On Having It All, and on Street Harassment

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe,

I would love to know what your thoughts are on the issue of how some women feel they need to choose between having a successful career or being married and having a family. I know this may seem like it should be a historical issue, but from my experience and conversations with other women my age I feel it is persisting.

I am in my late twenties and have been focusing on furthering my education for the past number of years. This seems to have affected my ability to form new relationships for many reasons. My lack of time to socialize is the obvious one, but there also seems to be an underlying problem that I can’t quite place my finger on. Some people have told me that men may be threatened by my intelligence, drive and success, but any man that would think that way I wouldn’t want to be with anyway. Others feel it is a lack of focus: I need to be clear to the universe what I want rather than floating through life waiting for someone to come along.

I am content in my life and the direction I have taken, but would also like to meet someone and start a family. I also want to maintain a good career and enjoy working hard towards that goal, but feel that society is telling me I have to choose. I can’t “have it all”, or so they say. I hate to admit that I am starting to think “they” may be right but I am frustrated by this “choice” being forced on me.

Do you think this is a thought that many women have? Have you yourself felt that this is a conundrum you have to deal with? I know this may not seem directly related to sex and sexuality, but for me it is. I feel like there are a lot fewer men who would have this thought.

Dear Reader,

Ah, the “having it all” question. Of course there are a lot fewer men who think about it – it’s not required of them. Success for men is based on being a financial success, whereas women have to be successful career women, wives, mothers, sexual partners and homemakers as well as embodying all of the traits of “good” women, to do with adhering to patriarchal ideals of beauty and behaviour – oh, and without ever showing any of the work that goes into any of it, because that’s so “unseemly”.

And of course, within the workplace, women have to work harder to be taken seriously, to rise up to positions of power – and we still don’t get paid equally for it.

By the way, that whole “women get paid 77 cents to a man’s dollar” statistic? Can we just clarify; the 77 cents goes to white women only. Black women get 60 cents to a man’s dollar, Native American/Asian Pacific Islander women get 58 cents and Latina women get 55 cents. Racism AND misogyny, bingo!

This is important, because if we’re talking about the “having it all” question, we’re talking about how the definition of womanhood is tied up with patriarchal ideals of motherhood and marriage as well as professionalism, and within that lies a certain element of classism and racism, in that even the opportunity to “have it all” is limited to women with a certain amount of privilege.

And the “all” – who gets to define that, anyway? I know a lot of women who would have some serious notes and amendments and alternatives.

You asked me if I’ve encountered this issue. The truth is that I do face it, but Jeebus help me if I’m not resisting all the way. Because I didn’t sign up to the terms, and personally, I don’t know if the “having it all” lifestyle is the one that would make me happy, even if perfectly realised.

Reading your question, I thought of Rebecca Solnit’s title essay in her new book, The Mother of All Questions. In it, she rebukes our cultural obsession with seeking out “happiness” over all else, and the assumption that this “having it all” formula of marriage, kids, sex, financial success will result in happiness for everyone – when we already know that loads of people have all those things and are bloody miserable.

It also doesn’t make room for people whose “all” could look very different; the people who seek out different forms of fulfilment. Solnit notes that:

“Other eras and cultures often asked different questions from the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What’s your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live your life according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask these other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our lives can be.”

Maybe it’s time to start asking those questions of ourselves again.

But as for you, my dear, if you know that you want the career and the relationship and the family, then you’re right in that it does demand a certain amount of effort that we need to stop overlooking. Meeting someone in your late twenties onwards is just not as easy as it is when you’re younger; with work and commitments, our time is taken, and the circle of people we socialise with is usually narrower than when you’re younger.

So it does require a bit of focused effort, and that’s okay. If you think a romantic relationships is as important to your fulfilment as your education and career, then it’s only natural to take the search seriously. Just waiting for it to happen for fear of seeming pushy is falling into that “hiding the work” trap of “having it all”.

Doing the focused work of finding a partner means doing the usual practical things like joining dating sites and actively using them, and doing sociable things in order to meet more people. But it’s also a focused mindset; making sure that the people you’re dating are comfortable with the idea of potentially having a serious relationship, instead of going for people who are in a fun-loving, no-commitment stage of their lives.

And you’re right; it is also about picking people who are comfortable with and supportive of your intelligence and career, and yes, this may weed out a certain undeserving demographic of your dating pool.

But I will also say – and I say this with love, and from personal experience – be sure you’re not defining yourself solely by your intelligence and professional success. These are amazing, incredible things – and not things that necessarily make for a great partner.

On a day-to-day basis, being kind and empathetic and funny and communicative will make you a much more desirable partner than being a great asset to the office.  I’ve both been the person who expected others to be so impressed by me being a smart person that I didn’t work on being a good person, and I’ve dated people like that – and my god, they’re exhausting.

Defining yourself by one trait also makes it seem like a priority you need in a partner, and that might not be the case. I’m officially an academia-addicted nerd, but some of the best people I’ve dated hated school so deeply.

I’m also a weird creative type, but am figuring out that being around people with more grounded, “adult” jobs can make me a lot less self-indulgent about it. By too rigidly defining ourselves, we might miss out on the glorious complements and contrasts that people with different personal strengths have to offer.

Basically, my dear, stop trying to stick to limited definitions of who you are and what you should have. Figure out the “all” you want to be, and the “all” you can offer a partner and the world, before figuring out the “all” you want to have.

And then, if you change your mind, let go. Let go of it “all” and hold onto yourself instead.

***

Dear Roe,

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by a prominent, Black American philosopher. He posed a question to the majority white audience: “How do you raise a child in a racist society?” Unsurprisingly, no one could answer him. Mortifyingly, most people spent the time reassuring themselves that they weren’t racist.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this question myself, and it has led into another: how do you raise a child in misogynistic society? At present, I am living in a different place from where I was born and where I grew up. I live in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Over 300 hundred languages are spoken. Women wear headscarves, hijabs, sometimes burkas, saris, braids and cowboy boots. It’s definitely lively, often exciting. One of the most powerful memories for me has been the feast day after Ramadan last year, families leaving the mosque after early morning prayer, all dressed up beautifully in new clothes as they passed by the Catholic cathedral. 

But there’s another part about living somewhere like this. A much darker side, that doesn’t just appear at dusk, but is all the more prevalent thereafter. The abuse, intimidation and even assault that I experience on a daily basis is having a serious effect on my being. I’ve been followed home at night. I’ve had men gather in groups staring, hissing shouting at me in languages I don’t understand. I’ve been threatened to be raped after I told a man to stop shouting at me. I’ve been told to watch myself when I told man to go fuck himself after he spent a good few minutes staring at my vagina and hissing.

Last week a man nearly fell into me he was so preoccupied looking between my legs. I’ve been trapped, physically by men on trains. I’ve been followed across the city. A few months back a man pushed his genitals into me on the train. Once I had the cheek to read a book while on public transport and a man spent the journey shoulders hunched, arms crossed snarling at me. It was a Maeve Binchy; maybe he took issue with her girl-about-town experiences or the author’s take on everyday nuances in Irish culture. I’ve had to cover up the windows of my apartment after a man who lives in my building told me he liked to watch me while I’m in there. 

The effect has taken its toll. My body is tense, numbed. I avoid certain men around the city and on public transport. I’m becoming less tolerant. I even find myself listening to viewpoints that I would never even think to entertain before. I feel ashamed about this. I stop before venturing out at night. I change my plans frequently. I met a lovely group of people a few months back who asked me to go for drinks after a dinner but I refused because I knew I would have to travel home later than usual. 

So, what I would like to know, if you can help, is what do I do? Do I continue shouting at those men even though the threat of them hurting me is real? Do I stop wearing dresses that stop above the knee? Do I make sure I’m back in my apartment by 8pm? Do I move? I’m not an angry, inward person. I love people. I love men, I love talking with them, fucking them. I don’t want to be more afraid of them than I already am, more than I have to be.

Dear Reader,

You sent me this letter a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been avoiding it, for several reasons. I’ve felt a bit emotionally burned out the past couple of weeks and reading your question made me sad and slightly panicky as I viscerally (and literally, in my life) felt that constant vigilance that you, and I, and so many women have to embody as we simply move through our lives.

It also made me angry at everything you and I and so many women have endured, continue to endure, will have to endure, during a couple of weeks when I was already angry at the world at large (aren’t we all these days), and at myself, for struggling with some things I thought I had figured out already.

And your letter made me feel overwhelmed, and like a failure, because you wrote to me looking for answers. But when it comes to making rape culture less goddamn terrible and giving you advice on how to feel better when so many people are conspiring to make you feel awful and scared and objectified and imprisoned, I just don’t have an answer for you that can neatly fit into an 800-word answer. I just don’t have the answer.

But maybe that’s the exact issue: I’m trying to answer a question about rape culture and you’re trying to solve it, and we just can’t. Because we haven’t caused it, or contributed to it, and every time we try take action against it, it morphs and evolves so that we’re somehow still on the receiving end of it.

Rape culture is not our problem to solve, just like racism is not people of colour’s problem to solve, or homophobia is not gay people’s problem to solve, or any kind of oppression is not the oppressed people’s problem to solve.

Those in power are the ones responsible for confronting and fixing their own bigotry, and yet somehow they’ve convinced us to spend our lives doing the emotional and literal work to solve it – and make us feel like failures even though the system is designed so we could never succeed on our own.

We’re being told to stretch ourselves towards breaking point, and then are blamed for breaking.

Sure, we can take action and do work and raise awareness and fight for our rights – these things are vital. But it takes power listening and responding and shifting for the world to really change. And it takes them so goddamn long, which requires us to keep fighting. No wonder you’re angry, and no wonder I’m feeling overwhelmed.

But I’m glad you wrote. Because it’s also us who are going to catch each other when we’re stumbling, and remind each other to keep going, keep fighting, keep showing those in power that we’re not going to sit quietly and take this shit anymore, and we’re going to keep resisting and making noise until they change.

I do, worry, however, that you’re taking your understandable and justified rage at patriarchy and targeting it at a certain race/ethnicity/religious demographic of men. There’s a lurking intolerance towards one demographic of men that’s emerging, and that you’re aware of, and that is an issue. Because this shit, this misogyny, this rampant personification of rape culture and patriarchy, is not unique to one demographic of man.

When I lived in Ireland, every single instance of physical, emotional and sexual violence inflicted upon me was by white men. Now that I live in San Francisco, the catcalling and casual sexism and the stalking and crime that I’ve experienced has been by men of many different races and ethnicities.

It’s simple geography; San Francisco is more diverse than Dublin. You are also living in a diverse city. But we’re programmed to see white men as the default, and so notice incidents more when they’re by men of colour, or by men who are frequently demonised by politicians and the media, such as Muslim men.

This temptation to blame one demographic is the result of a larger fear; it’s a desire for control, and a tangible outlet for an omnipresent issue. If we can blame specific people, then we can avoid them, or take out our anger on them – make the problem seem more manageable.

But it’s not our problem to manage, and managing misogyny with bigotry isn’t going to help you, or anyone.

Don’t change your clothes or stop moving throughout the world. Despite what rape-culture apologists will say, you cannot change this. We cannot protect ourselves from patriarchy, only fight against it and learn coping mechanisms to help us endure.

I think what you need right now is an outlet, somewhere to take these feelings of anger and helplessness and tension, so that they have somewhere to go, so they don’t just burn you up from the inside. Find feminist organisations so that you can find allies, and take action; the act of doing and seeing even small forms of progress will help you feel like you’ve taken some control back, and will help stave off the helplessness.

When it comes to the immediate issue of street harassment, a similar action-based approach may help you feel more powerful. Groups like Hollaback and similar campaigns help name and shame catcallers, and may be a good way to turn your horrible experiences into a way to warn and protect other women.

Also engage with groups that promote multiculturalism in your city, so that you can learn about the other people in your city and understand the particular challenges they’re facing, so you feel less like they’re the enemy, instead of a diverse group of people (a select few of whom are misogynists, like all groups).

And don’t stop reaching out to women in your life, online, women like me. We’re exhausted too, and overwhelmed, and angry – and we’re the ones who understand, and will encourage you to keep going. Just like you will do for us when we’re stumbling. Because none of us can get left behind if we never let go of each other’s hands.


Do you have a question for Roe? Submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

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Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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