How men dominate space; or, how to take our space back

Caitlin James on the radical idea that women have the right to exist in public spaces

I’m sure we’ve all heard of ‘manspreading’ by now (you know, when men – whether consciously or not – spread their limbs and take up as much space as physically possible in places like trains, buses, and basically anywhere. See for some exemplar spreads).

Manspreading is only the tip of the iceberg in the way men dominate all the room around them and deny space to wom*n. While this piece focuses on wom*n, the bodies of LGBTQIA+ people and people of colour are also adversely affected by men’s inconsiderate, and even downright insulting, use of public space.

Whilst some men are just rude and self-entitled pricks, I’d like to assume that most men don’t actively realise what they’re doing when they take up an excessive amount of space for themselves. Rather, society affirms men, their choices, and their actions. Cis men rarely have to question themselves or how their bodies are situated in public or private. Wom*n, on the other hand, are generally taught to take up less space and always be conscious of what our body is doing. We are taught to be small, even invisible. To close our legs, to cross them, to sit like a lady. These lessons are drilled into us from the youngest age. One of my earliest memories of such was in kindergarten, when I was told by my teacher to shut my legs and be more ladylike. Never mind the fact that I was wearing shorts and was five years old.

Fast-forward sixteen years and I’m still battling with my validity to take up space, to exist. I’ve taken up a new hobby called ‘walking on the sidewalk and not moving for men who expect I’ll move, and then getting shoulder-charged by said men’. It’s pretty self-explanatory, and highlights the inherent privilege of men in our society. Before you try to argue with me, I’m not purposely walking in the way of anyone. I’m always on the correct side of the walkway and naturally take up a minimal amount of space with my small build.

This little hobby requires constant thought on my part, and despite being the self-assured, ‘angry feminist’ I’ve been told I am, I always need to remind myself that my body and space is valid – I don’t have to diminish it to accommodate for men. Simply walking on the sidewalk has become an act of rebellion and resistance. If you like the sound of this pastime, you may also enjoy ‘staring back at men who stare at you, to make them uncomfortable and have to look away first’.

When men dominate all the space around them, it reveals greater issues about privilege and entitlement in our society. If men think they are entitled to all the space, then what’s stopping them from thinking they’re entitled to other people’s bodies? Or thinking that only their opinion matters? Or believing that only they are important? Men, be mindful of how you utilise the space around you and how this affects wom*n – often stifling our autonomy and putting us down when we are already fighting to keep our heads above water.

While this article was originally a call to men to be aware of their actions, it is now a call to arms. To wom*n: let’s unapologetically reclaim our space and affirm our legitimacy in a world which all too often brushes over us, or, barges into us. Hold your ground on sidewalks, bus seats, and standing on a busy train. Your space is valid. Your body is valid. You are valid.