Why does society create norms that protect men from being held accountable for sexualising women?
It has always been a struggle for me to understand an aspect of the culture that pervades social spaces, especially in Johannesburg.
The culture I speak of is the sexualisation of women through the harmful, distasteful tendency of men to police them; their clothing, the places they go and even what they wear in the spaces they exist in.
I have always believed in the happiness and freedom of women; in their autonomy and their deserved right to exist freely in social spaces. This should include being able to wear short dresses and tight jeans in those social spheres, without being sexualised.
Women’s happiness and freedom are compromised by men, who generally assume that when women dress as they do, it is for male satisfaction.
I remember the first time I felt sexualised, at the age of 18 years. I was tiny growing up and did not fully develop into puberty until I was nearly 20. I had never before faced such a problem as being sexualised: The day it happened, I did not know what was happening or how to process any of it. I ended up blaming everyone and everything but the man who sexualised me. I blamed the incident on myself, the clothes I was wearing and the environment I was in.
It happened at a nightclub in Rosebank: An older man came up to me and the first thing he did, without saying a word, was touch one of my breasts. Then he said I looked like I ‘‘wanted’’ him, and he continued touching me inappropriately. I just stood there, not knowing what to do, until he decided to leave. Afterwards, I remember pointing out to security the man who had just sexually assaulted me. The security officer responded, “Relax, sister, he means no harm. He just likes you.”
I left the nightclub questioning whether or not what had happened was normal.
Since that incident, I have lost count of how many times I have dealt with men sexualising me. I have developed a defence mechanism of speaking out and being dramatic if I have to be.
It is condescending, that the clothes women wear to feel happy become a tool with which men sexualise women. Society has developed norms that protect such behavior by men, for example the phrase, “That is how men are; it is in their nature to react like that.” Women, the victims, are just supposed to understand. Another phrase used when women are being taken advantage of is, “What was she wearing when it happened?”
By justifying men’s behaviors, society has left little protection for women to hold on to.
On May 29 I came across an article that looked at 2021 rape statistics. It reported that South Africa is ranked at number one in the world, with the highest number of rape cases. One in four men surveyed in South Africa admitted committing sexual assault. The article said women aged from 16 to 19 are four times more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault. Female college students aged 18 to 24 are three times more likely to suffer sexual assault
These statistics are disturbing, and a cause for concern. Men make it hard for women to exercise their happiness and freedom in social spaces. As a result, I experience discomfort and overthinking when it comes to what I wear there.
The sexualisation of women is taken too lightly: There are many ‘‘justifications’’ that make it okay, even though it is not. Just because a man did not touch or hurt a woman, does not make sexualisation right, and does not make it hurt less. Women themselves cannot keep on protecting men by avoiding altercations.
Men must start to be held accountable. Such a process can begin only when cases of women being sexualised are taken seriously by the law: No woman should be hurt before something is done.
FEATURED IMAGE: Natasha Joos. Photo: File
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