On feminism, and why we still need it

Hello, Internet, it’s Wednesday, and on Thursday, someone sent me a picture of his penis.

Now, listen. I don’t personally understand why anyone, at any time or in any situation, would like to be on the receiving end of a digital image of a penis, but I understand that there are people who don’t mind, and that there are some people who actually seek out that experience, and to each his or her own. I am into all kinds of things that lots of people don’t get. I am, for instance, in the habit of putting on clothes that don’t belong to me and pretending to be someone I’m not in front of a room full of people.

So when, last week, an online conversation went a tad off the rails and I was asked if I wanted a picture of a penis, my response was polite, but clear. I said (as best I remember it):

“Thank you for the offer, kind sir, but I’ll pass.”

5 minutes later, I received it anyway.

I made it very clear to the sender that this was not acceptable. He apologised repeatedly, and I ended – and deleted – the conversation.

These things happen to women. All. The. Time. It’s an unfortunate truth that, generally, we just discard the experience and move on.

But I was still pretty peeved. After all, I’d just been sexually abused by someone I’d quite liked. I wanted to tell someone what had happened, to commiserate a little bit, to vent some anger about the situation, and to be made to feel safe.

If I’d chosen any woman to tell, I would have expected a fairly predictable reaction:

“Ew. EW. Don’t you HATE that? What did you do?”

Instead, though, I told a Former Boyfriend. And FB’s reaction was, in hindsight, just as predictable:

“What’s his name? Where does he live? This idiot needs his arse kicked.”

Something struck me, though, as I refused to give FB any details on the sender of this digital image and insisted that I had the apology, and, I believe, the sincere regret, that I wanted: this protective “let me deal with it for you” reaction is also a sexist, albeit kind-hearted, attitude. I do not believe that FB had any intention of doing anything violent. The things he wanted to do – forward the picture to the sender’s mother and boss, and to the social media site that prohibits such behaviour – are options that were available to me directly. I did not need help to do them; I chose not to do them. I dealt with the situation my own way, and, I believe, as someone who was actually in the situation, that it was the appropriate thing to do.

I understand protective instincts. I get them too. Parents feel them about their children, partners feel them about each other. If the roles were reversed and someone had abused FB, I would have been livid. But it would never have occurred to me to “deal with it” for him, because we have both been socialized to believe that men should be expected to enter into conflict and women should be expected to shy away from it.

FB is one of the Good Guys. He’s intelligent, open-minded and respectful. He pays attention. So, in addition to getting it through every skull that “no means no” – something we should all have learned in grade school, by the way – we are fighting a more subtle fight as well. If even the Good Guys can’t relax into their gut reactions without tripping over the old patriarchal gender-roles, then we need to keep thinking about this, talking about this, and working on this. We still need feminism, not just because there are still idiots who believe that sending unsolicited dick-pics to unwilling recipients is sexy, but also because the Good Guys want to help… but we haven’t taught them how.


**NOTE AT TIME OF PUBLICATION: FB and I disagree on the degree to which the protective instinct is naturally ingrained by evolution. He also makes the valid point that women can shout at unsolicited-dick-pic-sending men all we want and very few of them will pay any heed, and that it might take other men shouting too to get it through their skulls. The end point remains the same: we need to be talking more, engaging each other into thoughtful discussion about feminist issues. We want the Good Guys on our side.