October 9, 2009 by 8junebugs
There’s a fantastic discussion — at least up through the October 8 comments — happening over at Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose right now about why women are under no obligation to give men the benefit of the doubt. (You should go read what she says. It’s much more concise and generalizable than what I’m about to say.)
I don’t want to misconstrued. I’m quite fond of men — some of you are awesome, and I love one of you quite a bit, indeed. You are excellent friends and colleagues, and I am thankful for your basic decency in addition to your personalities. You respect me and consider my feelings and do not make me worry about my safety in your presence.
(In fact, if you’re reading this and you know me and you’re a guy…well, you’re probably (a) on my Christmas card list, and (b) a bigger feminist than I am. You are probably not the asshat who whistled at me from your car as I walked home from that concert last month.)
Unless I have a reason to feel safe in your presence, however, I will always be hyper-aware…to an extent that your own experience may make completely incomprehensible to you. And although it’s not personal, it is because I am a woman and you are a man.
Just so you know? If we’re already acquainted, making or laughing at misogynistic jokes will give me pause. It is not because I don’t have a sense of humor — it’s because jokes that dimish the humanity of any group of people are demoralizing and dangerous. I have no reason to think that’s funny.
(This is not an abstract principle to me — I married someone who thought a joke ending in “so she’ll match the dishwasher” was funny, then wondered why that “nice guy” expected me to do all the cooking and cleaning, preferrably while he slept in.)
(Bonus: I also paid most of the bills — yay, women’s lib!)
“Schrodinger’s Rapist” is how the author sums it up — there is no way a woman can know before interacting with a man whether he is a threat. If he is, she will not know until she is already in danger. It’s not “you’re a rapist until proven otherwise,” it’s “what is my risk in this situation?”
Starling, the author, does a great job of explaining in plain language what may go through a woman’s mind if a man initiates contact at random out in the world, why that train of thought occurs and is legitimate, and why you should respect it.
To be clear, this is about boy/girl stranger danger, not “all rape and assault dangers” — most victims are assaulted someone they know…although how else do people get to know other people? This is about how women move through the world vigilantly, maybe even fearfully, and how men (nice guys, in particular) may not understand.
I do move vigilantly, and I am much more vigilant when I am alone…which, let’s be frank, is most of the time. I was raised with a healthy understanding of what bad men do to women and girls — a great-uncle I never knew died in prison for doing just that (long before I was born, but it influenced how I was raised).
Most of my alertness started in college. There was a wave of assaults on female college students that year, particularly at the local community colleges. I was issued a “rape whistle” — back when “TWEET” meant “help!” I guess? Professors encouraged night students to travel in pairs or groups, preferrably with a male escort (which I found offensive and naive). I took a lot of night classes…I became watchful.
Make no mistake — most women are watchful. We are watchful because we are taught by our culture (by our mothers, by our colleges…) that we are responsible for our physical and sexual safety. There are endless programs, lessons, and old wives’ tales teaching women to try not to get raped; we’re told to learn self-defense and be careful and not dress provocatively or “give mixed signals”…such as being friendly and then saying no.
Teaching our sons to respect all people and not assume they have some kind of right to or over women is left up to parents. The continuing “boys will be boys” acceptance of bad, bullying, and outright criminal behavior perpetuates an environment in which I feel…wary.
Somehow, through all these years of civilization, we have not eliminated rape and sexual assault (against anyone). We have not found a way to teach all people that others’ bodies (and attention) are their own and do not exist for someone else’s pleasure or to meet their needs. Instead, we teach women and girls, the most likely victims, to be vigilant:
I lock my car doors as soon as they’re closed.
Before I open my door to enter my home, I am aware of any men in the area. I am also aware of whether the elevator door has closed…or might be held open.
When I am home, I lock, chain, and bolt my front door.
When I travel, and when I look for a new apartment, I avoid the ground floor. I like being above the easy break-in level.
I walk boldly, and I make a conscious effort not to swing my hips if I do not feel safe. (Got that? Women’s hips swing when they walk. That’s how the body works. This is me working against a natural movement to avoid being a target.)
I make eye contact with people and may nod or say hello. I don’t remember where I heard it, but somewhere along the line I was told that actively avoiding someone in your path, particularly a man, is seen as fearful and increases your Victim Potential. (Making eye contact also makes it easier to identify him later.) Plus, I feel like respectfully acknowledging a person is less likely to make them think I’m some sort of stuck-up bitch who needs to be told off or “put in her place.”
I can emit a pretty strong fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone vibe, part of which, believe it or not, is just walking confidently. The fact that walking confidently is noted (not just by me) as a proactive defense against assault and not just walking is a different branch of a much bigger problem.
I do my best to make my face reflect what an executive coach once told me — I don’t like conflict or confrontation, but I’m not afraid of it, either. I try to look like (and be) someone who will absolutely, without hesitation, pursue the worst punishment I can inflict or have inflicted on you if you lay one goddamn finger on me without my permission.
I don’t walk with my hands in my pockets.
I cross the street and/or change my route entirely if I feel I’m being watched or followed. I have stopped and allowed a man to pass so that he is not following me, even innocently.
In parking lots, even — or especially — the ones I am in most often, I carry my keys with at least one pointing out through my fist. I am not at all convinced that jabbing someone with a Honda key is going to be my best defense, but it makes me feel better.
I immediately evaluate the area around my car, especially if it’s dark or there aren’t many others. Is there anyone in it or near my car? Are there any shadows where there shouldn’t be? Is the only other vehicle in the parking lot parked too near mine? Is that vehicle a van?
If there’s a man within sight, I am fully aware of where he is and whether he is watching me (if I can tell). I begin evaluating the best course of action if he approaches me, and whether I could get to my car, get in it, and lock it before he could reach me. After that, I’m not out of danger, but I could run him over.
If there is no one in sight, I consider where someone might hide.
I consider my safety at all times, even in a locked building in a yuppie neighborhood.
I’m not completely antisocial. I give directions, when asked. I comment on the weather or the other person’s dog. I travel alone, take walks alone, work out alone… I’m not afraid. But I am cognizant of the statistics that say I could be a target of sexual assault.
I have been lucky. I have never been raped or violently forced to do anything I didn’t want to do.
I have had my boundaries and my right to be left alone disregarded. I have dealt with low-level-creepy guys who did not — or would not — leave me alone when I said I didn’t want a connection with them…not even a friendship. I have been in relationships where the other person’s need for attention, validation, or companionship was always expected to trump whatever competing needs I might have. These are all red flags…not of capital-R rapists, but of a culture that still accepts that one sex is privileged over the other (or that one class or type of person is privileged over another). That’s the danger.
That’s why, if you are male and you attempt to chat with me without a logical introduction or connection (meeting through friends, having a class together…), a polite nod may be the most you’ll get in return. I have the right to not want to talk to you, for whatever reason, and you do not have a right to force me to talk to you.
Or, for that matter, to do anything else.