Trigger Warning – Depiction and Discussion of Rape and Sexual Assault
It’s about 3pm, and I’m in the middle of a mall parking lot. I’ve just picked up something from Bon Ton, and I see two young men about my age having trouble with their car. My human instinct is to help them – see if they need a ride, ask if they need some gas, etc. But I don’t go help because I’m a woman, and they are two men. I have been taught that to help in those situations would be stupid.
In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she describes her experiences of hitchhiking, how people will almost always give her a ride if she’s alone because as a woman, she’s less threatening than a man. She also describes how she gets fearful alone in a car with a man.
Later, two men find her alone on the trail in Oregon. She gets a clear sense that one of the men is dangerous, and sure enough, he returns alone a bit later, after having watched her change clothing. She realizes that she’s “lucky” to have not been attacked yet.
A friend goes for a jog without her phone in a state park. She sees two men coming toward her, and before she can even think, she’s afraid, wondering why they are there alone. She’s so scared she sprints back to her car.
Men, with all due respect, I think it’s hard for you to imagine this kind of fear – the kind that kicks in because of the way a man’s posture changes when you pass, the scent of adrenaline as it courses into your body even as you try to look calm so as not to antagonize, the way that leaving work a little later than usual can cause you to break into a sweat as you walk across an empty parking lot. I don’t think you can get this, men, because you don’t have to fear this way.*
This is the world of women. That we are taught to be afraid of men when we are alone. We have been taught this for a reason.
1 in 6 women will be the victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes.
We know this. We protect ourselves as best we can – knowing that sometimes it’s not enough. I was assaulted in the middle of the day in a store where I worked as teenager. Right behind the front counter. That’s how unafraid this man was. We can only do so much to prevent rape and sexual assault.
But we do what we can. The issue is NOT WOMEN. Women know the score; we know the risk. This is the reason most of us walk around on alert when we are alone.
The issue is MEN. Men who continue to prey upon women. Men who continue to think it’s acceptable to make sexualized jokes to women they don’t know. Men who catcall and comment on women’s bodies as if those bodies belonged to those men.
Of course, all men do not do these things, and for that I am very grateful. But still, there is a pervasive pattern in male culture that sexualizes women, that focuses far too much on their physical selves and far too little on their emotional, psychological, or intellectual selves. If you doubt me, spend today listening to men talk – in person and in the media – and see how many times you hear degrading comments about women. I suspect you’ll be surprised.
The way to reduce these rape statistics, the way to help women feel safe is not to continue to dwell on the ways women can protect themselves. We’ve got that covered. What we need is for men to learn how to treat a woman as an equal. What we need is for men to not be given excuses – “men are more sexual.” “That’s just how men are.” – for their inappropriate behavior. What we need is for men to really be men.
I don’t know how men help each other do this – I’m not privy to the circles where men spend time with each other, but I hope that in those circles men stop each other from making lewd or disrespectful comments about women. I’d love it if not a single bachelor party evoked the phrase “ball and chain” ever again. I’d love it if I never heard a man say that his girlfriend needed to drop 20 pounds so he’d find her attractive again. I’d love it if rape jokes were slammed, as they sometimes have been of late, every time they come up. But I know there is more men can do to help each other change the cultural attitudes toward women that make sexual assault a reality for someone in the U.S. every 2 minutes.
What I do know is women, and I know as women we can speak up. We can – even at the cost of being called “bitchy” or “sensitive,” which is, of course, a whole additional layer of this problem – demand that men not speak of women in a disrespectful manner. We can support our friends when they stand up against abusive partners. We can use our voices and demand better from the men we know. So that we will not need to be afraid, and so that they will not need to be feared.
What I would love is for my friends’ daughters to be able to walk along a quiet street at night. To be able to look up at the stars and linger on a quiet corner in peace. I want them to be able to pull up to a car broken down and offer to help. I want them to not carry the guilt for not helping over 15 years later.
What will you do to help our attitudes toward women change as a society?
*Men are, of course, victims of assault and rape. Absolutely. But still, I don’t think most men walk around fearful of their physical safety most of the time.