When a public swimming pool in Gloucestershire recently announced to its patrons that it would be ending its women-only session, community reaction was swift.
Like thousands of public pools across the United Kingdom, The Pulse – a recreation centre in Dursley, Gloucestershire – had long hosted the women-only session as a part of its weekly program. But in a notice posted recently to its membership, management at the centre revealed it had received a formal complaint from a member of the public and would be changing the women-only session to an adult-only one, in order to adhere to the guidelines of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010. The session will formally end on September 6.
In response, more than 5000 people have signed a petition on change.org urging The Pulse to reconsider. Some of the comments left alongside signatures highlight exactly why this issue is so important. Fiona writes: “Because we FOUGHT for women’s spaces and now we NEED TO FIGHT TO SAVE THEM.”
Vince says: “Some women have good reasons not to want to expose their bodies to men.” Emily suggests: “The Pulse could arrange regular Men Only sessions, which would demonstrate its readiness to support equality.”
It seems absurd that anyone would need to have the purpose of a women-only swimming session explained to them, but the world is full of obstinate, selfish people who refuse to think of anyone’s needs beyond their own. Indeed, there’s a popular online saying that goes a little something like this: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Such is the backlash against equality movements of all stripes now that complaints like the one made in Gloucestershire are becoming more common. It isn’t because the people making these complaints are experiencing oppression themselves – it’s because they perceive the granting of assistance to people less privileged than themselves to be an unfair advantage they’re being denied.
The opening of a cafe in Melbourne recently elicited a similar response. Handsome Her quickly gained notoriety for its display of a sign detailing an 18 per cent surcharge issued to male customers to cover the gender pay gap.
Further exploration revealed the surcharge to be not only voluntary, but also only applied one week out of every four.
Additionally, all the proceeds from the surcharge are directed to a chosen charity, which makes it not just a clever commentary on the financial disparity wrought by gender inequality but also a really easy way to direct a few dollars a week towards a worthy cause. Heck, I visited Handsome Her shortly after its opening and elected to pay the surcharge because I’m not a whiny baby who’s going to quibble over a few dollars going towards an organisation that assists vulnerable Aboriginal women.
But still people complained. Because they are determined not to recognise the benefits and privileges they enjoy in society, preferring instead to focus on the “special treatment” they want to believe everyone else is getting.
I highly doubt any of the nay-sayers spewing invective all over Handsome Her enforce their stringent idea of equality when it comes to, say, women generally being corralled into paying more for health and beauty products. Nor would they passionately argue in favour of diversifying government bodies so that our elected representatives resemble more than a giant vat of suet pudding.
Equality is only of interest to these people when it’s about ensuring women aren’t being given the kind of special treatment men have accepted as a rule throughout most of history.
Similarly, the person who complained about the women-only swimming hour in Gloucestershire doesn’t really care if a men-only session is provided. All he cares about (because I’d be prepared to bet good money it was a “he”) is making sure women aren’t provided an opportunity to congregate without men being able to oversee it.
The men who complain about the “sexism” of the McIver’s Baths in Coogee aren’t going out of their way to lobby the council for a men-only watering hole for themselves. Someone would have to organise that, and who can be bothered? Far easier to bellyache about the women who’ve been given access to a tiny portion of the publicly accessible beaches and baths along the Sydney coastline.
This sort of backlash isn’t just immature, it’s also wholly ignorant of the reasons why these kinds of programs and outlets exist. There are good reasons to have women-only spaces, particularly something like a private swimming hour. Some women have experienced extraordinary violence at the hands of men and this limits their ability to engage in public programs the way many others (especially men) can.
Others might be sick of having their bodies assessed and commented on. In fact, this was exactly the response I received when I asked two elder women why they loved swimming at the McIver’s Baths – because they could do so in peace, away from the watchful gaze of male desire (or lack thereof, both of which will be predictably communicated at some point).
Equality isn’t just a matter of making sure everyone has exactly the same. Quite often it’s about restructuring the imbalance of privilege that already exists and providing equitable solutions.
The world as it exists now is designed by and structured for men. Everyone who sits outside of this accepted state of neutrality is treated like an interloper. This is partly why women-only spaces are so important, and why women respond so strongly to being in them. It isn’t about securing privilege over men. It’s about feeling for a moment what it must be like for space to always be designed with you in mind.