Arriving at one of Sydney’s popular ‘clothing-optional’ beaches, I am met by Andy. Sauntering towards me, exposed manhood swaying, he extends a hand in greeting. I politely decline a conversation and seek out a private nook among the rocks.
I recently discovered that being topless outdoors is a wonderful sensation; one that many women deprive themselves of out of societally enforced shame, or fear of the leers our bodies so often evoke. Back pressed to the warm granite, I soak in the rays, totally at peace. Half an hour later, there is a rustle in the bushes behind me. I turn to see Andy, concealed among the trees, touching himself. He slinks away, but I feel disappointed, objectified, and more than a bit pissed off. Covering my body, I wonder where I can freely do the things that are so easily afforded to men? Where are our safe spaces?
Over the coming week, at the gym, at concerts, at bars, at the local skatepark, at university, I continue to think about the way that men overshadow me. When a man cuts in front of me in line at a cafe, he is profusely apologetic but states that he simply ‘didn’t see me’. I am reminded of all the times in the corporate, academic and social world that I have been rendered invisible. Rather than simply accepting that this is based on my biological make-up, I conclude that there are two ways of seeing: from within the cis-male gaze that dominates societal constructions of value, and from outside of it. While those of us in the latter camp are used to asserting our visibility, it is an occasional relief when we are in a space where we don’t have to.
The ‘male gaze’ was a term first coined by feminist critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to delineate the way that women are depicted from a masculine point-of-view as objects of male pleasure. While Mulvey predominately considered the gendered asymmetry and patriarchal influence in the arts, the prevalence of the gaze is now widely discussed as infiltrating other areas of society and culture. As Pritchard and Morgan observed in their 2000 essay ‘Privileging the male gaze’, Western culture has adopted an inherent binary ideology in which hierarchical masculinity sits in vertical opposition to femininity, asserting perceived superiority. To further clarify: it is a very specific brand of masculinity that reigns supreme, and it is not only femininity that is de-privileged, but rather all other states of being and being seen.
What I longed for as I left the beach was more than safe spaces for ‘women;’ a tenuous label in an increasingly fluid time of sex, gender and expression. I wanted a space where body and mind could rest in an unguarded state: a simple reprieve from the struggle to be seen at all.
‘It’s heaven on earth!’ a friend tells me, as she refers me to the McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee. As a new resident to Sydney, I am still unfamiliar with its hidden gems. I make my way to the ocean pool tucked into the side of a cliff, and relish in the last ‘female-only’ ocean swimming spot in Australia. Across the lawns and rocky outcrops, bodies of all shapes, colours, ages, and sizes lounge in various states of dress, the space providing a level of comfort and safety not always available on the surrounding tourist beaches.
Operational since 1886, the McIver’s Ladies Baths were granted an exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1995 when Leon Wolk, a male resident of the area, took a complaint before the court. The exemption is currently valid until 2020. In speaking about the space in male company, I am often faced with the same questions that Wolk put forth: if women want equality, why would they want segregated spaces? If men wanted the same thing, wouldn’t that cause a stir? With historical clubs such as the Melbourne Club and the Australian Club continually under fire from feminist critics for only accepting male members, we will be continually asked to defend our right to occupy exclusive space, while still demanding access to traditionally masculine environments.
On first glance, it might appear a difficult issue to unravel, rife with contradiction about when it is and is not okay to exclude. However, when considered from the perspective of the gaze, it becomes quite simple. Until alternate gazes are as influential in society as that of the male gaze, male-only spaces will not require a rallying squad because they will remain ubiquitous. Until critics can feel the softening of the shoulders, the relaxing of the mind, and the sheer relief that such spaces can evoke, they will never understand their value – and that’s okay. Such spaces are not for them. While everyone has a right to an opinion, a vital part of safe spaces needs to include the right not to accommodate the points of view of those that necessitate the existence of safe spaces in the first place.
Most often, those against safe spaces project their opinions from a comfortable seat behind the lens. Much like photographers who gesticulate wildly, shouting orders at models, they don’t understand the pressures of being persistently on show, and until the camera is turned on them and they have a sudden uneasiness about how to hold themselves, they probably never will. Such feelings are only exemplified for those who exist outside of binary classifications of sex and gender, which is why it is important that such spaces extend beyond conservative definitions of ‘woman’.
On visiting the Ladies Baths for the first time, I feel a bristle of apprehension, harking back to the location’s century-old roots. I approach the swimming club responsible for administering entry to the pool but am unable to get a comment from the elderly volunteers about the future of the club’s gender policies. They don’t say that non-binary and transgender individuals aren’t welcome, but they do emphasise that men cannot enter. They seem confused by the possibility that gender is complex. In talking to them, I realise the potentially arduous process of concocting a name that communicates a ‘safe space for all who are not cis-men’ and that for some, the concept of a cis-man is still foreign.
In trying to contemplate a way forward, I ask some non-binary and trans friends if they feel welcome and see value in ‘women’s spaces’. Some respond yes, and some no. Yet, of those I ask, the individuals who feel they need the spaces most and want to use them express comfort in using them, and those who have used them previously do not feel they were ostracised by other users. For the most part, the spaces appear to self-govern, with users opting for respect, privacy and solidarity over strict bureaucracy.
On a Tuesday night I make my way to a regular private female/non-binary/transgender skate night in Sydney’s inner west, where I help to instruct beginner skaters. I wonder how many of the participants would have the courage to fall, fail or show up at all in the presence of cis-men. While unfortunate, many express previous negative experiences in public spaces, and the diversity in the room is in stark contrast to the predominantly masculine environments of the skateparks I regularly visit. While it would be ideal for shared spaces to feel safe and welcoming to all, it is still an unfortunate reality that many carry insecurity inflicted by a lifetime subjected to the dominant gaze. Just before I leave to head home, I post some pictures to my social media, celebrating the big turn out and positive energy of the evening. When my phone lights up with a text message from a male friend asking if he can come along next time, I feel no guilt in replying ‘no’.