Every joke has a point where it goes too far. But what is that point and how do we react to it? (I’m speaking specifically of the differences between men and women here, of course.) Well, let me tell you a story.

There was a boy. There was a girl. They decided to make a go of a relationship. At first, things were as they always are, tentative, nervous, careful. As time went on they began to feel more comfortable with each other. For the girl this meant falling asleep more easily, picking girlier movies, getting a little bit tipsy. For the boy it meant holding the girl’s wrists even though he knew it made her nauseous, tickling her until she cried, making fun of her profession. The girl hated these things, she really did, and she did not attempt to hide this from the boy. A little joking never hurt anyone but he always went too far. And when he did the girl would say so and the boy would laugh because he did not understand and the girl would remain silent. She would “let it go” immediately because this is what had to be done to maintain harmony in their relationship. One day, the girl went too far, not consciously, it was just an instinctive reaction, but it happened. And the boy? He did not let it go as the girl had always done. He reacted exactly as she always wanted to react but never could. He gave her the cold shoulder and the silent treatment and she could feel the hatred and anger emanating from his body.

This story is fictional but it is based on truth. It is based on a truth that I have known my whole life but have only recently become consciously aware of. As women we are socially conditioned to take whatever is thrown at us. We are not allowed to stand up for ourselves; we are not allowed to assert our boundaries. Any boundaries we set are set to be broken. Our feelings are negotiable. Men, on the other hand, can do as they please. They can cross boundaries without a second thought but they can exact harsh punishment when someone serves them the same dish. This is not the fault of any individual man with whom I, or any other woman, have encountered this problem but of the same society that conditions women to be complacent and forgiving. This same society gives men an inherent advantage because that is just the way it has always been. That is patriarchy.

I get angry when someone tries to tell me that the patriarchy is dead, that we’ve solved the problem, because things are “getting better.” If by getting better you mean that women in the Western world have mostly gained the same rights as men then sure, I guess you’re right. If you ignore women in developing countries who are still fighting for the right to education and independence then sure, I guess you’re right. If you ignore the ongoing attempts in North America to legislate the female body in ways that would never even be considered for the male body then sure, I guess you’re right. And if you ignore all of these simple, small differences in the ways that it is socially acceptable for men and women to behave then sure, I guess you’re right. But if by getting better you mean that men and women are becoming equal in rights, in what is socially acceptable for them, in workplace compensation then you are very, very wrong. We still have a long way to go and from my humble view down here in the middle class, it starts with individual interactions. The whole top down thing is not working so we need to start going bottom up. As women, we need to start asserting our rights and boundaries with the men in our lives before we can start trying to change the Donald Trumps and Stephen Harpers of the world. As men we need to start respecting, and I mean actually respecting with actions, the women in our lives before we can recognize the larger issues of which we are, deliberately or not, a part. We’re not going to change society in a day but we can start dismantling it piece by piece until we’re ready to put it back together.