I Am Afraid of Men

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.

On the Three Year Anniversary of my Sexual Assault

*TW: assault, abuse, anxiety and panic*

The semester had just begun and I felt like I really had it together.  I was organized, I was going to the gym each morning, I was ahead on my school work.  But things were not as perfect as they seemed.  I was beginning to doubt my long-term relationship with my then-boyfriend, “Ethan”.  I didn’t feel like I could be myself.  In retrospect, I now know that I spent years in an emotionally abusive relationship, consistently being told what I wasn’t allowed to wear, who I could hang out with, and that my opinions were wrong.  After months of built-up doubt, I finally told Ethan that I needed time to think about what I wanted.  He didn’t take it well, which is understandable, but amidst his consistent attempts to control me, his negative reaction pushed me away even further.  I wanted out but I had attached myself to him for so long that I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own.

The next day, I went to work at a restaurant, anticipating celebrating at my friend’s birthday party afterward to blow off some emotional steam.  I hadn’t eaten much that day.  Distraught about the conversation I’d had with Ethan, I didn’t have much of an appetite.  Despite this, I showed up at the party after my restaurant shift and had a few drinks.  I vented to some friends about what was going on in my relationship, and I got some good advice.  After a few hours, though, I lost most memory of much of what happened that night, but I do know how it ended.

As the party winded down, I made what I thought was a responsible decision to stay on my friend’s couch after the party and not drive home.  I knew I had no business driving a car, plus it was extremely late, and I planned to leave in the morning once I had sobered up.  However, I wasn’t the only one who stayed.  A guy I knew from school, “Jacob”, also stayed.  Admittedly, I had developing feelings for him. This was part of the reason I had begun to question my existing relationship with Ethan.  I thought it was important for me to figure out what I was missing in my current relationship that led me to develop feelings for other people. I now know the answers to that question: kindness, communication, freedom to be myself.  But at the time, I just thought I was a bad person for having feelings for someone else, when in fact I was being manipulated and emotionally abused by Ethan.

That night after my friend’s birthday party, I was excited that Jacob had decided to stay.  We were alone together, and I hoped we would talk and get to know each other a little more.  But that’s not what happened.  Because I had not yet sobered up, things happened that night that I did not consent to.  My feelings for Jacob did not make these things okay.  My lowered inhibitions did not make them okay.  What should have happened was this: Jacob, noting I was intoxicated and emotionally vulnerable, put me to bed on the couch and told me to rest up. What did happen was: I stated what I didn’t want, but he insisted that it was okay for him to those things. I don’t know if I said “no” or “stop”, but I do know that Jacob told me what he was going to do to my body instead of asking if it was okay.  I know that I told him there were things I didn’t want to do and that he did them anyway.  But instead of realizing I had been sexually assaulted, I spent months thinking that I had cheated on Ethan.

I woke up the next day in a constant state of panic.  I couldn’t breathe.  My heart was beating out of my chest.  Partly due to what I perceived as my failure to be perfect and partly due to what I did not realize was a violation of my body, I felt unhinged.  This past Sunday, I felt anxious and panicky throughout the whole church service I was attending.  I was confused until I remembered the feeling of showing up the morning after my assault, to my internship at that same church, exactly two years ago.  I had felt dirty, shameful, unworthy.  I thought I had done something terrible that made me a failed pastor and a failed human.  I’m not really sure how I moved forward the rest of that semester, but in many ways I’m still recovering. I hate that I still feel the need to use fake names to protect these men or to protect myself from them.  Moving toward forgiveness for both of these men is a daily struggle.  I still don’t know how to offer forgiveness in a way that doesn’t justify the things that happened to me.  Others often say that forgiveness is actually for me and not for them, but I have trouble framing it that way.

I no longer feel like a failure because I know what happened was a result of abuse and assault, not a result of my own moral failings. I needed to get out of my relationship with Ethan in order to fully be myself. I needed to realize what Jacob had done to me in order to be able to heal from it. I still deal with the anxiety and panic that I hold in my body from these experiences. But on this 2-year anniversary of the most terrible thing, I do have the ability to look back and know how strong I am to have survived this. I can look back and see how far I’ve come in managing my anxiety. I can look forward and know that I am now in a relationship with someone who values me as I am, shows me kindness, and doesn’t try to take control of me. I can also look forward and imagine a future where forgiveness is possible, and I think that’s a good place to start.

Nasty Women

We beat our hands into
the muddy ground,
centuries of asking
for more,
always perceived as
a threat
no matter how we phrase it.

Internalizing requests
to be less,
settling for
assistant,
vice,
“Mrs. John Smith.”

We have our own names
and strong bodies,
consistently colonized
by laws
and vanity
and men’s mouths.

So the pain
of losing again
to a man
who has no idea
that he is a perpetrator
is no surprise,
but just another
thing to overcome.

We will continue
bringing new life,
subversively
proving our strength,
beating our hands into
the muddy ground,
packing down the seeds
in the earth
to grow.