By Charlotte Goodger
*T.W - article contains mention of harassment and homophobia*
Online anonymity is a wonderful thing for all those who are chronically averse to conflict - i.e. me - and there is nowhere that demonstrates that better than university confessions pages. If you’re unfamiliar, most universities have a Facebook page where students can make anonymous posts. It’s a bit of a double edged sword, if I’m honest.
As much as it is used to protect identities when people seek help from the community, it is used for a lot of arguing for argument’s sake. People say whatever they like because they don’t personally have to face the consequences of what they say. It’s a tale as old as the internet, but, on the whole, it’s a good thing for people like me - mouthy in private, shy in public.
I decided to take advantage of this platform properly when I was struck - under the influence of New Year’s Eve prosecco number 3 - by the entrepreneurial spirit.
I had the idea for a womxn’s gym - of course accessible to trans and non-binary folk - in the student area near my university.
Why a womxn’s gym? If this isn’t a question that you are asking me now, then you are either far less incensed by the idea than a great many of my fellow students, or you understand why I had the idea. I am not the fittest person in the world and my average-to-large build means that my interest in exercise comes and goes, but I can be a committed gym goer. I have taught myself a few techniques, carefully and methodically, including squats and running form.
Both at home and at university, I have spent entire gym sessions being stared at by men conservatively three times my age. Disturbing now, but I have been going to the gym since the age of 14, and this started soon after. More recently, when I was thankfully (but not obviously) an adult, I have twice had men come up to me, watch me work out, and then physically move my legs to what they see as the correct position. Without asking. They were wrong, both times.
From the number of comments on said post that came to my defence, I can see that the experience is not unique to me. Staring, laughter and comments (particularly for womxn who are looking to get in shape or work out while accommodating a disability) seem to be commonplace. Using weights earns very little but stares that say, in no uncertain terms, stick to cardio. But there are also more sinister patterns of touching without consent and even being followed to and from the gym.
However, what is perhaps even more disturbing than that are the responses that came from some of the male students. More than one compared the existence of a womxn’s gym to racial segregation in the United States. Many more took issue with the seriousness of the harassment that womxn can face at the gym, with others saying that this situation does nothing to help the men that feel uncomfortable in the gym. The implication being that trying to create a safe space for womxn to exercise is somehow discriminatory.
So the question is - why are womxn constantly having to justify their experiences?
Surely, telling stories of what we have experienced should be enough? This is not really about using the gym, but this online encounter illustrates my point nicely. A womxn’s gym would take no resources from male students. In fact, it would likely free up gym spaces if fewer womxn were using the main university gym, and would offer a space to exercise in a low-stress, low-pressure, inclusive environment.
It’s a resource that our collective experiences have told us that we need. So, what is the problem here?
It is incredible to me that womxn have to justify their experiences of just existing. When I spoke to my parents about this, they both persisted in coming up with excuses as to why I was wrong to feel this way. They felt that I was biased, that I wanted to see the world in this way and was therefore not giving anyone disagreeing with me a chance to explain their point of view. This is not an accusation that I have had levelled at me before, and it took me by surprise.
Where does this expectation come from that I, or indeed anyone, owe people a justification of our experiences?
It is not just in this instance that women's experiences are often denied. I also see this as an LGBTQ woman. I do not deny that most LGBTQ people experience this across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, having to justify their existence. I also know that people of colour experience this constant scrutiny as well, but I will not claim to speak for another’s experience. I will only comment on what I know that we face, as LGBTQ women.
Where I see this manifest itself most obviously is in the expectation for womxn to have children. The additional expectation for womxn to have children within a traditional family has led to yet another reason for us to have to justify existing as we are. I don’t particularly want children, and I find myself constantly having to justify that. But not being able to easily have children in the course of a relationship, and being happy with that - that seems to boggle the mind of anyone who hears about it.
Mostly, when detailing any of these experiences, we are faced with the question: 'are you sure'?....” Again, this implies that we cannot be relied upon to deliver a valid picture of our own experiences. I find myself having to defend the need to defend myself. It is totally exhausting.
The example that I have used may seem relatively inconsequential, but that in itself is baffling. The level of outrage that such a thing as having a separate gym for womxn - optional and extra to what already exists - demonstrates my point perfectly. We have to defend ourselves and desire to be safe. More comments on my initial post immediately began demanding concessions - opening to womxn only for 2 days a week, having womxn-only classes and opening the gym to everyone. It was this response to a simple measure to allow womxn to feel safe while exercising - a rare commodity these days - that made me see just how much we are expected to concede for the feelings of others.
It seems to me that we need to start speaking our minds more, not being afraid to demand to feel safe while doing the things we enjoy. It may well be met with this sort of criticism and scrutiny, but such criticism aims to shut down any objections that we might have to current ways of the world. When we speak our minds, we refuse to be shut down for talking about our experiences.