Rejecting sexist behaviour is difficult when you're conditioned to accept it

Rejecting sexist behaviour is difficult when you're conditioned to accept it

Rejecting sexist behaviour is difficult when you're conditioned to accept it

Updated 10 February 2018, 7:25 AEDT

Campaigns like #MeToo are helping women to better recognise sexist behaviour.

Campaigns like #MeToo aren't just creating a global movement to call out sexual harassment and abuse, they're helping women to better recognise sexist behaviour.

But while becoming more conscious of the patriarchy is one thing, unlearning years of conditioning to accept it is another.

Through experience and self-education women become more aware of the "man's world" we live in.

Society is good at disguising sexism and training women to be submissive toward it.

But women's ability to manage uncomfortable situations with a man is a battle they often feel unequipped to fight.

As a friend of mine recently said, "it is so hard to unlearn what we have learnt all along".

She has been avoiding social dance classes because a man there is harassing her.

After asking him to stop, he delivered a "sort of apology", but then continued as if the discussion never took place.

We agree the best action is to firmly repeat her boundaries and raise the issue with the class organisers (despite her loud screams from within that the onus shouldn't be on the victim).

"The thing is, I gave him my number. He asked me in front of people and said it was for other events they organise," she said, acknowledging he pressured her, while at the same time implying she was at fault.

Even though she felt his behaviour was manipulative, calculated and inappropriate — she reacts with self-blame.

When I pointed this out, she said: "Wow, it is hard to unlearn what we learnt all along."

This situation isn't unique to my friend, or social events. Women experience this at work, on public transport, in the bedroom — wherever men and women coexist.

I think back to bad experiences I've had with men: being verbally abused by a boyfriend for saying no in the bedroom, a stranger grabbing my butt in a pub, a boss passing remark on my appearance, a Tinder match still contacting me more than two years after I said I wasn't interested, a train passenger ignoring my cues I don't want to chat.

Women learn some men don't accept the word "no" — but yet we still repeat it, over and over.

I knew these situations weren't right, but I accepted them because it was either easier, "just the ways things are" or my own doing (so I once thought).

'You can't just flick a switch'

An expert in feminist theory and gender inequality, Meagan Tyler explains breaking the pattern is hard.

"It is that sense of training girls literally from birth to be more passive and compliant with any person they interact with, in the West certainly," Dr Tyler said, adding men were raised to be more "active and aggressive".

"It's so deeply embedded that even though you might come to the consciousness and realise there is a problem later in life, you can't just flick a switch and undo all that socialisation."

Dr Tyler pointed to scenarios such as a woman being groped on public transport. Her reaction is to freeze.

"Women are socialised in that response, and also psychologically it's how women react to trauma."

She said while it was good to see campaigns like #MeToo gain traction, having the conversation in a more public way may be preventing actual change.

"There is something different about having a women-only space and publicly broadcasting on social media," she said.

"Women aren't getting to experience the same amount of those safe spaces and develop strategies as groups — like the consciousness raising activities in the '70s and '80s."

But isn't this up to men?

Dr Tyler said undoing years of conditioning was "too hard to do as an individual".

"You actually need a movement to challenge these structures.

"But at the same time, it's not really placing the blame where blame should be. In order for men to stop raping and harassing women, men need to do that."

And that's just it — society should hold men accountable and end the cycle of raising girls one way and boys another.

As long as people like my friend are armed with nothing but awareness, change won't come.