In many of my conversations with men – whether in contexts of romantic, platonic, professional, or social – it has not been unusual for a conversation to contain some of the following responses from them to suspicious behaviour I, or another woman, has picked up on from another person.
“I think you might be reading into it.”
“Are you sure that’s what you saw/heard?”
“I don’t think that matters / is relevant.”
“No, s/he’s not like that, you must have misunderstood.”
For years, I thought it was me. I’m over-sensitive. I over-think. I read too much into things. I’m being silly. I’m perceiving what I choose to perceive.
But actually, I don’t. I don’t and I’m not. I just pick up on more. A lot more. I’m a ninja at reading human behaviour. Partly this is down to the work I do but partly this is down to simply being a female in the world. And guess what? Every other adult female I know is pretty ninja too. Actually, a lot of child females I know are already pretty good too.
It’s not a coincidence. It’s not ‘just my circle!
As females, we have to be on high alert from a very young age. From the moment we enter this world, we are objectified, we are looked at inappropriately – whether as a ‘little princess’ from childhood, being sexualised by society way too early and validated solely on our appearance (cock your ear in any social setting and you will see or hear comments to little girls about being pretty, wearing a beautiful dress, having gorgeous hair, being ‘nice and slim’ (I loathe this expression for so many reasons). Whereas the boys will usually be spoken to about what they are doing; ‘you’re a good footballer,’ ‘that’s a great bike,’ ‘what are you playing?’
In short, as females, we are always under the threat of that judgmental male gaze or phrase at any given moment. As we grow older, these male gazes and phrases often become actions too.
So what about the female gaze? Why is it dismissed so quickly? Simply put, because it often draws attention to bad behaviour and dodgy situations. The female gaze is brave and truthful but is way too often undermined as not being correctly informed (silly women). The female gaze is also historically seen as dangerous and punishable (Medusa anyone?) But our gaze, its insights and what both can offer are incredibly powerful.
Females are on constant high alert because the narrative tells us we are forever in danger: the vast majority of any horror movie will cast the women as the ones being pursued to die or be driven crazy; people tell us to ‘take care’ (an expression I have also come to loathe) and ‘text me when you’re home safe’ (this one is an important one but it shouldn’t have to be).
We are on high alert because our everyday experiences in the world are often those of being stared at, touched, hassled, commented on, criticised, our space invaded – every commute I have to guard my personal space like a lioness in defence of rogue feet and elbows invading it, usually from the unconscious, and conscious, entitlement of so many men.
We are on high alert because the vast majority of women have had the experience in their life of being catcalled, grabbed, followed, harassed, coercively controlled, gaslit, and worse.
We are on high alert because we have to be. This is our normal. By the time we are adult females this is how we have learned to navigate through our lives. We see a lot more than most men because our high alert is always on.
We are on high alert because not only are we looking out for ourselves, but we are looking out for our tribe too – our friends, our family, our kids, other people’s kids, our dogs…
There are stats which back up this thinking. According to the Women’s Studies International Forum in 2016, statistics show that: 80% of women endure at least frequent street harassment, 45% feel that they cannot go alone to public spaces, 50% have to cross the street to find alternate routes to their destinations, 26% claim that they are in a relationship in order to avoid harassment, 80% feel the need to be constantly alert when traversing local streets and 19% have had to switch careers to escape the area in which harassment occurred. This problem is not only transnational, but also trvanscultural and affects people of all identities, races, and ages every day.
So, yes, we are really good at picking up on all sorts of things because that’s exactly what we are tuned up to do through the life that we live simply because of our gender.
It’s another reason why we need more women in leadership and more women speaking up. We see a lot of the things that often get missed by the men. It’s high time we were listened to and the wisdom of our gaze credited.
And it is high time we trusted our own judgements too.