Women and men are socialized to use public spaces differently. It may take both to change that.
t was the fierce Virginia Woolf herself who, within her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, stressed the severe necessity of ladies out and about both collecting their own coins and tapping the creative realms within their own personal space. Her case: “Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.”
Nowadays? Ladies have got their rooms.
Within our rooms — these rooms of our own — fresh flowers picked for the simple sake of “Why not?” sit propped above our drawers full of dildos. Within our rooms, memories and mementos surround us, mirroring the world we derive value from, as much as the stunning women we’re becoming. Behind the closed doors of our goddess chambers, scripts, comics, stories, sketches, and various other creative endeavors sit scattered about. Within our rooms, we sprawl. We stretch. We exhale. Within our rooms — sans doubt, shame, apologies, second-guesses, or silence — we reach. Within our rooms, we fucking roar.
While surely that would win us a slow clap from Virginia, she’d likely inquire about all other common areas. Anything happening in the hallway? What’s the living room scene like? And who’s in the kitchen these days anyway?
Thousands of attempts, in various forms, have been directed at the seemingly daunting task of picking apart the above questions. Discourses have been hatched. Discussions — ranging from the articulate and academic to the cries behind #YesAllWomen — can be traced along print publications, trailed through the blogosphere, plucked from dissertations, and pinpointed within virtually every aspect of our current, oh-so-advanced world.
When not curled up under the protective cover of one’s own space, the task of keeping said territory sacred is a maddening, heartbreaking, often-completely-defeating battle. Every time a gal crawls from her shielded sphere of accepted sprawl, the war — Woolf’s war — continues to wage. To walk the streets. To participate in the real world. To actively nurture complicated relationships within an often more convoluted society.
All this while safeguarding, supporting, and standing up for the notion that we exist. That we matter. That our space — regardless of where we sit or if we sprawl or how we stretch — is ours, that our space is ours and that’s enough. Every day is a delicate balancing act between cherishing our boundaries and honoring our limitations, all while acknowledging everyone else’s usually thwarted expectations.
Be strong, be independent, be fearless. But you know — not too much of any of that. Sprinkle in the necessary dose of coquettish appeal. Occasionally bat lashes in meek defeat for good measure. Don’t overdo it either with that whole fearless bit. Know your place lest you be slapped, mocked, raped, punched, attacked, ridiculed, overlooked, or ignored.
Be hilarious, be smart, be spectacular. But please adhere to any and all necessary social cues. Giggle on command. Start all questions with an apology. Go on, spread your wings, assuming the pose you strike plays up the right person in the room. But Sweetie, don’t you dare challenge the ceiling, the blanket, or the bag that’s ever-so-slightly closing in over your head. Be experimental, be sexual, be free. Be your body be yourself. But don’t be a slut. And are you sure you want to eat that?
To maintain this space while navigating through one’s daily grind is exhausting, to say the absolute least. It is a ceaseless, never-ending succession, and it is also the norm. Take it or leave it. Rant, rave, and rage against it, or really, just submit to it. Whether you make waves or silently slip under them, the same, sad tides keep to the same, sad cycle.
Lately, however, I’ve noticed a newer subcategory to this notion of space happening under the very roof I designate as mine. Currently featured within our culture’s spotlight is the freshly birthed, so-far-so-good “sharing economy,” an enlightening means for city-dwellers such as myself to make ends meet. The sharing economy is a system wherein owning something takes a backburner to simply having access to it. A system where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than seven million Americans resort to part-time, ‘off-the-beaten-path’ employment, despite the recent rise in job creation. Where, spurred by a flailing economy, people now resort to thriftiness and value community within a refreshingly down-to-earth peer-to-peer rental market.
What’s mine is yours — for a reasonable fee. Lyft. Snapgoods. RelayRides. Getaround. Taskrabbit. These guys have tapped a nerve, and their growing success speaks to that. Airbnb, an online community marketplace that connects folks looking to rent their homes with those seeking accommodations, is a perfect example of this success. Since their 2007 launch, they have attracted over 20 million users. Bragging over 800,000 properties, their expansive reach includes 34,000 locations. With reported revenue of $250 million last year alone, it’s fairly apparent there’s no sign of slowing.
And good thing too. By renting my spare bedroom under the multimillion-dollar umbrella Airbnb ingeniously props up, I’m comfortably dry and conveniently shaded. Despite the dips and peaks of my freelancing financial status, I’m free to breathe, no longer strapped between paying either my internet bill or buying groceries. In a very real sense, Airbnb has allotted me the absolute privilege to truly enjoy the cherished space I create within.
Over the past several months I’ve hosted over 50 guests, arriving from all over the world and traveling in various dynamics. Brothers. Sisters. Mothers and their children. Empty nesters. Partners and lovers of every sexual orientation or gender identity. Single dads. Elderly lovebirds. Eager millennials. Bored housewives. Grad students. The works.
As my apartment sits within one of the city’s prime, eclectic neighborhoods, surrounded by quaint cafes, parks, and plenty of bars, it took no time at all to draw interest, generate a couple solid reviews, and grow from there. I can now rest assured: My spare room is booked, every night, for the next six months.
For this, I am grateful. For this, I continually remind myself that it’s worth it. The occasionally irritating stream of constant towel and sheet washing, for instance, pales in comparison to maintaining the two vital categories Ms. Woolf so earnestly called out. Talking up travelers from every walk life has shed fascinating insight into just how small our world is, and just how similar we all are. Some of the sweetest pajama-clad chats have hatched within my kitchen, with complete strangers. The hand-written notes, not to mention gifts, which guests leave behind often fill me with wonder.
Visitors, generally in vacation mode, are thrilled with it all — with my home, with my prices, with my stunning city, with my sightseeing suggestions, with my available shelf of gin — all of it. I seem to tread the perfect line between available and invisible, around if needed, but not clingy — and generally not caring. Assuming I can peacefully crawl into bed around 11:00 on a work night, and operate my clunky, roaring juicer around 7:00 the following morning, I’m completely content with the set up. Both on my profile, and within the “Welcome” notes I leave out for new arrivals, I stress the following: What’s mine is yours. Please. Make yourself at home.
That said, there’s a certain tension — a spatial tension — that’s apparent. An irk that’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. An itch I’m attempting to scratch. It’s the men I host who fill the space. Who spread their belongings, their energy, their bodies throughout the entire area. Women — spectacular, complicated, creative women — politely enjoy my tour, politely beeline for their room, and politely close the door behind them. Women keep their toiletries and their trinkets within the invisible bubble our mutual business transaction has deemed theirs.
Men, on the other hand, unpack among my living room, stack beers throughout my fridge, tuck their razors between the tampons and toothbrushes of my medicine cabinet, comb through my library, and on more than one occasion, even scroll through my iPod. All of this, mind you, is totally and completely okay with me. There have been evenings when, upon returning home from work, I walk in to discover men actually utilizing my main room as if it is theirs.
This is what I opened my home up for. This is the point, right? Once the initial discomfort of watching strangers flip through the life you’ve set on display simmers, it’s maybe even a tad enjoyable, a dynamic I’ve gotten used to over time. But where are the ladies? Why don’t women enter the room as though it’s theirs? I charge the same price for every visitor. I set the same standards for each guest. Verbally and via text, I repeatedly encourage a total and complete “Home Sweet Home” experience. It just seems to be the boys who reach out and seize that.
The studies behind nonverbal power cues, as well as gendered bodied practices are extensive and overwhelming. The “rights” and “wrongs,” the “dos” and “don’ts” that underlay how women and men utilize space are so subtly ingrained within society that from the youngest age, we subconsciously start taking notes. Women are taught to shrink. To inhale. To fold up into oneself. To cross arms, cross legs, be as tiny and as insignificant as possible. To be convenient.
Women claim a smaller personal bubble. Women stand closer to each other when conversing. Women keep arms close to their bodies, cross legs at the knees or ankles, place hands in their laps. Women use more eye contact. Smile more. Men take the space both for themselves and when gathering among other gents. Men employ more physical gestures, sprawl when seated, more commonly utilize armrests, smile less, and use far less eye contact. While these silent territories can be traced everyday within the outside world, it somehow resonates more clearly, more painfully even, when they play out under your own roof.
I’m not the only one picking up on this. Sure, there is the handful of nightmare Airbnb stories always circulating the web. A looting here. An orgy there. An eviction. A slower-than-needed customer service response. While entirely unacceptable, with a fan base of 20 million, there are bound to be a few bad apples. But the lesser-dissected power plays between female hosts and male guests are quietly being addressed.
Likely anonymous for a reason, one Airbnb host wrote an article for CNN sarcastically asking male guests to refrain from showing her their pornographic side projects. In the same breath, she reminds visiting parties this is a business transaction, not the start of some blossoming relationship. While the line between “friendly” and “friends” was acknowledged (and appreciated) among fellow women, she often found herself refusing Facebook requests, Instagram follows, and sidestepping dinner invitations from male guests.
Overshadowing this notion of space — be it physical and tangible, or emotional and less obvious — is the issue of safety. As women use and experience sharing services differently than men, there have been plenty of pushes for companies themselves to stand accountable, and implement preventative measures ensuring the wellbeing of women users. Background checks, verified identities, and an honest review system all act to both protect and promote fellow participants.
It’s here, however, within these reviews, that additional oddities concerning underlying gender dynamics reside. Like most share economy game players, the success of my business, of my brand, depends almost entirely on the reviews of guests. Upon the completion of someone’s trip, all parties involved are prompted to honestly and accurately rate one another. Host or guest, we sift through several star-rated questions, covering the other’s cleanliness, ability to communicate, etc. The review process concludes with the question “Would you recommend this person to another Airbnber?” and then opens up a window for additional, optional feedback.
While guests must complete the public portion of my review to further complete my profile and guide future guests in their hunt for the ideal accommodation, there is a second box available for private feedback. In other words, comments only I will see. Comments that, despite a stellar five-star, all-thumbs-up public review, comprise the opinions and suggestions of essentially every male guest I’ve ever hosted.
The first few didn’t phase me. Again, this is what I opened myself up to. Every business will have its Yelpers after all. I offer a service, for a fee. Therefore feedback, commentary, constructive criticism, all of it, is part of the package. I should get cable. I need a better mattress. The kitchen could use some work. The bathroom would really benefit from a paint job. Great ideas, but, as a renter myself, often completely unrealistic ones.
It was a third man’s suggestion that I repaint my entire place to “bump up its overall value” that caused me to pause. Was this some kind of generation gap perhaps stemming from the bracket of older guests, new to all things share economy? Elderly budget travelers still somehow expecting a luxurious, Four Seasons experience? While some suggestions were totally valid (at one point, I really did need a new shower curtain), most bordered on the completely ridiculous.
I clearly outline on my profile page the amenities and perks I do and don’t have. Cable, for instance, is not one of them. Additionally, if I had the financial means (let alone actual ownership) of ripping down drywall, re-flooring, retiling, insulating, or providing a freshly unwrapped, brand-new mattress, I likely wouldn’t be relying on room-renters in the first place.
Again, it’s not that folks leave suggestions. That’s how the share economy spurs onwards. In fact, on some level, it’s extremely considerate that guests pass along these tips privately. But the fact that usually only men feel so inclined to chime in is as alarming — perhaps even as disheartening — as arriving home to find my living room converted into a temporary gentlemen’s club.
I wonder if men should lean a bit harder into the notion of, well, piping down, of thinking before speaking, of observing elements such as space and how they themselves play into it. Of evaluating if and when their perspective is appropriate, and then, and only then, considering how their potential thoughts could best be portrayed. Or should women, despite everything ingrained within us, and everything pressing down around us, start to speak up? Start to spread out. Start to claim larger shares of the spaces that are rightfully ours.
Woolf, were she around today, would likely say both. Were she around today, she’d probably be renting her Subaru on RelayRides, subletting her mother-in-law apartment through Airbnb, and leasing her extensive collection of power tools out via Neighborgoods. Woolf, were she to swing by for a gin and tonic — purchased by my own hard-earned, writer’s wages, and sipped within the delightful confines of my “own space” — might nod in approval at how far we’ve come, or might address how far we still have to go.
What I do know for sure is that she’d support the notion that my bathroom — my beautiful, perfect, bathroom — most certainly does not need a new coat of paint.