alone at night (Photo credit: Michael Speed)
Note: I want people to hear what people honestly think about rape culture, but overly aggressive attacks are not welcome here. You are free to debate comments however much you’d like. No ad hominem attacks and personal threats. No cursing. Keep it civil. Check my comment policy for full instructions.
I wrote a follow up piece, addressing some of the criticisms. In Response to Dear Men. In response to some of the responses I got, I decided that I needed to make this piece more approachable and more inclusive.
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
You and another male friend are walking out of the movie theater. It is late, nearing midnight, and most of the cars have left the parking lot. You are walking by yourselves, talking about the plot and the mind-blowing ending of the movie. About thirty feet in front of you you see a lone girl, walking back to her car. She hears your voices, looks back, clutches her purse close to her, and walks faster toward her car. Perhaps she pulls out a phone and starts talking loudly about where she is and that she’ll be home soon. While walking as quickly as she can, she keeps shooting you nervous glances until she gets in her car and drives away.
You look at her and realize-she thought that you were going to rape her. To you, this is ridiculous. You would never rape anyone! You respect women! Rapists are evil, awful creatures!
You are livid that she could profile you as a rapist.
Why is that? To put it simply, women are socialized to avoid rape and it is an issue that women are constantly, vaguely aware of. We live in a rape culture, that blames women for their own rapes, asks them why they were alone, why they trusted that friend, weren’t their eyes saying yes, aren’t you sure that this wasn’t legitimate rape , why didn’t they watch their drink, what kind of pants they were wearing, why were they drinking in the first place, why were they out at night, why were they there, why were they out of the kitchen in the first place?
We live in a world where we are seen as sexual objects first and human beings second. So forgive us for being hyperaware of the threat of rape.
Before you say that we’re overreacting, dress too provocatively, blame the media, use the word “feminazi” or ask how you are supposed to get a date, stop and listen. We are taught that one in four women are raped or suffer an attempted rape in their lifetime. Commonly cited statistics reveal anything from one in four to one in six. A 2003 study by the United States Department of Justice found the number to be one in six.
The same study revealed that one in thirty-three men will be raped in their lifetime. Yes, rape can happen to men, as well, and this is a case of our current system hurting men and women. This system benefits nobody. And that is a subject for another piece. But this piece is about why many women profile strange men as potential rapists. Because rape, at least according to the FBI, is a highly gendered crime, with 90% of victims as female. In other studies, twelve percent of men will admit to what amounts to the legal rape, as long as you don’t use the “r-word.”
On the streets, going about our daily lives, women are often subject to a myraid of sexually charged micro-agressions known as street harassment. We are told to smile, we get sexually inappropriate looks, horns honked, catcalls, approving whistles, a glimpse into the special bond between street harasser and his hand and a series of invitations to examine various stranger’s anatomy. If we refuse to engage these would be suitors, we become ungrateful, too-good, entitled, stuck up princesses. These conversations go from, “Hellooo, sweetheart!” to “@#$% you, you @#$%^ing !@#$%!” in about three seconds. It is not a pleasant experience, nor is it a rare one. Many women have been dealing with street harassment since they hit puberty. There is no time that we are safe from street harassment. We can’t even go to the grocery store without being harassed. While walking alone at night, in a potentially vulnerable situation, the presence of another, larger person may trigger these memories and existing anxieties.
In short, women, homosexuals, transsexuals and other persons of relative disadvantage have been dealing with sexualized threats and violence for many years. They may know stories of friends and neighbors who have suffered rape, abuse, stalking, etc. They have often taken self defense classes, and admonished to carry a whistle and a weapon. But, in the end, each person chooses his or her own risk tolerance.
From a mathematical perspective, we know that you pose no threat to us, that you are statistically unlikely to rape us, mug, us or beat us up. We know that men are the recipients of more non-sexualized, violent street crime and muggings. We know that you are good men, who really have no intention of harming us. And we certainly hate being uneasy or worrying about rape. But we still are socially conditioned to be afraid. Rape is a pervasive fear for women in our society, and even though we know that we will most likely know our rapists, it is easier to pin the nebulous fear on a stranger at night than those you trust.
Because we are in a position of discomfort and at a relative disadvantage, we are more likely to be at perfect ease with you in public. You are bigger and generally more physically imposing than us. Also, we are not socialized to fight, so fighting is not a natural response to a threat for us, and we are not always confident in our abilities to defend ourselves. So you have two options. You can choose to say, “Not my feelings, not my problem” and continue on your merry way.
Or you can realize that you don’t live in a vacuum, and your presence impacts other people.
Fortunately, this is easy to do.
1. Be aware of the space around you and the other person. Is he or she alone? Think, if I was a dangerous man, would a woman be safe with me in this situation?
Here’s how you determine that. Assume that you suddenly were replaced with your evil twin, who immediately attacks the other person. Is anyone around to come for help? If the other person screams, will anyone hear them? Are there any lights around, open stores which he or she can flee into? If the answer is no, don’t label yourself as a threat. Don’t invade the other person’s space. Don’t stare at him or her. Don’t try to hit on them.
2. Keep walking, just shuffle your feet to make them aware of your presence. It would be frightening to see a person fifty pounds heavier and seven inches taller just appear behind you, seemingly out of nowhere. You can also hum quietly, shuffle your feet, or say “excuse me.” As a child, you were taught to say, excuse me so that people would move out of the way and not get hurt. It was simple manners, to make the other person aware of your presence. The same rules still apply.
3. If you are waiting somewhere with a stranger. Polite converstion is just that, polite conversation. If you are making polite conversation with someone you are interested in pursuing a relationship with, read the other person’s body signals. If they are merely being polite, it is not an invitation to flirt or a form of foreplay. If your conversational partner is giving curt, one word answers and looking away or at his or her book, headphones, phone, etc, back off.
4. Be careful with elevators. Elevators do not have an escape route, because if they break, you are trapped in a small metal box. If you and another person are sharing an elevator at night, read the other person’s body language. If she is not engaging you, don’t engage her. Just get in the elevator, press your floor button first, and let her press the button for her own floor. Or if you feel like being polite and pressing both buttons, push yours first. Entering your floor first signals that you won’t follow her.
5. Some people are more afraid of elevators than others. So observe the body language of the other person. If they are abjectly terrified of you, of the elevator, of the whole environment, let them go first. For a women who looks two steps away from a panic attack, let her go first. I know that it’s not egalitarian, but she will spend the next minute or two waiting for the elevator alone, eyes frantically skimming the area surrounding her, headphones in, music off and keys jammed between her fingers, ready to attack the next person who invades her space. The elevator will come and she will breathe a huge sigh of relief, hitting the close door button as fast as humanly possible. The sooner she gets home the sooner she feels safer, so be a compassionate person and let her get in the elevator first.
Most women are really not afraid of elevators. Most of us are as caustious in an elevator as we are walking down the street. The only reason I’m writing about elevators is that there is no exit hatch, so a bit more awareness is called for. We just want you to be aware that elevators have the potential to strand us in between floors with a stranger. So, I’m not asking for chivalry, to protect the delicate, defenseless woman. I’m asking for manners, to show some compassion for a person who looks like he or she will have a panic attack at any moment. It goes both ways, I promise. In the same way, if you are obviously frightened and I seem to be scaring you, I’ll be happy to let you have the elevator. There is nowhere that I need to be so badly as to induce a panic attack in another person.
6. Don’t be that guy, that drunken aggressive jerk who harasses women at night. We are already edgy, we already don’t know you, you’re acting really aggressive and horny, and the drinking has stripped your self control. You are doing a really good job of convincing us that you might indeed rape us.
7. Don’t make sexually charged comments to a woman alone at night. Just don’t.
8. Tell your male friends that they too can avoid being profiled as threats if they show basic consideration for personal space and don’t act predatory. Explain that all they “Heeey baby’s” make women less likely to trust men, and that how much that impacts you. Tell your male friends off when they are drunkenly harassing people. A simple, “knock it off,” goes a long way.
9. Don’t laugh at a rape joke, or make comments that a woman was “asking for it.” These actions perpetuate the culture in which rape is trivialized, not taken seriously by law enforcement, and hurts both male and female victims.
Dear men, I know that you are not rapists. I don’t want to think you’re a rapist, I hate every second of wondering if you’re a rapist, and I know that statistically, you are no threat to me. I hate feeling guilty for having what my left brain knows is an irrational fear.
But at the time, it does not seem irrational, in the context of millions of sexually charged micro-agressions, and a culture that accuses me of asking for it. With this framing my thoughts, I still feel a twinge of uneasiness when I see you pushing boundaries, especially when I am in a vulnerable situation. If you follow these guidelines, you demonstrate yourself as non-threatening, and a good man.
Final Words: The statistics and critiques do not invalidate the emotions that people feel, especially in vulnerable situations. This piece is about how to cope with the fact that for both real and legitimate and media induced fears that real people have. It’s extremely rude to invalidate people’s feelings, to insinuate that they should feel differently than they do, based on a noramative model of what society “ought to be.” I would like a society where I don’t fear rape, where I make equal pay to a man, where people don’t get beaten up for loving an adult with the “wrong” genitals. I am fighting to make that society, and part of the way to become that society is to examine our current society, to figure out what needs to change. That means, we need to talk honestly and honestly listen.
So let’s fight for a fairer society, and in the meantime, as a part of that transformative process, please be aware of the impact your presence has on others.