Student house parties consist of a few very reliable things. There will always be the tinned beers, the cheap bottles of wine, the loud voices, the noise enough to irritate the neighbours who have to rise early, as well as smokers in the garden and the throngs of people swelling on staircases and bedrooms, and also the kitchen that has become a den for alcoholic creations that are so toxic it harms your health even to hear what’s in them.
A house party I was at recently seemed to have all these correct ingredients in place, and amongst the drunken fugue I was somehow managing to make conversation with two friends, when all of a sudden we heard a piece of gossip come breathing down the corridor like mist.
‘Have you heard about Sophie and Joe?’ said the passing informant on her way to spreading the message to a few choice friends.
‘No, what’s happened?’
‘Apparently they got in a fight again. I don’t really know how bad it was but apparently they did.’
‘Urgh, again?’ said my friend. ‘I swear they fight all the time.’
‘I don’t think he’s a nice guy,’ said the other. ‘I think he treats her badly.’
I added that I had heard the same things from different people, and left the conversation more or less at that. A few minutes later, however, I found myself walking into the kitchen at precisely the same moment that this couple were emerging from the garden. They were obviously disgruntled. The boy, Joe, walked straight past me and into the front of the house to disappear into the crowds and sounds, which left me unavoidably facing his girlfriend, Sophie. It was one of those moments where neither of us could help but say hello and make small talk. We were forced into the inevitable exchange:
‘Hey Benjie, how’s it going?’
‘Hi, yeah good thanks, how about you?’
I grow more disillusioned with this greeting every time something like this happens, because in the same moment as when she told me she was well, it was obvious that she was no such thing. Although the kitchen was dark I could see the tint of mascara solved with tears just beneath her eyelids, and by her stained cheeks was a lip that quivered incessantly like a leaf in the wind. She was clearly very upset after fighting with her boyfriend, and it was so obvious that it was painful to even be near her.
So there we both were, standing in the kitchen of this house with the party going on around us, with her in a distressed state and me unsure exactly what to do. I didn’t quite know her well enough to ask about what had obviously just happened. She knew that she looked upset, and she could see that I had inwardly acknowledged it, but instead of making any kind of outward remark about it she immediately asked me how my course was going. She didn’t even miss a beat about it. From stepping inside with tears on her face to asking me about my course perhaps 10 seconds had passed, and yet it was so seamless that it looked as if it had been staged.
We discussed how the new term was going for two or three long, painful minutes, while she unsubtly swept tears from her eyes and smiled as if pretending she was genuinely content to talk about something as meaningless as my difficulties confronting The Canterbury Tales. People passing us saw that she was upset too, and occasionally someone would gesture to her and pass a quiet comment on the other side of the room. Then after the conversation reached a convenient paused, we both made our excuses and walked away.
How strange, I thought, that when this girl was in such a bad place she could only make the most trivial of small talk to me, someone who had no vested interest in her relationship. Was it that she genuinely just wanted to talk about something else? Or was it because she didn’t know what else to do?
Unfortunately I had seen this many times before. The couple in question had the kind of relationship that was so familiar to me I had stopped thinking of it as anything out of the ordinary; they were both fiercely insecure, and their relationship was founded on fear rather than love. As a result the boy was angry and controlling, and the girl was scared, passive and reluctant. But they both clung to each other as if, were they to let go, their respective worlds would cave in and their worst fears would be realised. Which, then, was better – for them to remain together and live in mutual fear, or for them to separate and live in individual fear? In all honesty, neither is the better option with both of them in such perpetually chaotic states of mind. Together they assure each other’s slavery, and apart they assure their own.
But the thing I had to consider most from my brief conversation with Sophie was my initial reaction to it. I automatically found myself jumping on her side and feeling ready to find her boyfriend and tell him what a terrible person he was for treating her in such a way. It felt natural because, when I first realised I was a feminist (what a strange thing to say, true though it is), I would instinctively see only the suffering of women. Feminism was founded on the notion that women were oppressed, and although men would ultimately benefit from the end of the capitalist patriarchy, the movement itself focussed on females rather than males. Because of this my instincts were to defend Sophie raucously and attack Joe – but I realised very quickly that this would be counter-intuitive.
Now let’s be clear: it is absolutely right that we see women as the people who need liberation the most urgently. Women are 70% more likely than men to suffer from depression, and if that fact alone doesn’t make you a feminist then perhaps nothing will (though there’s a lot of contention about this stat, specifically to do with women reporting depression much more than men, but there is still something serious in it. Link to an article addressing male issues at the bottom of the page). It is obvious that the psychological burden of prejudice weighs by far the most heavily on women. It stems from perceptions of how women ‘should’ act, how they ‘should’ look, how they present themselves sexually and so on. Even just being talked over in conversation by a man is suggestive of women being second-class. Our society is so pockmarked with subconscious sexism that sometimes I wonder how girls even brave going out at night.
But what must be understood is that there can be no yin without an equally big yang; in other words, the suffering of women is guaranteed by the suffering of men. The reason Sophie was in such a state is because Joe was in an equally negative state of mind, being driven as he evidently was by insecurities and the fear and anger that stem from them. The difference is that Joe could then act more or less how he wanted without the fear of being judged, while Sophie could not. That is why we talked about this term’s modules rather than her suffering, because she did not feel that she could do anything else. So while the immediate pain felt by both these two people was equal, the suffering resulting from it was far greater for Sophie because she was trapped by social pressures. But the immediate pain, the cause of the suffering, was both equal and mutually assured. Sophie and Joe were frustrated because they could not connect with one another. It is no good to see things in black and white, because the black guarantees the white, and the white guarantees the black. Women suffer because men suffer, and men suffer because women suffer.
So in the immediate aftermath of my conversation with Sophie, as the couple went about drinking their anger away in different parts of the house, the best thing that could have been done was to bring about a mutual reconciliation, rather than to attack one as opposed to the other.
Of course this did not happen, and I left very soon after.