Unusually for nursing school I was at a table with three men (boys?) today. I have had classes with all three and am quite friendly, but one of these young men is someone I count as a really good friend. More than just a contextual 'uni friend' the guy is someone who has said the right thing to me when I was upset, helped me when I wasn't really managing and he's someone I really trust, which is so important to me. I used to have lots of male friends but now I only have a few. I really value this friendship but sometimes I ask myself 'can men and women really be friends?' Not for the usual reasons people ask that question but because of the power imbalance that lets men completely discount what I say because it doesn't suit their reality.
As we sat in class today I was chatting and trading cheerful insults with the table opposite while I waited for you, or one of the others at the table, to tell me what your internet searches had found on our topic. You teased me for me noisiness, asking if we were going to get any work done. At the time I made some snarky remark but I felt like I'd been slapped, and a gut-dropping, chest-tightening sensation of shame. I had been silenced and I wondered if my cheeks were flaming because they sure felt like it.We set about our work and somehow I managed to stay light, and over the half hour or so I managed to get back my equilibrium, but you didn't notice that whenever one of you spoke I hurried to shut up, not wanting to be accused of being the noisy one or talking over any of you or controlling the conversation in any way.When the teacher asked who in our group was going to present our ideas to the class I tried to make eye contact with all or you. I said your name; "you do it" but the three of you refused to meet my eye. This is important - I was comfortable talking for our group but I not only checked if someone wanted to do it, I pushed each of you individually to get up, not wanting to get in the way of a learning opportunity for any of you. None of you declined politely, you all flatly refused to engage in any way, leaving me with choice of pretending I didn't exist and hoping the teacher would pick one of you, or just getting up and doing the job we had to do. As you know, I got up, muttering curses in the direction of the table but as I sat down in front of the class you said, if a quiet voice designed to carry, "she loves it" and again I felt my cheeks flare. Our teacher, who had commented to the class on the fact none of you would make eye contact and that your refusal to volunteer had made it my obligations, then made a joke about you having given up your right to speak when your inaction forced me to volunteer. And that was the point when I nearly lost my cool altogether. I think I spat 'when a woman says no she means no' at you, which wouldn't have made sense to you at the time but what you did was remove the power of choice from me, forcing me to do something against my will, and then despite evidence to the contrary you said that I loved what you had done to me. Again I was humiliated, but because I'm really good at faking it, and because there was a class full of people watching me, waiting for me to talk I pulled myself together, squashed those feelings of betrayal down into a box in my already broken heart and proceeded to comfortably lead the discussion for the next few minutes.I know you didn't mean to upset me or publicly humiliate me but you need to know that your words have weight, your teasing and jokes can trigger nasty feeling from the past and that patterns of speech and behaviour have context in power imbalances. Gender inequality is a real thing and if you can't see it it's because your privilege has allowed your blindness, not because it doesn't exist.
For my part, I'm sorry I can't talk to my friend directly about this and I'm sorry that things said in jest can start an avalanche of feelings that don't all have much to do with the here-and-now. I wonder if I'm brave enough to send this to him?