TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse
I can’t say when it all started, exactly. When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard. I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me. I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women. This doesn’t mean I hate men. I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends. I am not afraid of them because I know them. They have proven to me that they are trustworthy. But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.
I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner. He told me what I could or couldn’t wear. He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend. When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong. He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him. He used guilt to control me. At first, though, he was charming. But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me. Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns. He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.
I was sexually assaulted by a friend. I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger. Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew. We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable. He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.
If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street. I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling. When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman. When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.
I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men. Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists. I worry about being grabbed. Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”. While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid. I am afraid in my workplace. I am afraid on public transit. I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime. I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.
All of this fear is exhausting. Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in. I don’t worry about my body. I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted. I want to feel this way all the time. I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body. But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists. We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men. For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers. It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.
But I don’t want to feel this way. We don’t want to feel this way. Women do not want to be afraid all the time. So, men, prove us wrong. Be kind. Be vulnerable. Show sensitivity. Do not be defensive. Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything. Listen to what we have to say. Do not assume we owe you anything. Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man. Stop catcalling. Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated. Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed. Be our partners, not our hunters.
Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way. I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary. You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here. Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.