Germany finally discusses every-day sexism – a long overdue debate
Growing up in a kind of paradise, in a little village with caring parents, I had quite a sheltered childhood. Sex and love had always been openly discussed in my family and even though my mother gave up her job when I and my three years younger sister were born she always brought a feminist perspective into my life. From early childhood on she encouraged my learning and my quite early ideas of having a career. First I thought about becoming a teacher – I loved my teacher in primary school like a second mother – than a doctor, finally a journalist. Neither my father nor my mother had tertiary education nonetheless they pursued me and my sister to reach a university degree.
My parents made me confident in dealing with life – and with men. I have always been quite a romantic woman, adoring the men I have loved and lived with but kept my freedom at the same time. So speaking about sexism is not about hatred or blaming of men, it is simply a criticism of something that is underlining our society and that is often concealed even though we claim to be an open society.
Sexism and unwanted attention is something girls have to deal with at quite a young age. Even for me, growing up in a time without ubiquitous media, becoming an adult meant to compare myself with role models magazines like the German “Bravo” or even worse “Bravo Girl” contributed. Questions like “How to keep your boyfriend?” are branded into our minds from the first time we open such a magazine. Of course young girls are interested in boys and they are as bad in staring at the other sex, comparing their looks and attributes. Boys and girls are not so different in that behaviour. But what makes a difference, even though I do not want to deny boys feel the media pressure as well, girls are far more often defined by their body and looks, than their brain and learning. If you are a pretty girl you soon find out that there are (male) teachers in school you can impress more with a sweet smile than the correct answer to a question.
That alone is an interesting experience for a young girl. I know I sometimes felt flattered by it and thought it weird at other times. Of course I used a sweet smile often enough to get what I wanted. But can you really blame a thirteen year old girl for that?
When I was in my early adolescence I did live in some fairy tale dream land, still believed that women in our time could easily achieve as much as men and that the times when women were hindered in their career only for being what they were born as were long over. Sexual abuse was something you read about but thought far away. Until for the first time you are touched without asking and not left alone when begging for it.
My first kiss was a complete shock. It was my first big party and I was only allowed to go because a two year older friend had promised my parents to look after me. Almost fourteen years old I did not touch alcohol nor did I have any experience with boys, apart from holding hands with childhood flirts. And so I kept away from all those drunken guys and instead started to talk to the nice one who at that time had just been dumped by his girlfriend and after two or three beers started to cry. I was simply a nice girl and when he rested his head on my shoulder I did not refuse. But touching was definitely out of my comfort zone and as he did so I pushed him away. But instead of accepting that he moved even closer and kissed me. And it was horrible. He was slightly drunk and slobby, tasted of beer and smoke and forced his tongue into my mouth even though I tried to push him away. I started to hit him and slapped him so hard that my hand left a mark on his cheek and only then did he let me go. I cried afterwards, more of anger than of shame. And I was completely fed up with boys for quite some time, because this boy had not only forced his kiss upon me but had at the same time destroyed an ideal: the idea of the one first perfect kiss. It took some time to understand that the first kiss did not matter and there were many other wonderful experiences to come.
Something like that does not destroy a woman for life, it is nothing I could not have dealt with. But it is something a woman should not have to deal with. Sexist comments can be bothering but being touched without having agreed to it sends a shiver down my spine every time it happens. It is alright if a man flirts with you, perhaps touches your hand or takes you into his arm even. Yes I give you that, dear men, it is not always easy to tell if a woman is interested or not. But the moment a woman nicely says “please don’t” or brushes away your hand, it has nothing to do with her being shy and wanting to be persuaded, it has to do with her being polite. Often enough those signs of discomfort are simply ignored.
Bad enough if that happens in a bar where you can perhaps blame the mood or the alcohol, but these things happen in my professional life as well. Often enough I have interview partners, most of them the generation 50 plus, who put their arms around my shoulder, press me to their body and parade around the young journalist boasting in front of their colleagues. That can sometimes be quite charming, a bit of a helpless attempt to get into the good graces of a journalist. And in these situations I find it often hard to blame those men, especially since most of them retreat when being told of.
But it is wrong, since no one would treat a man like that. It is wrong because it is disrespectful. It signals that these men believe women to be beneath themselves, it signals that they do not think of women as an equal they could talk to at eyesight but someone they can simply charm into their good graces.
What angers me most is that this disrespectful attitude is common among journalists as well – and not only male ones. There are always female colleagues who boast about which politician or powerful man has flirted with them during an interview instead of wondering why those men thought it necessary to flirt instead of simply answering the questions. And all the comments I heard about the newspaper journalist from the magazine “Stern” who in a portrait about the FDP (German Liberal Party) politician Rainer Brüderle wrote about his sexualized attire towards female journalists – those comments simply made me retch.
One of the most used terms was: She could have simply gone away. So that is what should happen? Not the man keeping his hands by himself, but the woman walking away? If women would always walk away when they are treated like that they could simply stay at home. What a paradise for chauvinists!
In certain circles – and I definitely include journalists – there still certain attributes that are associated with men and others with women. I studied political science but often enough during my education at journalism school and in my work at editorial staffs I was ordered to do the soft topics. Politics and economic topics at the same time were passed on to male colleagues because they were men and so were more likely affine to that kind of things. And this was openly said so. I hate to do soft topics: Little puppy dogs, baby toddlers grinning in the camera. Yes, they are sweet, yes they are completely lovely, but not my area. I find it incredibly boring and I am really bad in writing about such stuff. That is the only time a stare at my computer and simply do not know where to start. Give me complicated political questions and I write like a machine. It inspires me and I am good at it (not my saying, by the way). But still often enough I hear the argument: Let the men do politics.
And I will not even start the discussion why men are still better paid as women, raise in higher positions even though women have better education and better degrees or why it is still a problem for many women to combine raising children and having a career.
So what do I want? One simple thing: An open mind. No matter if man or woman: If we would start to respect each other as human beings no matter what gender – that would make the greatest impact on society.