Giving Voice

One thing that women get taught over and over is that assault and harassment is their fault, and if they want to get proactive about it, they need to fight back. How many of my readers have taken a self defense course aimed at women that included a section where they were supposed to shout ‘NO!’ over and over until they got comfortable with it? I’m willing to bet a fair number; it seems to be a pretty universal experience. Fighting back. You’re supposed to fight back. You’re supposed to say something. Don’t just let them get away with it.

Which is why I find it really interesting that even as women are taught this, they are also reminded that fighting back is ‘shrill’ and ‘bitchy.’ A video was making the rounds a few months ago, featuring a woman who caught a man masturbating next to her in the subway. ‘I see his penis out,’ she screams. She’s angry. ‘That’s it,’ she says, ‘you’re getting fucking arrested.’ People in the subway giggle nervously. She’s fighting back. She’s taken that lesson about not letting people get away with it to heart. ‘I’m escorting you to the police station,’ she says. ‘Where is the conductor?!’

A lot of feminists heralded this video, pointing to it as a great example of resisting subway harassment. But a lot of other people had less kind things to say about it. People said the woman was ugly, so she must be making it up. Or that she was ‘too shrill.’ Or that she was taking things too far. She was bitchy. Uptight. What was her problem? I see her engaging with bystanders but because the video cuts out, we don’t know what happens from there; did people help her find a police officer in the station? Did the snickering person who said ‘oh, this is going on YouTube’ do anything?

These seem to be two contradictory messages. On the one hand, people are supposed to speak up when they’re being assaulted or harassed, or it’s their fault. On the other hand, speaking up makes you a shrill bitch. What’s it going to be? Are you going to be the shrill bitch who doesn’t let them get away with it, or are you going to be the meek victim who deserves what you get? Because these seem to be the two available choices.

It’s telling that women, throughout history, have had their very voices weaponised against them. Women are taught to be quiet and meek, subdued. They should pitch their words in low, neutral, friendly tones. But not too low. And certainly not rough. Women should be quiet, but also sultry, when they speak. Women who are loud are brassy or honking. They’re shrews and harridans. Scolds. All of these words, and very gendered epithets, have very negative connotations; very rarely do I encounter a woman with a loud, booming voice being discussed in neutral terms. Because women aren’t supposed to be that way. Women who say ‘NO’ deep from the diaphragm so the whole train can hear it aren’t supposed to exist.

In defense courses for women, the point of the voice exercise in part is to get women to start projecting, to use their voices as weapons, to counteract that socialisation to be quiet and meek and little and unassuming. I’ve been socialised that way; I still try to pitch my voice low and quiet, cringe when people say I’m too loud, fuss when people say my voice is ‘obnoxious.’ And don’t think I didn’t notice that when I presented as male, people didn’t mind that I was loud and had a rough voice. When I took my first self defense course, I could barely say ‘no’ at neutral volume. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No! No!’ My voice cracked and soared but it didn’t get any louder. I felt hoarse and strained. And I hated the sound of it, that loud, brash, aggressive sound, that ‘no.’ When it finally exploded out of me, when I shouted ‘NO!’ so loudly that the glasses on the table rattled, I was ashamed of myself.

I wasn’t supposed to sound like that, not as a woman. People who sound like that take up space. People who sound like that are aggressive and scary. They’re not nice and friendly like women should be. The first time I shouted ‘HEY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING’ in a crowded public place at someone who was doing something that was definitely not ok, people paid attention all right. They turned and laughed. They pointed at me. They snickered nervously at me like those people on the train. I rattled my mouth out of nervousness; I got loud and insistent and repetitive until a police officer showed up…

…because I was making a disturbance. It was only then that people paid attention to the thing that I was shouting about, when I pointed it out to the cop, and the cop said I ‘did the right thing’ by speaking up, but that didn’t explain why I felt so bad afterwards. It didn’t explain why people snickered and laughed at me when I finally left, pointed; ‘look, there’s that person who was being all bitchy.’ It didn’t explain why, when I encountered one of those bystanders later and we were formally introduced, he said ‘I thought you were crazy, carrying on in public like that.’

Carrying on. Giving voice is carrying on. It’s not allowed. People act like it’s women’s fault for not being louder and more aggressive when they’re being assaulted or they witness an assault. It’s not their fault. It’s the result of years of socialisation and training. It’s years of being reminded that you need to be quiet, not take up space, not draw attention to yourself. You can’t overcome that in a single day of self defense training for women.