It often happens that calling out discrimination isn’t as simple as calling jerks out on their jerky ways. A lot of people are actually perfectly nice – good friends even – but just occasionally make remarks that I’m not okay with. So my question is, how do you challenge someone on an opinion which is definitely not acceptable, without making it look like you think they themselves are a bad person, overreacting, or being rude. Does it even matter if they’re discriminatory ‘in theory’, if they’re lovely to you ‘in practise’?
Example: there was a very pleasant, mild-mannered boy living on my floor in my first year at uni, who, when questioned, was strongly anti-feminism. Once, the people on my floor were hanging out in one of our rooms, chatting and telling funny stories of the wild things people used to do at our old secondary schools.
‘Boys used to unhook the girls’ bras sometimes,’ he said, ‘but they were all slags anyway, so they didn’t mind.’
Thing is, he wasn’t insulting any of the girls in the room, or trying to undo their bras. True, the girls at his school were real people, but I doubt he would have called any of them slags to their faces either. But he had this concept floating around in his head: ‘girls who let boys touch them are slags.’ What was I going to do? Let this idea go unchallenged, or challenge it, attack my friend and spoil the mood?
Fortunately, that time I had the presence of mind to be brief, mild and to the point.
‘I often wonder,’ I said, ‘why boys who unhook girls’ bras are considered fine, but girls whose bras are unhooked are considered slags.’
‘I’ve often wondered that too,’ one of the other girls said, which was the start of a beautiful friendship based on feminist rants. For some reason I always cheer up instantly from hearing a male be sexist, as long as the females in the room are on my side.
Unfortunately I didn’t spot and point out the catch-22 that a girl who had appeared to ‘mind’ having her bra unhooked would probably have been accused of being uptight, so they had no choice but to not mind and appear slaggy, but at least I said something reasonable.
Another example is the boy I lost my virginity to, and his attitude to rape jokes. I invited this boy up to my room, took my top off, lay down on top of him on my bed and told him I didn’t want to have sex, and he said, ‘okay,’ and we didn’t. Over the course of our relationship he asked me a couple of times if I wanted to have sex, and then stopped mentioning it when he saw that I definitely wasn’t ready. He didn’t pester or pressure in the slightest, and he definitely didn’t cross any of my boundaries.
Eventually I decided I was ready, and everything went fine, and the morning after, as we were hanging out, I asked him if we could watch Borat, a comedy film which I knew he really liked and thought I might like too. This film was basically nasty in every way imaginable, but I’m going to stick to the rape jokes because they applied to me directly.
‘This is our town rapist,’ Borat explains to the camera. Borat is supposed to come from Kazakhstan and be on tour in America. ‘Naughty naughty.’
Later, he says to a car dealer,
‘When I bought my wife, she was pretty, she behaved, her vagin work well, but three years later, when she was fifteen, her voice drop, chest grow hairy and her vagin hang like sleeve of wizard. How do I know that the same thing will not happen to this car?’
So this is a joke about the sale and repeated rape of a child, who is considered by her husband to be a possession comparable to a car? Hilarious. Meanwhile, I lie curled up in the arms of my boyfriend, who has shown the utmost respect for my bodily integrity while I do everything but fuck him, and who thinks this kind of humour is brilliant.
This time, I didn’t say anything apart from, ‘meh, I don’t like this much, it’s in pretty poor taste, let’s turn it off.’ I’m pretty sure that he just hasn’t thought it through properly, there’s a disconnect in his brain between the film and real life and he would be horrified at the idea of any of this happening for real. But at the same time…this boyfriend was a very meek and unassertive person. I don’t think I remember him ever pushing or pestering for anything ever, let alone for sex with me. Was not raping me an ethical choice for him, or simply the line of least resistance.
I’m going to go with ethical choice. He was basically a decent guy. But I still felt kind of retroactively violated.