Watch Your Mouth - Part 1
There are three things you need to know about me.
1. I am a feminist who adores men.
2. I believe language is the most powerful thing we have as human beings. It allows us to share stories, express feelings, learn about different cultures. It is one of the cornerstones of our existence and we should treat that with respect and responsibility.
3. I'm okay with being vulnerable. You're going to read some stuff here that'll make you uncomfortable. I'm all right with that. Vulnerability makes us kinder and more generous, and god knows we need more of that in the world.
This is not a remarkable story of abuse. This is not about a remarkable person, in a remarkable situation. This is an everyday story. It's entirely unremarkable because it happens so often, everywhere, all the time.
That's why it's important.
It's the late 80s, early 90s. I'm at home in Johannesburg. We have a good life. We live in a relatively affluent suburb. We have a pool. I don't want for things. I'm running around naked. Growing up in the South African sunshine, kids are naked a LOT. We swim naked. We braai (barbeque) naked. This is not unusual. I'm about eight or nine. My father looks at me and tells me that the line from my belly button to my pubic bone is very sexy.
Again, in the late 80s, early 90s, fully-clothed this time, I sit next to my father on the couch. He has a friend over and they're chatting. My father is very slowly and methodically rubbing my backside. He's never done this before. It feels uncomfortable and strange. I feel deeply ashamed because something doesn't feel right and I don't know what it is, and I shouldn't be feeling such confusion, should I? I shouldn't want to get up and run as far as I can away from my own dad. Should I?
As I go through puberty my father will find his way into the bathroom and into my bedroom while I'm naked. He doesn't touch me. He's just there. Observing.
When I'm 17 or 18, I come home from work one night, and I walk into the house. My father is watching a very graphic and violent rape scene on TV. He doesn't make a move to change the channel. He doesn't switch it off. He doesn't even acknowledge me. I'm alternately horrified, embarrassed, and angry. I leave the room as quickly as I can.
Another time, I'm 19 and I'm dressed up to go out and meet friends. As I walk past my father, he looks at me the way a man looks at a woman he wants to have sex with.
These are just the incidents that I remember. There were more. I know there are more because when I think back to my childhood, everything is dark. Everything feels wrong. I can't quite put my finger on it, but something feels very off and overwhelmingly sad.
This is all happening in the place I'm supposed to feel safest in the world - my home. In another place, a few kilometers away, I spend my days in another place I'm supposed to be safe. This fresh kind of hell is school. It makes home life look like paradise.
I'm not hugely popular at school. I'm awkward. I'm not comfortable in my own body. My features are too big for my face. I'm funny-looking. I'm outspoken. I'm not good at sports (this is a cardinal sin). So, I'm bulled a lot. The bullying comes from the boys, mostly. The boys who are popular. Who are on the rugby teams. Who represent a particular kind of masculinity. The bullying is mostly verbal. I'm laughed at. Jeered at. I'm called a slut. A whore. A bitch. I've barely even kissed a boy. I'm called 'not a girl.' Because I don't look the way I'm supposed to. I'm called 'cute.' Ugly, but fuckable.
These boys run the social hierarchy in the school. They say what's what. They enlist the friendship and allyship of the girls they deem worthy. These girls have long legs and long hair. They're good at netball. They do the physical bullying. They shove me into walls. They kick me in the back in class.
As I get older, I realise that this is something that will follow me through my life. In the places I'm supposed to feel safest (work, offices, police stations) I will feel most vulnerable. In the places I'm supposed to feel equal, I will feel most at risk.
Punctuated throughout these experiences is a bizarre expectation of me from my father, my teachers, family friends and random strangers that I meet - and that is that I smile. There's a huge premium placed on that - me smiling. It's almost as though if I smile no one has to worry that things actually aren't so great.
And so telling me to smile is asking me to not feel the confusion, the complexity, the anxiety, the lack of confidence and the shame I'm experiencing every single day.
As I grow older, I also begin to question why things felt so wrong as I was growing up. Yes, I was being bullied, teased, tormented and my father has no boundaries, but was the greater picture that allowed this to happen?
I spend years in therapy. I spend years talking to my girlfriends. I talk to my mother. I take control of my anxiety and get onto medication (thank god for Prozac, which I highly recommend).
And I start to understand something quite profound: there is a toxic combination of two things that have been happening to me.
The language that is being used around me every single day
All the things that are not talked about; the things that go unsaid
This combination of a particular kind of language, and the absence of other language, creates a dangerous and ever-present sense of control and power that I have no access to, and no influence over.
The Language We Use
I like to call this Vagina Shame. It's the language we use every single day that is totally normal, accepted and woven into the fabric of our society. We laugh at it. We use it when we talk about the women we love. It's 100% part of our lexicon. And it is deeply damaging. It's also just totally bizarre. And so, I like to play a game I invented called Vagina Shame With a Twist. Here we go:
You’re a good driver, for a guy
Men’s writing is a discrete area of fiction because men write about special men’s things. It’s of no interest to most people.
Are you a new dad? There are so many ways your wife can be involved in your child’s life. You just need to encourage her to play a full and active part.
I’m going to interview a man about what it’s like to be a GP and a dad. What should I ask him?
Male author and male doctor are NOT offensive terms. It’s just a way to differentiate them from normal authors and doctors.
How can we commemorate men’s very worthwhile contribution to our past?
Your wife changes nappies? That is amazing!
Get your wife to babysit.
Are you a working dad? That must be so hard.
Is it OK for dads to put themselves first sometimes?
Don’t wear that to school, you’ll distract the girls
His contraceptive doesn’t work for me. Best he sorts it out or it's over
Men belong in the kitchen
If guys want to wear shorts, they deserve to get raped.
He was asking for it
He's a fucking whore
Don’t be a slut, dude
No woman wants to have sex with a virgin
How much did he have to drink that night?
Well, what was he wearing that night?
Why does he get so emotional?
He's such an attention whore
He’d be much hotter if he smiled
His drive is kind of intimidating
Can men have it all?
He doesn't want kids? Isn't he worried he won’t be fulfilled?
His biological clock is ticking
You’re not taking your wife’s last name?
Is he planning on working after the baby’s born?
He's going to let someone else raise his kid after he goes back to work?
Does your wife mind that you make more money than her?
Are you really fulfilled as a stay-at-home dad?
I know he's the most experienced person in the business, who’s done the most work, but we can’t make a man a Vice President. The other vice presidents wouldn’t be comfortable with it.
Oh, he works in mining? Is he a secretary?
I know you’re a partner in this board meeting can you please take the minutes and make the tea. Men are just better at that stuff.
It's nuts, right? We would never say this stuff to men. And if we did, people would look at us like we were crazy. And yet, women experience this language every single day. From men we love, our colleagues, our friends, and complete strangers.
We laugh at it. We roll our eyes. We don't respond, because what's the point? But it's hurtful. It speaks to an overarching acceptance that women are simply less than. Not as valuable. Not as smart. Not as [insert powerful, empowered adjective].
In tandem with this bizarre and totally normalised language, another thing is happening. And that is, as previously mentioned, the absence of a different kind of language. A social ban placed on language and conversations that we should be having. A policing of certain explorations. A policing of the word 'no.'
As an example: I'm 12 or 13 years old. We're out for lunch at a restaurant. I begin to experience the worst abdominal pain I have ever felt in my life. It's like knives are slicing through my insides. Sharp, shooting pain is moving through my thighs and down into my legs. I have no idea what the fuck is happening to me. It's only 24-36 hours later that I realise I'm having my first period.
To be continued...
Ashleigh Rennie is a copyhackers-trained conversion copywriter who works with clients all over the world. She uses a proven, solid framework to make sure that every single word is performing at its peak to make you top dollar. And it all starts with your brand voice. Do you know yours? Take the quiz to find out.