The doodled illustrations for this blog were provided by Ellie-Rae O’Shaughnessy: you can read her profile and see more examples of her work here, or follow her Instagram @elliesdoodlez.
The first time I saw sex was probably the scene in Gavin and Stacey’s wedding when their friends shag then high five. Mum had let my little brother and I stay up until 10 to watch it – clearly it was an exceptional episode from which she could not bear to be parted to put us to bed. Suddenly there was bodies and bumping. Mum gasped, laughed, then covered our eyes. “So rude!” she yelped. “That was people having sex.”
So it was.
But it didn’t look that fun (bit of a stretch) so I wasn’t tempted for a few more years. In fact, despite my mother’s assurances that boys were not always scary, I was resolutely void of Boy until I was about 16 when I went for my first awkward coffee.
“Isn’t she half Sri Lankan?” one boy asked the lucky recipient. “Heard they’re hairy.”
I did not want him to see me naked. He would think I was ugly.
Perhaps I could laugh that one off though. It was harder to laugh off being constantly told that I was fuckable for an Asian. To laugh off the boy who lied until he could fit himself inside of me for the first time. To laugh off being masturbated at in the street with my friend. To laugh off the man pretending to be our tour guide to take us into a dark place to cup our breasts and grope us and scream his erection into our backs.
Thank god; despite the furry, too-Sri Lankan body that I lug around me under the guise of exotic femininity, boys still want me!
Boys want my friends too. We are so lucky. A boy forced one of them to suck him off: he told everyone in the school how bad she was. Another girl blacked out on holiday then awoke hours later on the side of the road with blood in her pants. One of them was forced into a threesome when travelling. Another was seeing a boy only to have him continuously, secretly remove the condom.
That was a brief – but heavy – introduction to the loud patriarchy, by which I mean the state of affairs with which we can all admit to be acquainted. Everyone knows a boy who did something dodgy or a girl who had something dodgy done to her. We can discuss these issues frankly because assault and abuse are banned even within our sexy society.
Now let me introduce its low-key counterpart: the quiet patriarchy.
This patriarchy is otherwise known as ‘boys will be boys; or ‘that is just what boys are like at your age’. The one that calls itself a society that is ‘liberal’ or ‘expressive’. Truthfully, female liberation has been at least partly stunted by that which claims to be its founder: our sexual awakening. The dark side of our ‘we love sex’ ethos is that misogyny is justified under the performance of our casualness.
Apparently, we are complex creatures. Social creatures too. In my experience, however, rarely are we casual ones. And yet, we pretend that we are. We pretend not to care when we are led on and then left. Something about our sexy society tells us that if we are not aloof, we are desperate. It ignores the spectrum separating these extremes.
Thus, our mischievous patriarchy permeates our daily interactions. We form relationships, scribble feeble promises on others in felt-tip and take no heed about whether or not it will wash off. Sexy society is our glorious tip-ex. You have to say you want to date someone to sleep with them (quote from a boy referring to one of my close friends. Three guesses as to the context).
DISCLAIMER: girls can be dicks within this system too.
SECOND DISCLAIMER: but this is rarer and often more condemned within social groups.
But how, really, does this come about? Something adheres many girls to boys who treat them badly: not all boys are culpable of this callousness. Some of my most treasured friends are boys. They are sensitive and mature. And – controversial I know – many girls are complicit in the patriarchy; they even perpetuate it.
I have thought long and hard about this conundrum, and something of which I am often reminded are the films that I watched as a child. Almost systematically, I would smile at the underdog girl who emerges a victor because an attractive boy perceives something in her that is delicate and different. She is a Good Girl! Suddenly, the world comprehends, with tears of relief, that our lonely freak is worthy of love and respect. Her virtues are manifested only in the touch of the popular (aka disliked but good looking) basketball player whose past infidelities are revoked now that he has found an unsuspecting damsel to covet. Hallelujah.
We are raised to crave the validation of a boy who treats women badly. Having one by our side is a testimony to our femininity and power. This is the twisted irony arising from our sexual liberation. After all, we cannot always be Stacey’s bridesmaid in need of a no-strings attached quickie, although we would like to be. Sooner or later, we must acknowledge that the sexy system is a trap. Sometimes casual is fine. But sometimes, in lieu of admitting our hurt, we high five those who humiliate, subordinate or betray us. ‘It’s fine,’ we laugh. ‘It’s cool.’ And the bad boy lives on, vindicated, to strike again. Embracing the system is less degrading than professing our vulnerability.
One of my best friends, a prolific one-night stander, admitted to me that after every encounter she feels sick. ‘I do it because I have been used for sex so many times now. At least if I take a boy home, it is something that I can control.’
Many boys grasp our engrained idolisation of the Good Girl, and use it to get what they want. ‘Because they can’, as it was eloquently put by one of my closest (male) friends. I am startled by our generation’s systematic refusal to admit what this is; misogyny. Consistent lying and mistreatment for a prize at the cost of someone else’s emotions is exceptional selfishness and unfounded superiority.
Aged 14, I was holding my mother’s hand in a busy Sri Lankan street. A man approached and, without warning, put his hands up my skirt and cupped my crotch. I wrote about this experience in a previous blog a few years ago. It was received with shock, repulsion and empathy. I think about it when boys touch me now. I think about the humiliation, the sad intimacy, and my startled impotency.
Mostly, people would not tolerate physical assault within our sexy society. But in all honesty, it did not affect me more than being emotionally mistreated does. Gaslighting often scorches just as much as unwanted touch. And yet such psychological wrongdoings are often dismissed as “you are all just experimenting”, or “boys are still just trying to work out what they want”. We must hush our sadness and move on. Making a scene is so unsexy!
Lastly let us consider something slyer: the role of girls.
Somewhere in this tempest of expectations and confusion, some women began to believe their own inferiority. They believed it until they defined themselves by the male gaze. Until other girls were competition, and boys the prize. Friendships with other girls became a strategic tools in the bid for male attention. Conventionally attractive girls often united, broadcasting their aesthetic friendships on social media to showcase their collective sexual edge. Worse still, they began to sabotage one another’s boy-related prospects to prove that they alone were the ultimate catch.
And for whom? The patriarchy is startlingly irrational. The serial misogynist is coveted, his glory conserved in female admiration.
We cannot blame solely the misogynistic boys. Yes, they are willing actors in a twisted system. But every time we condemn a girl for her appearance, turn a blind eye to a male friend’s misogyny, let jealousy and sexual competition override friendship, flirt more with a boy because he has a girlfriend (the thrill!) or marginalise a girl because she poses a threat, we oil the mechanisms facilitating the quiet patriarchy. We can do fucking better than that.
Many creatives have articulated it a lot better than I have. Please, please, please, irrespective of your gender, watch Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. I would also recommend reading up on third world sexism, which clarifies the processes guiding the patriarchy that would be otherwise unapparent. If you are searching for literature, Meyebela, My Bengali Girlhood by Taslima Nasrin and Desert Flower by Waris Dirie are insightful reads.
Lastly, we must challenge deep-seated habits. Learning to identify signals of the quiet patriarchy is an imperative step in defeating it. This means calling out sexual pressure and manipulation. It means understanding misogynistic signals that can be otherwise difficult to extrapolate from ‘they’re just stressed’ or ‘it’s a phase’. It means acknowledging when you are being gaslighted, or when a friend is being deceived. It means rejecting misogynistic behaviours irrespective of whether the perpetrator is someone whom we cherish.
Most importantly, overcoming the system means female unity. In relinquishing our perception that validation arises from male appreciation, the sexy system’s grasp on our behaviour is slackened. We can support one another. Our love for our best friends can become a love for womankind. We do not need to compete for the top spots on the bad boy’s arm; that is merely social validation, not validation of who we are. We cannot coerce ourselves into approving of everyone, nor can we demand that every woman approves of us. We can, however, acknowledge our common situation, recognising that we are all exposed to the same pressures. I truly believe that we are closer than ever to gender equality in our part of the world. However, the final obstacle is yet to be vanquished. This can only be resolved via a celebration of our achievements unrelated to our sexual endeavours. Fierce celebration of this kind must be unsuperficial; it must be driven purely by our awakening to the fact that we have, for too long, encouraged constricting sexual ideals that limit our own self-worth. In this way, we strip the misogynist of his fuel; that which rewards him for his behaviour.
As I say, the creatives put it better than I do:
“i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is all you have to be proud of
when you have broken mountains with your wit
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient, or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re beautiful
but because i need you to know
you are more than that”
From ‘milk and honey’ by rupi kaur.