men, masculinities and gender politics

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No, the girl is NOT “yours.” Men don’t own women. Period.

 
A couple of weeks ago – the day before International Women’s Day – Sarah Thomson, a newspaper publisher and former mayoral candidate for the city of Toronto, attended a celebrity-filled fundraising event, where she happened to encounter Rob Ford, her former political opponent, and the current (and controversial) mayor of that city. 
 
Thomson later posted a picture on Facebook of herself standing next to a very inebriated-looking Mayor Ford, and she wrote the following caption:
 
“Thought it was a friendly hello to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at the CJPAC Action Party tonight until he suggested I should have been in Florida with him last week because his wife wasn't there. Seriously wanted to punch him in the face. Happy International Women's Day!”
 
Then she reported that as the photo was being taken, Ford groped her rear end. 
 
Killing the (female) messenger.  Unfortunately, in our modern rape culture world of kill-the-messenger-especially-if-she-is-a-woman-leveling-an-allegation-of-sexually-inappropriate-behavior-against-a-powerful-man, the interwebs pretty quickly put Thomson herself on trial rather than focusing on Ford’s behavior.  Thomson’s own past was scrutinized, and the allegation was leveled that she was only doing it all for political gain.  (Sound familiar?  Think Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.) 
 
In this case, in many quarters, scant attention was paid to facts that Mayor Ford has a history of inappropriate, substance-fueled misbehavior, that his home is the source of repeated calls to 911, and that he was previously criminally charged for violence against his aforementioned wife.  If you ask me, it seems far more in character for Rob Ford to have done what he is accused of doing than it was for Sarah Thomson to fabricate such a charge.  
 
I found Thomson’s being put on trial in the media to be extremely unfortunate and unjust.  But Thomson stuck to her guns and she had a witness.  (Not that she should need one.)  But the naysayers have also attacked the witness’ credibility because the witness, Sarah Patterson, who accompanied Thomson to the event, also works for her.  In an interview, Patterson confirmed what had transpired.  She said that Ford’s buddy Toronto City Councilor Carmine Perrelli was also there, also acting altered, and that he too was behaving extremely inappropriately toward women.  
 
“The worst part of this experience,” she said, “is seeing how the boys club of politics stick together. Those [men] that were commenting on my physique last night are calling me a liar today. This being my first big political outing with my new boss at my new job has really taught me a lot.”
 
On men’s ownership of women.  According to the women’s accounts of that night, both Mayor Ford and Councilor Perrelli were acting like total male chauvinist pigs.  Like they owned every woman who was there.  That the women were mere playthings, existing only for the men’s perusal, groping, and propositioning.   This, this in the year 2013.
 
Sigh.
 
It is stunning to me to think that the notion that women are the possessions of men endures so strongly in this modern day and age.  Even a subsequent comment by Thomson herself shows how deeply this sense of male ownership still runs:
 
“I've never seen [Rob Ford] so out of it.  I know I shouldn't be pissed but after spending 10 months on the campaign trail together you expect a little bit of respect at the very least for my husband.”    
 
Now just how a woman responds to a man’s sexual aggression against her is going to be as individual as the woman herself.  Personally, I think that Thomson has every right to be extremely pissed off at Ford – or at any other man who grabs her ass uninvited, whether he seems inebriated or not!  But not only am I not a woman, I am not Sarah Thomson. I have not traveled the paths that she has.  So I have no right to judge her reaction to being mistreated by a man.    
 
The way her statement ended, however, did give me pause…
 
“…you expect a little bit of respect at the very least for my husband.”   
 
Hmmm…..  respect at the very least for my husband.
 
 As I read this over, it reminds me of the deep sense that our society still has that we men have a kind of ownership over “our” women.  That any woman I am involved with is my property.  That “the girl is mine.”  And any man who approaches her in a sexually aggressive way is, first and foremost, disrespecting me.  According to this troublesome line of thought, it was a far worse act for Ford to have (allegedly) groped Thomson because she is a married woman – because Ford’s actions disrespected another man by violating his property. 
 
But from my perspective, all women should be respected always.  Uninvited ass grabbing is never acceptable, regardless of whether a woman is somehow attached to another man.  Single women – or women who are romantically attached to other women – deserve every bit as much respect as heterosexually partnered women do. 
 
The hideousness inherent in harassing a woman has nothing to do with whether or not she “belongs” to another man.  The problem with pawing, harassing, and giving a woman unwanted attention is that these behaviors violate her personhood.  They disregard her wishes. 
 
Married or not, heterosexual or not, partnered or not, every woman is a sovereign being, as free as any man, and she deserves to be respected as such.    
 
The problems with “boyfriend as bodyguard.”  Look, I know there are a lot of thuggish guys out there.  I know there are a lot of guys who will put their paws all over a woman unless there is another man around to stop them.  And I know some single women who wear fake engagement rings in order to try to keep those predatory men away.  And I can’t say I blame them.  Men can be extremely annoying and threatening, especially to women they believe to be single.
But this patriarchal social model of respecting another man’s “wifely property” – while still treating women who do not have a guy of their own as fair targets for harassment – sets up an unfortunate  system where having a boyfriend or husband becomes the only thing that might – might! – keep a woman safe from other men.  (And it says nothing about how safe she might be from her own boyfriend or husband!)
This structure distorts all heterosexual relationships.  (And it treats lesbian relationships as if they don’t even exist!)  It infantilizes women and it turns boyfriends/husbands into bodyguards.  It confounds love with physical security.  It makes a man desirable simply because he will serve to keep other men at bay.  And while we all deserve to have partners (regardless of gender) who will help to keep us safe when we need it,  this “male as constant protector” is an antiquated structure that disempowers women, and, when I have found myself playing that role, it has been utterly exhausting to me as a man.
 
When I have found myself in that role the most has been while travelling in places where women have a social status that is only marginally above that of cattle.  (And where both women and cattle are treated terribly.)   And these are places where women encounter even greater mistreatment if they are so “bold” as to venture out without a male chaperone.  Once, while travelling with a girlfriend in such a region we faced a difficult choice.  If I walked beside her, the men coming toward us leered lustfully at her breasts and made crude remarks as they passed by.  For awhile I started walking slightly in front of her, intercepting the men’s leers and cutting off their comments with a glare.  It was tedious.  It was unpleasant.  It made me feel more like a bodyguard rather than a travelling partner.  But how else were we to get down the street with a minimum of harassment?
 
So there I was, walking down the street slightly ahead of her, shooting laser beams out of my eyes, when I heard an angry cry from behind me.  I whirled around to see my rather small-statured girlfriend chasing a man down the street, screaming curses at him, and slapping the shit out of him.  It turned out that as this man had passed by on the sidewalk, he had grabbed my girlfriend’s butt with his right hand.  (With his left hand, meanwhile, he was busily holding the hand of his own wife – who, in turn, was carrying their small child.) 
 
We had found ourselves operating in a cultural context where if I did not claim ownership of “my” woman, some other man would try to. 
 
Another time, in another part of the world, I actually had a man try to buy my female travelling companion from me.  At that point my woman friend launched into a lengthy explanation about how she was the only one who was allowed to sell herself, that it was entirely her choice alone to do that or not to do that, and that I had nothing to do with it. 
 
Throughout this somewhat lengthy explanation the man smiled and nodded agreeably.  And when my friend had finished, the man looked at me again and said, again, “How much for the girl?” 
 
And he did not mean just for the night.  He wanted to keep her forever.  Perhaps to keep her for himself.  Perhaps to sell her further into sexual slavery.
 
He kept asking, and he only backed off when I ultimately said: “She is not for sale.”  And because I was another man, and because in his eyes this woman was my woman, my property to do with as I wished, he respected my answer.
 
I no longer travel to such places simply for pleasure.  Because I have found that travelling in lands where women have so few rights and are treated so poorly just isn’t pleasurable for me. 
 
North America not always that much better.  So is this sense of male ownership of women much better here in Canada?  Somewhat.  But not much.  After all, Mayor Ford is the mayor of Toronto, Canada’s most diverse, most dynamic city.  And he reportedly acted like he owned every woman in the place that night!
 
And certainly there is an immense amount of sexual trafficking of women and girls throughout Canada and the United States.  Yes, even here in North America, women and girls are regularly sold by men to other men.
 
But even while just walking around my own town, I find that the sense of male ownership of women hangs heavy in the air.  When I see a heterosexual couple walking down the street, it is not uncommon that if I meet their eyes, I encounter a hostile glare from the man.  A message that says: “Get your eyes off my woman!”  Like I am breaking some unwritten code:  a code that says: “Stop looking at what’s mine!”  Even though I am not leering at the woman.  I am merely looking at the couple.  At both of them.  With no sexual interest or intent. 
 
It’s a weird and disturbing energy to encounter…  with its presumption that I automatically have designs on “his” woman.  The assertion that I am trespassing on his property.  By merely looking both of them in the eye.    
 
I once got a dog from the pound.  The dog had been abused and had what they call “fear aggression.”  It would attack if it felt threatened.  And I guess that’s what I encounter as I meet couples walking down the street… a kind of “fear aggression” from the other males.  An attempt to erect a preemptive, hostile, psychic boundary.    A warning glare that says: “Look over here at us one second longer and I will attack.”
 
This presumption of ill intent, this over-policing of what is normal social behavior, reminds me of those incredibly annoying (and offensive) fancy car alarms that automatically verbally bark at you to STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR!!!  should you pass by too closely while walking in a parking lot.    
 
They always make me want to say: “I wasn’t gonna steal your fucking car!”
 
But as I write this, I find myself wondering: so what’s the difference between the hostile looks these guys flash me, and the looks I was flashing at other men to stop them from groping my girlfriend when we were traveling overseas?  Is there a difference?  I like to think so.  You see, in my mind I was trying to protect my girlfriend from harassment.  But to me these guys feel like they are just trying to guard what is “theirs.”
 
See how quickly this issue of “boyfriend as protector” becomes a thorny one?  Just how quickly “protection” becomes just another form of custody?
 
Protective custody. 
 
Imprisonment.
 
It’s like putting bars on the windows of your house to guard what you own.  They cage you in just as much as they keep other people out.
 
And another interesting thing to note is that the more aggressive and possessive (protective?) the men I encounter appear, the quicker the women usually are to look down or to look away.  No doubt this is an issue that has been a matter of “discussion” between the two of them before? 
 
“Don’t let me catch you looking at other guys!”
 
Why possessiveness is bad.  I have a friend who does a lot of speaking in schools to young people about healthy relationships.  She reports with great dismay that a lot of young teens tend to see jealousy and possessiveness as signs of “true love.” 
 
I think her dismay is well founded.  (And I am not sure how many of us ever truly manage to recover from that erroneous belief system.) 
 
We have such an intense cultural confusion when it comes to love, possessiveness, and jealousy.  And we need to sort that out, because our confusion (especially when combined with a masculine sense of over-entitlement) causes us a lot of trouble. 
 
It even causes murder.   
 
The vast majority of domestic violence homicides are based on this sense of male ownership of women.  “If I can’t have you, nobody can!” is the exact thinking that leads a man to murder a woman.  “I own you.  So no one else can be with you!” 
 
Abusive men try to break women just like a spoiled child will break his own toys.
 
But male possessiveness, even when it falls short of causing murder, still leads to abuse.  To attempting to control women’s activities.  Watching where she goes.  Monitoring whom she talks to.  To a paranoia that expresses itself in groundless suspicions and baseless allegations. 
 
A far better use of energy: making a woman happy.  But all of that energy spent on policing the boundaries of a relationship would be far better spent on improving the fertile ground within it!  Rather than spending time fending off real or imagined suitors, a man is much better off making himself a person the woman would want to be with.  Working to keep the relationship loving, kind, and free. 
 
People in a relationship should fly higher for being in it – and not be held down by it.
 
During the Cold War, the East German government built the Berlin Wall because it was aware that many of its people felt that life in the west was better – and many of them tried to flee.  Rather than expending the resources to actually make life better for their own people, and trying to keep the people happy, the rulers merely tried to fence them in.  And it worked for a time.  But for what end?  An unhappy populace?   And now that the reign of East Germany’s leaders’ has ended, all of their bullets, their guns, their barbed wire, their guard dogs, the Wall itself – and all of the people they hurt and killed during those years – in the end it was all for naught.  The old East German rulers won a lot of small battles, but they lost the war.  All of that suffering… all ultimately for nothing.
 
Trying to hold their people captive was a mistake for the folks who built the Berlin Wall.  Just like it’s a mistake to try to do it in a relationship.  If the only thing that keeps a woman with you is her sense of imprisonment, her feeling of being trapped, then that is not love.  And that is not trust.  And the relationship is probably going to fail. 
 
But even if it endures, what’s the point?  Misery for you, for her, and for everyone else?  Because that’s the foregone conclusion when you try to hold a woman captive.
 
A good relationship must be freely chosen.  A good relationship should be marked by love, trust, respect, and fidelity.  (Some people, like the advice columnist Dan Savage, argue that even fidelity itself is a negotiable when it comes to relationships – so long as it is in fact an issue that is overtly negotiated.)  But whatever the constellation of people’s partnerships, the point is that these decisions and commitments should be made ethically, overtly, and freely.  We owe it to our partners to bring our best self to the table.
 
And what you can’t have is respect and imprisonment at the same time.
 
A man doesn’t own his wife or girlfriend. 
 
A woman – any woman – is a free and sovereign being.  Regardless of her marital or partnership status. 
 
And as for Rob Ford?  Well he doesn’t get to molest women.
 
Any woman.
 
Ever.
 
Whether she is married or not.