This weekend my brother and I were meeting in Florida for a shared vacation. We were supposed to arrive at the same time but my connecting flight was delayed several hours, so my brother went on ahead to the place we were staying. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let him access our room since the reservation was in my name, so he took a long walk on the beach at night, then went to the hotel bar and hung out for a couple of hours drinking and talking to strangers until I arrived.
If you’re reading this as a man, you’re probably thinking, “So what?”. But women reading this are probably thinking, “It must be nice to have that freedom.”
This situation is, for me, a tangible demonstration of the fear women live with every day. If that situation had been reversed, I would have sat in the well-lit lobby and waited there.
I would have never walked on the beach, because a woman walking alone, at night, on a deserted beach has a high risk of being robbed and/or attacked. I would have never gone to a bar alone, because a woman alone in a bar has a high risk of being drugged, robbed and/or attacked.
When I pointed this out to my brother, his exact response was, “Huh?”
My brother is actually pretty enlightened, and having three strong sisters has given him more insight than most. But my brother, like the vast majority of males in this world, is completely oblivious to the ongoing mental calculations women have to go through in this world to create safety. They don’t know that as women, we exist in a constant state of fear.
On this same trip, a guy in front of me at a football game turned around to hand his friend, who was next to me, a fresh beer. I reached for it, thinking to help pass it down, and the guy, apparently thinking I was a beer thief, snapped, “It’s not for you.” I laughed it off, the way we do as women, but in my head I was thinking, “Seriously dude? Do you think any woman in her right mind would accept on open drink from some strange guy? Of course I didn’t think I was going to take it.”
Women are afraid all the time. It’s always in the back of our head, like a soundtrack in a movie. We are not totally safe in our homes. We are not totally safe in our work places. We are not totally safe in the world. It’s why we walk with our keys between our fingers in parking lots. It’s why we sleep with windows closed. It’s why we set up systems with our friends to call us to check in on blind dates. It’s why we feel nervous when we step in an elevator full of men.
It’s why when we heard about the Kavanaugh hearings every single woman who has ever been to a party where there was alcohol and high school or college aged boys knew, just knew, what happened. We could all picture the scene. Every woman, and I mean every single woman, either knows someone, or has themselves, been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.
When I heard the testimony I instantly was sent back to so many parties where my friends or I were inappropriately touched, assaulted, raped or narrowly avoided one of those situations. I had a visceral reaction. My body instantly recalled the moments at parties when things shifted and I was aware that there was danger around, a predator, and I knew that things could go bad quickly. I remembered the fear.
I lost my virginity at a high school party where both the guy and I were drunk. It wasn’t assault, I never said no, but I know now with age and the clarity of hindsight that I also didn’t consent. I was in no condition to give consent. And it’s only the last few years where I’ve realized that.
When I was in college I worked on a rape crisis hotline and since it was a college town, probably 99% of the calls I took included a reference to a party or a date, and the statement, “I don’t know if it was rape, but….”. That’s how prevalent these situations are.
That was almost thirty years ago and the good thing is that women are increasingly talking about the fact that we have to be afraid all the time. And the next generation seems less likely to stay silent than mine was, which is awesome.
We need to bring women’s fear into the light, and we need to be super honest about our experience. As a woman in my 50s I fully recognize that things that were considered “boys will be boys” behavior in my youth are, by today’s view, assault. Just because we didn’t complain when the boy in our class grabbed our butt or the dad we babysat for commented on our breasts or the weird uncle kissed us on the mouth and held us too close, it doesn’t mean it didn’t affect us.
We can help future women by speaking our truth, believing our peers, and supporting the younger generation when they say, “We’ve had enough.”
And men, we need you to listen, to believe us, and to be allies. Jackson Katz, an author, educator and filmmaker is what I would call an ally in the fight against gender-based violence. He does presentations and trainings where he shares some version of this quote which is one of the most powerful illustrations of women’s fear I’ve read:
“I draw a line down the middle of a chalkboard, sketching a male symbol on one side and a female symbol on the other. Then I ask just the men: What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? At first there is a kind of awkward silence as the men try to figure out if they’ve been asked a trick question. The silence gives way to a smattering of nervous laughter. Occasionally, a young a guy will raise his hand and say, ‘I stay out of prison.’ This is typically followed by another moment of laughter, before someone finally raises his hand and soberly states, ‘Nothing. I don’t think about it.’ Then I ask women the same question. What steps do you take on a daily basis to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? Women throughout the audience immediately start raising their hands. As the men sit in stunned silence, the women recount safety precautions they take as part of their daily routine. Here are some of their answers: Hold my keys as a potential weapon. Look in the back seat of the car before getting in. Carry a cell phone. Don’t go jogging at night. Lock all the windows when I sleep, even on hot summer nights. Be careful not to drink too much. Don’t put my drink down and come back to it; make sure I see it being poured. Own a big dog. Carry Mace or pepper spray. Have an unlisted phone number. Have a man’s voice on my answering machine. Park in well-lit areas. Don’t use parking garages. Don’t get on elevators with only one man, or with a group of men. Vary my route home from work. Watch what I wear. Don’t use highway rest areas. Use a home alarm system. Don’t wear headphones when jogging. Avoid forests or wooded areas, even in the daytime. Don’t take a first-floor apartment. Go out in groups. Own a firearm. Meet men on first dates in public places. Make sure to have a car or cab fare. Don’t make eye contact with men on the street. Make assertive eye contact with men on the street.”
If you’re reading this as a man, I hope this opens your eyes and encourages you to speak up and act to stop gender-based violence.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to train boys and men to not assault us or assume women’s bodies are there for their comments, touch, or pleasure. Instead of training women to avoid situations where things can happen, let’s train men to avoid creating those situations in the first place.
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