I recently shared a conversation with a woman who told me that when men hit on or harass her, sometimes the only thing she can say to make them stop is that she has a boyfriend. By coincidence, later that day I overheard another woman say that often the only way to make her boyfriend stop petitioning her for sex is to tell him she’s on her period.
To learn something about the invisible logic of patriarchy, simply listen closely to the strategies women deploy in order to refuse men. If “I have a boyfriend” is a tried and proven way of getting men to stop harassing, then boyfriends—i.e., men—are accorded respect, and how a woman is treated does not necessarily hinge on her own wishes.
So whether a boyfriend really exists, women often fly a boyfriend flag high in order to turn away men in public spaces, but for those who return home to an actual boyfriend, the flag is of no use. To navigate this more intimate space, it seems that one way women can turn their boyfriends down without fear of retribution is to declare they’re menstruating, and here again, one can deduce the twisted logic of patriarchy. Women are anatomically dirty and undesirable at least once a month, an idea Hollywood movies regularly reflect and promote.
To recap, not only is it apparent that women are generally less respected than men, judging from the excuses many offer their intimate male partners, their desirability is somewhat contingent and fleeting. Moreover, while a man’s desire is sufficient justification for him to ask a woman for a date or sex, irrespective of whether the space is public or private, a woman’s desire to be left alone needs justification.
In 1986, Marie Shear famously wrote in her review of A Feminist Dictionary that “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” and my sense is a good many people read this quote as an inflammatory provocation or an exaggeration born from anger. It is neither. If part of what it means to be a person is to be regarded as the final authority in matters related to one’s own desire, then women are not yet regarded as people.