In my current stream of reading there are two simultaneous conversations going on –
One is an acknowledgement that a majority of women in America, and in the world, live their lives in expectation of violence. Ranging from subtle and vague to immediate and direct, most women in this country take daily precautions against the threat of violence – from strangers, from acquaintances, from loved ones… If we go out after dark, or to parties, clubs or places where there might be alcohol or drugs, those precautions become very real and nearly universal.
The other conversation taking place constitutes a lot of hand wringing by the “good guys” wondering why it seems like all women fear them, wishing there was some way they could let us know that they’re not bad guys, that they won’t rape us, beat us, assault us. Wondering how to get past our suspicion of them and feeling like they are somehow being punished by us for their gender. (Hint: as long as the onus is on women to prevent violence against themselves, good guys will continue to be “punished” for the bad behavior of the few.)
This ties in to yesterday’s post about how we, as a culture, tend to excuse male violence and bad behavior as “boys being boys”.
If boys being boys means boys behaving badly, then is it really any wonder that women are taught to fear and be cautious of boys and men in general?
My daughters have both, at the ages of 7 and 9, already been the victims of sexual harassment by their peers. The younger one has already been the victim of physical assault by a group of boys. While I do my best to remind them that these boys are not representative of all boys, it becomes harder and harder to convince them that the majority of boys and men are safe when they see how easily their male friends are pulled into this type of behavior. It becomes harder and harder to convince them that they are safe in this world when they seek adult help and are told they are being too sensitive or taking it too personally and to relax because after all, this is just boys being boys.
If sexual harassment and physical assault are acceptable in first and fourth grade – what do my daughters have to look forward to as these boys get older, and by all accounts that my daughters have heard, more aggressive?
And how do I convince them to ask for help when the adults in their lives are telling them that what is happening is no big deal?
If they cannot expect adults to take a stand against these perpetrators, how can they reasonably expect their peers to step in?
So, yes, many if not most women and girls live under the threat of violence. This threat is often vague. It is not as if we wake up each day knowing a specific person has threatened us, unless we are victims of intimate partner violence. Instead it is our reality that any number of the many men we know, or possibly a complete stranger, may decide to hurt us. Often we don’t know their reason or motivation. We are only told that it is our job to protect ourselves from it. (1/3 of American women report having been sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime. 83% of girls report being sexually harassed at school.)
And this leads us to the hand wringing from the many, many men who don’t hurt women and don’t want to live in the shadow of other men’s violence.
What can they do? Is there a shirt they can buy and wear to let us know that they’re safe?
Nope. Sorry. No shirts.
But all is not lost. There are still things that “good” men can do.
I want to share a couple of stories about men who stepped up in my world, when it was being stalked by violence.
In college I worked as a security guard in the student activity building. Three of my bosses were professional MMA fighters. (Seriously!) They took me aside and taught me some very basic, and very effective self-defense moves. They broke the rules and allowed me to take one of the work walkie-talkies home with me at night so that if anything happened along the way, or if my stalker/rapist/abuser was waiting for me when I got home, I could call for help.
One night as I was walking home (alone, at about 2am) from a concert I had worked, a man began approaching. I could tell by his silhouette that it was not the man I feared most, but all the same I tightened my grip on my mace, straightened my shoulders and got ready for a fight. He stopped outside of my much expanded personal space bubble.
“My girlfriend was attacked recently. She told them she had herpes and they let her go.” Then he veered off and disappeared into the night.
My shoulders relaxed and I breathed again. He had popped my bubble just long enough to let me know that not all men were out to hurt me, some of them were interested in helping.
At a party I went to, one of the male hosts greeted me at the door, and sensing my discomfort, offered to shadow me and keep an eye on me. He was the designated driver for his girlfriend that night, so he was staying sober anyway. I also stayed sober, but seeing him keep an eye on both me and his very drunk and flirty girlfriend (without restricting her behavior) was another reminder that there were safe and caring men out there.
Many years later I had another experience like this. I went to a party with the man who is now my husband. I was still a little jumpy. My then boyfriend, now husband, and his best friend and roommate looked after me all night. Not by hovering or stopping their (or my) fun, but just by checking in visually every so often, making eye contact and waiting for my nod and smile to let them know I was okay. They made a point of introducing me to a few other good guys who they trusted and who I could go to for help if I felt I needed it. By the middle of the party, I was comfortable enough to take part as my normal, outgoing, flirty self.
I had male neighbors who made sure I not only had their phone numbers on speed dial, but we also had codes so that if I couldn’t get to the phone (as happened one night) I could stomp on the floor or knock on the wall, and they would know I needed help and to call the police.
I had men offer to walk me home, or let me sleep on their couch.
I had men give me the keys to their very nice sports cars because they were too drunk to take me home, but they wanted to make sure I was safe.
I had men look me in the eye and tell me that they liked me and that if I was into them, they would be thrilled, but that they were not going to make the first move. And then – they stuck to their word and remained my friend without pushing the issue.
I had men stop the action and check in – to make sure I was enjoying myself, feeling good, feeling safe, and to ask what I wanted from the moment – and then respect my answers, boundaries and desires.
Most important though – I had men intervene.
I had men pay attention and step in in moments where I was feeling threatened or unsafe and put themselves between me and my attacker and let him know that his behavior was unacceptable.
I had men stand up to other men who were being dicks and shut them down in no uncertain terms, letting those men know that their behavior was unacceptable and would not be tolerated or rewarded.
I watched as jerks were escorted from parties, banned from bars and calmly removed from the scene for being offensive, threatening or violent.
These are the types of things that men can do to remind women that not all men are violent. To remind us, just as I remind my children – most strangers are safe – most men are safe. If you really need help – ask for it. Chances are good you’ll be asking someone who won’t hurt you.
As a woman, and as a mother, I need this to be true. I need to believe that most of the people on this planet would step in, if they were asked.
I’d like to hope that most people on this planet would step in even if they weren’t asked, if they saw someone being hurt. Sadly, this hope has not been born out, but I think that that is a change we can create. We have the power to create movement away from passive bystanders and toward active engagement.
Here’s a sample of what that looks like:
And to all the many, many good guys out there – thank you.
Thank you for standing up and declaring yourself. Thank you for denouncing the violence of other men (and women). Thank you for standing up to your peers to help others be and feel safe.