017


I was practicing driving on Saturday with my driving instructor and we were doing some drills in the parking lot. Over on one side of the empty lot were two men, both wearing helmets, one motorcycle between them. At times one was riding the motorcycle in circles around the other. Not sure what they were doing, but it kinda looked like they were doing what I was doing: practicing something.

I followed my instructor's directions whenever he told me to go up and down rows, and at one point we came riding up to these fellows. Who, instead of moving the way people generally do when they're, you know, in front of a MOVING CAR, they just . . . stood there. In the road. (Okay, the parking lot, but it was the part of the parking lot where cars drive.) So of course I slowed down and stopped because they weren't moving, and one of them made a "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" kind of gesture at me like he wasn't the one standing in the dang road.

My instructor made the same gesture back at him. They didn't move.

So the instructor told me to go around them, which I did, and as I swung around them one yelled, "WHY DON'T YOU GO PRACTICE SOMEWHERE ELSE???"

I told my instructor I didn't feel safe here anymore and we left the parking lot. But that kind of stuck in my mind for a while.

Like, it wasn't their parking lot. They didn't have more right to be there than we did. And yet, still, because they were there, they thought they could tell us we shouldn't be. And they thought the best way to communicate that was through aggressive language and confrontational gestures.

Some folks are very territorial. Some less literally, too.

I was thinking about this over the course of this month: there are certain people who feel invaded anytime someone comes into their space, whatever that space is. Obviously it's a little understandable if you have a physical space you are enjoying, like a bedroom or a lunch table, and someone you didn't invite barges into it and shares the space with you, regardless of whether they interact with you. But if you're not hurting anything or making the space less welcoming by being in it, or if other people in it don't have more right to it than you do, it seems like coming into it shouldn't be a violation of personal space rules. Like, if I sat at your lunch table without being asked, you'd probably think it was weird. But if I got into the same section of the bus as you, that's what I'm supposed to do. It's even pretty typical if I sit right next to you provided the bus is crowded. As long as I don't, like, sit on your lap. But it's certainly not trespassing if I get on the same bus, or eat in the same cafeteria. 

In less literal spaces, like scientific fields or fan communities, you also see this territorial behavior, and the one I want to focus on is how aggressively men defend space against women. If you think this doesn't happen, you have either never observed the interactions that happen between men and women in these spaces or you have never experienced it yourself and therefore believe it is invented by hysterical ladies whose descriptions of aggression they face are not reflective of reality. (That attitude--that it rarely actually happens and women are crybabies who probably don't belong in those places if they can't "take it"--is actually one of the many attitudes they are subjected to and is often cited as part of why women don't enter some communities or fields as readily as men do.)

Let me start by talking about comic books. Comic fan communities are largely male dominated because mainstream comics are historically enjoyed by men in much larger numbers. Women report the following treatment when they try to engage or interact:
  • Doubting of their authentic appreciation of the material ("you're not really a fan")
  • Requests for proof of their fan status ("if you're a fan name three of your favorite Spider-Man artists")
  • Refusal to listen to women's perspectives on how their gender is presented in comics ("no, the way they clothe the female superheroes in extremely sexualized ways isn't a good reason for you to feel uncomfortable reading them, and if you don't like it, you shouldn't read it")
  • Assumptions about their tastes ("you wouldn't like this because it's about war, but I know some comics about fashion and girl rockstar groups you'd like")
  • Frequent misogynistic language used around them or directed at them ("haha, you're a chick? go make me a sandwich, bitch")
  • Frequent sexual harassment/unwanted advances ("oh, a lady--bra size? single?")
  • Accusations of getting a job/receiving a reward simply because they are women ("she only got the position because Affirmative Action wants us to hire more ladies")

Pretty similar stuff happens in male-dominated professional fields. Men doubt women's abilities, ask them to prove themselves more thoroughly and doubt their findings/results, interpret their accomplishments with a more critical eye, process them as exceptions, laugh at them for "being offended" if they don't like guys in the workplace using sexualized language about women or making misogynistic jokes, expect them to assume secretarial/clerical/janitorial duties even if those duties are not in their job descriptions (like always expecting the female engineer to take notes or get the coffee during a meeting where she's an equal participant), make blatant negative statements about typical women's abilities in that field, hit on them at work or make sexual comments to them or in front of them, and sometimes, pay them less (while claiming the discrepancy is based on performance or lack of negotiation skills).

And what do these dudes have to gain by keeping women out of their spaces? Why are they so territorial? Societal messages have taught both of those genders that there are certain "places" for them and certain roles associated with who they are, and sometimes they feel threatened if someone who doesn't match the description is in their space. Perhaps some of them feel that their workplace or their fan community is a boys' club, and the ability to do things that offend, alienate, or disrespect women must be very important to them even though those things aren't/shouldn't be an inherent part of whatever they love. If being asked to be less sexist "ruins the fun," you have to conclude that their fun partially depends on being sexist. And rather than admit that, many of them prefer to assign some kind of inherent flaw to the women trying to come into "their" space.

They're too sensitive (to things designed to hurt them more). They're not aggressive enough (in a society that has punished them more and called them "unfeminine" if they are aggressive, while for men that same aggression is often seen as being a go-getter). They don't have the skills (in a field they've been raised to think they aren't naturally good at, and in situations where men wouldn't think to question other men's competence). They're offended when they're treated like they should be sexually available at work (by guys who always, always see women in a sexual context before they see them in any other context). They need/want mysterious LadyThings™ (certainly they'll call in sick every time they have period cramps! and since most expectations for child care land on women, she'll take more days off to care for sick kids, which is NOT a question/concern anyone has about fathers). They might not be taken seriously by other people (yo, we're not sexist here, but it's a fact that if we have a woman on the team then we might not close the negotiations if the decision-makers are sexist! Can't take the risk!).

You'll notice that they try to come up with "reasons" why women don't belong there that don't boil down to "I don't want them here because I have sexist beliefs." And yet, most of the reasons men don't want women invading "their" space are based on sexist beliefs that they're trying to present as facts. It all more or less goes back to untrue beliefs about the fundamental difference between men and women (and the belief in women's inferiority) and the perception that we women are basically alien beings who are Too Different From Men to ever really fit in. And another shame is that when some women get through to men that they aren't different in the ways they were suspected to be or that the ways they are different don't point to being unqualified or that they aren't nosing around somewhere they don't belong . . . they are still often processed as an exception to a rule that is still in force. In other words, if a woman does prove herself to men who believe like this, they'll usually decide she's not like the other girls, instead of deciding that maybe my beliefs about women were fundamentally untrue in the first place.

But the fact remains that in many areas where we'd like to be accepted and allowed to fully participate, we are instead assumed to be interlopers until we go out of our way to prove otherwise. We're treated like we're moving through their spaces instead of treated like we have equal ownership of those spaces. We're treated like this is their territory, and that they control the rules to who belongs there, even though when you ask them for the "rules" nothing about women's participation there actually violates them.

Sometimes I really wish people who believe this way would just hang up their "NO GIRLS ALLOWED" sign and admit they think we have cooties.

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