[Trigger warning--something I don't usually include at the beginning of my posts since my whole blog is a trigger for some people.]
AHEM. Hey remember me? NO? Fuck off! Just kidding. I love you, even though the thing you got me for my birthday broke 45 minutes after I opened it and I know you took a second piece of cake before everyone even had one.
SO. What I really want to say! The other day I read this article and it really grabbed me: Schrodinger’s Rapist: or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange women without Being Maced. That’s a mouthful, eh?
In a nutshell, the author, Phaedra Starling, claims that women, to varying degrees, constantly assess their personal risk of harm when confronted with men in daily life. This is everywhere–on the street, in the workplace, on the first few dates and even with men you have known for years if things go south suddenly. It’s not a new idea in the realm of feminist thought and discussion, but I think it’s worthwhile in the sense that the Starling takes a really matter-of-fact, non-hostile tone without cajoling or pandering. I feel like it’s the best possible way to present this idea to men who are genuinely good guys. A chance to say, hey, this thing that you may not be aware of–women’s fear of men–is real and takes up a significant part of women’s daily lives and energy. It would be great if articles like this were published in men’s magazines, wouldn’t it? AH HA HA HA HA, oh, I think I just hurt myself there.
The article is a good and essential read for a lot of people, men and women alike. Here is a snippet that gets at the essence of the problem:
Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.
“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”
Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?
So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?
I shared this article with a couple of men in my life–men I consider to be allies of feminism and pretty aware and cool guys. Men who would not stand by if they saw or heard women being slagged or hurt in cases where they could not defend themselves. Men who are aware that there are inequalities, and try to act in ways in their daily lives that move men and women closer to being equals.
“What do you think about this article?” I asked, in what I hoped was a neutral tone of voice that said, “There is no carrot for the ‘right’ answer.”
“I think it sounds pretty extreme, like an overreaction,” one of the men said. “But I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman,” he hastened to add.
I paused for a moment and tried to think if there were any women I knew who didn’t think in these terms to varying degrees, and this friend characterized the thesis of this article “extreme” and an “overreaction.” This extremely unscientific survey confirmed what I suspected, which is that these sorts of articles and discussions are absolutely critical.
It also made me think about how I live my own life, especially since having children. Before I had children, I didn’t pull any punches. If a man talked to me and I was uninterested I would ignore him or tell him to leave me alone, either neutrally or harshly, depending on my mood and the situation. Having children put a chink in that armor, and instilled more fear of strange men in me. If I acted in ways that come naturally to me to curtail unwanted conversations with strange men, which is coolly or with hostility, would the situation escalate? Could I risk some man getting angry with me because I wasn’t cooperating and watch the consequences unfold in front of or possibly to my children? Better to smile and play along.
This bleeds over to my life when I am without my children, too, which is, of course, when most men make unwelcome advances toward me. In the past, when I was only responsible for myself, I would tell men off if I indicated I was disinterested and the situation escalated. If things got ugly, it often ended in me being called a “fucking bitch” or a “cunt” or something equally charming. Now I feel I have an obligation to my girls to make it home in one piece, and so I nod and smile at whatever inanity/sexism/grossness is tossed my way.
Thinking of these compromises I make on a daily basis made me also think about the concept of rape culture, and of an excellent article I read by Melissa McEwan on Shakesville recently on the topic.
As the title of the piece promises (Rape Culture 101), McEwan provides the reader with a good background in different aspects of rape culture. Among many other great points she addresses what I think of as the perception/behavior problem.
Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.
[Links from this passage omitted but available at original post.]
(As an aside I should say that I am aware that I am a participant in rape culture, to some extent, and I actively educate my daughters in the tenets of it. This is something I have been considering writing about in the near future.)
So I have been thinking about this a lot since reading the Schrodinger’s Rapist article. Do I give my energy to being pleasing and compliant to the wishes of strange men who actively pursue conversations and interactions with me that I don’t want to have? Or do I go back to resisting: unsmiling, ignoring, intolerant, which is another sort of energy drain?
I walked out of my building, which is smack in the center of downtown, with a half-formed resolution in my head: for a month I would try the old way. I would not dial things up to defcon 1 the minute a man said “hello,” but if I didn’t want to talk, I would not. Something that is important to know about my typical demeanor is that I walk fast, avoid eye contact, and have giant can-style headphones that block everything out except the most annoying leafblowers. I am not sending the message that I am available for casual conversation.
I approached the corner and immediately there was a man standing next to me, trying to get my attention. I deliberately turned my head away, waiting for the light to change. A couple of times I turned my head forward, and saw him in the corner of my eye attempting to get my attention to speak to me again. I looked at him and watched him take a breath to speak and turned away again. He attempted to speak to me, even after this. This made me think of a passage from Starling’s article:
Women are communicating all the time. Learn to understand and respect women’s communication to you.
You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you. You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist. Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.
So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.
Did this man on the corner scream at me, pinch me, light my hair on fire? No. What he decided was to try to initiate conversation with me four times, after I deliberately and pointedly ignored him, with my body language and with my headphones.
There are exceptions to every situation, of course, but when the light changed and I walked away, I realized that women DON’T do this. Women do not interrupt people wearing headphones unless they need something. I pick a woman to interrupt, and I see other women at places like bus stops do the same. If a woman interrupts me, there is a good chance that she needs directions, the time, change for a dollar. If a man interrupts me, nine times out of ten it’s to say he likes my hair color. That’s nice; I don’t care.
Starling is right: if you behave like this, “your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone.” Put another way, a man engaging in these behaviors is not treating a woman like an equal. Would this man make four attempts to pay a compliment to a man on a corner who was also keeping to himself? If I had to guess I would say no.
So here I am, resolved to “reclaim my space,” as one of my friends said. I am letting this little experiment run at least through the end of the month. I will let you know how things shake out.