Conversations with a misogynist: “My mother was a slut”

I was proud of myself for waking up (early-ish) to write the other day- it was the day I finally stopped making excuses and I started writing again. My travel journal lay next to me, invitingly plump, filled with stories of adventure that begged release to a wider audience. I touched the soft surface of it’s cover and wanted to draw it to myself in an embrace. I flicked through the pages restlessly, eventually pushing it away. It would remain ajar, peppering my periphery, beguiling and admonishing me simultaneously. What I thought I would write about, what I wanted to write about was our most recent adventure. I longed for the freedom of those words, I longed to revel in the pastels of nostalgia, but I found no release. I felt like I was shaking a magic eight ball, in the foolish way one does when it’s given you an “answer” you don’t want, and you think, If I just try again, I’ll get a different outcome. The thing was, my magic eight ball was sort of warped – the tile that kept popping up read “misogyny” and no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake another answer out of it.

I don’t often have cause to thank Trump, but I do suppose he’s helped me learn to spell the word “misogyny”. I suppose he’s gotten that word a lot of airplay since becoming the US president, but I wonder if, even though we’re better at spelling it, we’re any closer to understanding what it means. Misogyny or misogynist aren’t words I’ve used often, but I found myself in a situation where the word escaped my lips so effortlessly that it surprised even me. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where someone says or does something that immediately triggers a word in your mind, forging an unbreakable and immediate connection. The word for me was “misogyny”, and the scenario was hearing the words “My mother was a slut, because she had me young” from an older man in a position of power, speaking to a group of around 30 people in a work setting. He was telling the story of his life, and who raised him, and had decided on a killer opening, it would seem. Later, in a joke, he would speak of my reaction, saying I reacted physically to his comment. I would be the only one in that group, on that day, to tell him that his comment was inappropriate, not so much because of his warped relationship with his mother, but because I thought he was shaming women by deeming them “sluts” if they were sexually active at what he considered a young age. The word “misogynist” would fall heavily in the room, sucking up the air and pausing the moment, but he would manage to laugh awkwardly and deftly change the topic. Even after the day, the conversation replayed itself in my mind, each time exposing another question. Was he a misogynist or was I being the girl who couldn’t handle a joke?  Why didn’t he apologise? Why didn’t anyone else find it inappropriate? Why did he think that his words were appropriate in such a forum, or at all? Was he “punishing” me later when he cut me off mid-sentence and dismissed what I was saying, or was that simply “just his style” or manner? It’s almost as though I had prepared myself for the subtle slurs, for the “well meaning” propagators of patriarchy even, but when faced with this explicitly demeaning comment, I was confused and caught off guard. I also wondered if I truly understood misogyny and what it meant.

I thought about the classic definition of misogyny, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster definition, “a hatred of women”, and it felt too narrow for me.  Apply that definition and all of sudden, misogyny doesn’t really exist or apply to many. All of a sudden, the issue of misogyny becomes non-existent because finding people who fit that definition to the letter is probably akin to finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But here’s the problem, misogyny and misogynists do exist, they live and breathe among us. That classic definition was off base and incomplete for me. I began a search in earnest for a better understanding of misogyny. A couple of very odd articles later, some of which I’m convinced were written by misogynists themselves, I came across an interview with Kate Mann regarding her book Down Girl: The Logic Of Misogyny and something clicked for me.  Kate Mann draws the distinction between sexism and misogyny, referring to misogyny as the “policing” of certain behaviours and the punishment of women who do not confirm to the “norms” or do as they’re “supposed to”. Misogynists seek to punish or control women who don’t fit their narrow definition of what it means to be a woman (i.e.“bad” women). Contradict this norm or withhold certain things that women are meant to provide (be it care, attention, sex) and a misogynist will seek to put you in your place or punish you. Kate Mann refers to the classic definition of misogyny I mentioned earlier the “naïve conception” because it allows us to think of misogyny as a rare thing. I thought back to the incident that prompted this entire investigation and not only was I angrier, but I also felt defeated. Sure, now I felt vindicated for having called someone a misogynist but I’m not sure that I had made the situation any better.

I admit that I liked the anger in the word misogyny and the heady trip of righteous indignation. It was good to be angry; it was good to call someone out, but to what end? Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither apologetic or ashamed of my anger, such comments should inspire anger and action in all of us, but I still don’t know how we move forward. I still don’t know what the best course of action is or if my voice, on that day made the slightest bit of difference. I still don’t know why so many remained silent and why, even when I spoke to others who were present, I was told to understand that it was “just the way he was”. When I think about the fact that Stats SA routinely publishes data that tells us that the labour market favours men, when I think about the lack of women representation in leadership roles, when I think of all the young mothers who would have heard that comment and felt ashamed, I feel lost. I feel lost and angry. And somewhere in that, I know that, despite not having a solution, I will not be silenced. I know that I will speak until someone listens, even when mine is the only voice in the room. All I can hope for, is that one day you will join me.