I was recently training at my self-defense training gym, doing a drill where someone walked right at us and either pulled a knife or brushed past us. I had trouble standing still for the drill because if someone is walking right at me, I will move out of the way. It is a learned behavior in a world where the fact that I am a woman means I am not safe. I tried explaining this to the instructor the third or fourth time I flinched aside when my training partner was still 10 feet away. My instructor tried to come up with a potentially non-threatening scenario (“maybe they’re just looking at their phone). I responded I’d still probably step aside.
I spend a lot of time in the world, as a woman, alone. I spend a lot of time alone because I like the time by myself, and because that time alone (in theory) lets me recharge. My guy friends who also spend a lot of time alone seem to take their alone time for granted. They travel alone to remote villages in India. In Mexico. In Bolivia. In Argentina. In Ghana. In Nepal and Thailand and pick-a-country-Europe.
Mostly they express no hesitation about this, especially if they know the language. Mostly they seem to think nothing of staying with a stranger when they travel or camping near other campers.Sometimes, I envy them this ease of being. I allow myself to imagine how genuinely refreshing these solo trips must be.
When I’m alone, I’m vigilant. Most people who experience being targeted by predatory men recognize the subtle shifts in body language and spoken language when an interaction is walking a thin line between okay and scary.I generally try to exit any conversations I feel roped into (because sometimes answering feels safer than not answering) quickly and politely.
Because I am a woman who chooses to travel alone in the world, and often in ways that put me in immediate contact with our fellow humans, I can almost count on harassment from men.
This month: I was outside of a coffee shop when a guy asked me what sports I played as a way of talking about my legs and getting into my space. I was biking past several men (pick a day, any day) when they called me some sugary pet name (pick a name, any name). I was biking past several men when they formed a line (think of a gauntlet) on either side of the path. I was standing on my front porch. I was walking my dog. I was ambling through knee-high grasses on the edges of a palustrine wetland. I was exiting a grocery store. I was sitting on the edge of a pocket-prairie watching a colony of prairie dogs and eating an apple. I was in the town square of a rural town of a rural state taking a picture of a statue.
Last weekend, I was walking down a popular mall in a neighboring urban area when two men started harassing me, despite the fact that I was walking with a male relative.
Usually, if I’m with a guy — any guy — I can avoid the venomous honey of street harassment. Because if I’m with a guy — any guy — other guys see me as his property.
This weekend aside, I don’t remember the last time I was harassed if it seemed like I was in the company of a man. And although I know that the men who were harassing me are the ones to blame, I couldn’t help but feel a level of humiliation.
Because while I do tell some men in my life about what being harassed is like, it’s often recounted in a rant — either via text or in person. They don’t see it. They don’t see me being objectified.
The relative and I didn’t talk about it.
Sometimes these conversations are hard. I’m still not sure how it might have gone.
One guy I talked to about being harassed said didn’t realize how bad it was for me — for other women — but that he felt bad because he used to do some of these things when he was younger. He said it was a combination of poor social skills and wanting to show off for his friends. He said because of these past actions, he wasn’t sure if he should speak up. My response was “Cool, so I need you to forgive your younger self enough to speak up when you see this happening.”
With that in mind, what I need from the guys in my life is:
- Don’t laugh when some guy makes a bro-y joke that objectifies someone.
- Speak up if you’re nearby while someone is being harassed. Even if you just say “Not cool” to the guy.
- Don’t suggest that women are just behaving irrationally (this includes calling them a bunch of different derogatory names) when they ignore you when you talk to them / break up with you (even though yes, getting broken up with sucks) / come home crying but don’t want to tell you why / avoid certain areas even if it means going out of their way. Don’t let your friends do it either.
- Talk to the guys in your life about how not to be a creeper.
- Bear witness. Don’t walk away if you think someone might be getting harassed but you aren’t sure. Listen to our stories. Let us cry, if that’s what’s helpful to us then. Pay attention to the news when it’s about yet another girl or woman being murdered for telling a man no.
- Believe us when we tell you our stories.
- Remember you can’t fix what already happened.
Because the thing of this is that I am someone regardless of my relationship to a man. I am a person with thoughts and feelings and a history and a future.
The thing of this is I can say these things all day and all night, but toxic masculinity and the patriarchy won’t hear it from me. To toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, my ideas and experiences don’t cont unless translated by a man. I’ve seen that play out more than once (and most definitely been gaslighted about it too, but that’s another post).
The thing of this is I should be able to move through the world without a constant fear for my bodily integrity. I shouldn’t have to be hypervigilant all the time.
It’s warm now, which means the amount of harassment I experience has increased. It happens every year.
It means that my time alone, when I’m in the world, is less refreshing than it used to be.