I am reading Tara Moss' new book Speaking Out. Now, I am a feminist; I think about women's stories and the way women are represented all the time. I am forced to engage with this because I write about sex and there is still a massive disparity between how sexual men are treated and how sexual women are treated. Just read the books Raising Girls and Raising Boys, both by Steve Biddulph, and see how we still deal with the boys and girls in relation to sexuality. Looking at those books side by side is quite startling. But it shouldn't be.
We teach girls to 'wait' till they feel ready to have sex. We teach them that they are likely to be taken advantage of, forced or coerced into sex. All our messages to young women are that they will be treated badly if they 'put out'. But our messages to young boys are about making sure they don't get a sexually transmitted disease and being respectful of women. Let's just ignore that this is assuming that boys and girls are basically heterosexual, books like these and our culture in general has an important message for boys: Have Sex Responsibly. The narrative for girls? Don't Have Sex. We even have terrible words for women who are sexual but no corresponding words for men who are sexual. I have been raging about this for so many years that I came to Tara Moss' book thinking I had nothing left to learn.
Boy was I mistaken. Tara looks at the spaces carved out in our society for women and girls to speak out. The statistics are jaw-dropping. When you watch any panel show on TV, Q&A or QI for example, the host is often a man and then there are three or four panelists and often one of them is female. There is no chance of equal representation. Using Q&A as an example Moss points out that there are fewer female panelists and "those that were selected were asked fewer questions and permitted far less time to speak". She points out that there were more interruptions to female panelists than to male panelists. This is just one of the examples presented in the book. It does not paint a rosy view of our culture providing space for women to speak.
Bearing this in mind I have become very aware of the events program that I coordinate at Avid Reader. We often have events every night of the week and often they are panels. At these panels I have been very conscious of gender. In particular, I have noticed that at the end of a panel discussion, even if there are an equal ratio of male to female panellists, it is always a forest of male audience members with their hands up to ask questions. Often we only get time for two or three questions from the audience at the end of a session and to my horror I realised that almost always, ALL of the questions were from men.
I have been watching this closely, and yes indeed, no women were putting up their hand to ask questions. Was this because no women had any questions? I decided to test this. I told the audience at one particular event that I was providing space for a woman to ask a question. After a short pause, one woman put up her hand. It was a great question. It would not have been asked if I had just taken the first (male) hands raised at the end of the talk.
I will be providing space for women to ask questions at the end of every panel from now on. Women often ask different questions because their experience of the world is different because of their gender. I wish gender didn't matter. I know we have quite a few transgender people who shop at Avid and people who are gender fluid and I wish I could provide a space for them as well, but one step at a time.
This book by Tara Moss is so very important. It has been an eye-opening read for me and it has changed my life. If every young man and every young woman was given a copy of this book it would make so many small changes in individual behaviours that we might just be able to begin to tackle a problem that is often invisible to us. Women do not have the same agency that is offered up to men. It is a simple fact. I am sure there will be many (men) who loudly disagree but it is a fact that is supported by the statistics. JUST READ THE BOOK! We are silenced in so many subtle invisible ways that we are barely aware that the whole world is one big ssshhh! to stop women from claiming an equal space.
I am guilty of deferring to men. Even I don't speak up enough. I won't engage with a subject publicly unless I am an expert on it in case I get something wrong. If I have to speak publicly on a subject I am suddenly lumped with the task of reading everything that is written about it in case I sound like an idiot. I am often asked to write essays for journals and magazines about particular subjects and I say no or back out after doing weeks of research because I don't think I am an expert on the subject. I don't ask questions at the end of events because I think I might sound like an idiot. In all these subtle ways I allow others, mostly men, to make statements or ask questions or write essays instead of me. It is time I stepped up. It is time we all stepped up.
READ TARA MOSS' SPEAKING OUT. BUY THREE COPIES. GIVE ONE TO A YOUNG WOMAN AND ONE TO A YOUNG MAN. TELL THEM TO PASS IT ON. TELL THEM TO GIVE THE BOOK TO AT LEAST ONE WOMAN AND ONE MAN. TELL THEM TO ACT ON WHAT THEY LEARN. ACT ON WHAT YOU LEARN.
Yes, it sounds like I am shouting. It sounds like I am nagging you. I am not. I am telling you honestly how I think we can address a really important problem. I am just honestly speaking out.
Join Tara for the the launch of Speaking Out at Avid Reader on Saturday June 4. Book your tickets here before they sell out!