A friend recently posted this article from xojane to my Facebook wall, saying she found it an interesting read. The author, Alecia Lynn Eberhardt, feels that women need to stop using “I have a boyfriend” as a way of getting out of situations with guys who seem interested in more than casual conversation. Eberhardt insists that using the mention of another male, present or not, real or not, perpetuates the idea that only another male matters in the situation, that a woman standing alone saying “I’m not interested” is not reason enough to stop attempting to get to more than just casual conversation. She encourages women, single or not, to stop saying “I have a boyfriend,” and instead stubbornly repeat “I’m not interested,” until it is understood that women can decide by themselves, for themselves, whether they want to pursue anything further with someone.
In response to this article, I found I’ll Stop Citing a Boyfriend When My Consent Starts Mattering, by Heina Dadabhoy. Dadabhoy lists the number of reasons why repeating “I’m not interested” could be an unsafe option for women talking with men they don’t know. While she agrees that is certainly isn’t right that women can’t just be respected for saying “no,” she doesn’t think it’s safe for women to start expecting it and acting on it. (This makes me think about the Bechdel Test, where the last criteria is, “Do the women talk about something other than men?” Movies have been making it seem like the only important things women have to say are about men for years.)
Where do we go from here? I feel like Eberhardt probably wrote her piece because she feels what I often feel: a need to know what we can do, here on the front lines, in everyday life, to improve the broken image of women. She found evidence of the breakage, and suggested a patch, but therein lies the problem: it’s a patch, and a patch on the evidence, not the problem itself. Men not respecting women who turn them down is simply a symptom of the larger problem – women not being respected in general. Until we fix the larger problem, we’ll have to keep treating the symptoms (refusal to respect what women say, do, think, feel, etc. based simply on their gender), and sometimes the treatment of the symptoms is unsafe, as Dadabhoy pointed out.
How do we get to the real problem? How do we tackle it? I tend to think that media has a huge role in this large issue, but I don’t work in media and, as someone who works on a campground, I don’t even consume much of it. I’m limited to Eberhardt’s option: treating the symptoms I see around me. I work with schoolchildren almost every day who, before hitting puberty, have already decided that in teamwork situations, the boys should go first and then help the girls, whose primary job is moral support. I often bring it up and discuss it, pointing out that all-girl and all-boy groups have accomplished the same tasks they did, and maybe I get through to a couple, but if I only see them that one day, who knows whether the message sticks?
One thing that I find nice about the polyamorous community is that, overall, people recognize that it is a community where women are empowered by their ability to explore their personalities, wants, needs, and sexuality freely, since they are breaking so many relationship norms. Psychology Today even published a study on the topic. Polyamory may be one place where women are finding their voices; if media won’t allow it, what other spaces can we claim?