Two Sides of the Same Coin
Tuesday, February 5, 2013Tweet
Here's a story about how Mike met some of our first friends here in Whoville.
He went to a Meetup event that I had no interest in going to, and as it was downtown and he really hates driving downtown Whoville, he took the bus that picks up right on campus and dropped him off near the restaurant. Not many people showed up for the event, so it ended up being just him and three other guys. One of the guys was kind of douche-y, but the other two guys, who were a couple, were extremely nice, if a bit quiet, and Mike hit it off with them. When it came up that Mike had taken the bus (about an hour ride), these guys offered to give him a ride back to campus (about a 15-minute drive). Mike said it was out of their way since they lived only a few blocks away, but they said it was no problem and they really felt bad about him taking such a long bus ride back, so he said OK. After the event, he walked back with them to their place to get their car, talking with them, and they invited him inside to meet their new puppy they'd been talking about during the event. On the drive to campus he talked with them some more, and as they arrived he told them we regularly host board game nights and said he'd be happy to get an e-mail address from them and invite them to our next one, which he did.
OK. What's the point?
This story didn't happen to Mike. It happened to me. I went downtown for an event that ended up being me and three guys, and really hit it off with these two guys, who offered me a ride home.
Note: The rest of the post has trigger warnings for discussions of rape and assault.
When I've told people this story of how I became friends with these guys, I get a pretty consistent reaction of fear and concern, particularly if I include the part about going in their apartment to meet their puppy. I can't be sure, but I'm going to guess that most of you didn't feel fear and anxiety while reading the above story about Mike making some new friends. But we are fed such a steady media diet of stories about women getting raped and killed, and women receive so many "tips" on how not to get raped, that people have this notion that the only reason a woman would ever willingly enter the residence of a male person she had just met is if she's completely naive and the possibility of getting raped or killed has never entered her mind. And so when telling this story I get these reactions of, "Oh my gosh, you need to be careful!"
The only reason I said yes to any of it -- getting a ride home, going to their apartment -- was because of Gavin de Becker's book The Gift of Fear, which told me to stop being afraid of everyone and to pay attention to whether my body was actually telling me that something seemed wrong or that I had a real reason to fear.
The truth is, I was still completely apprehensive the entire time, even though I had absolutely no reason to be. I wasn't getting any sort of gut reactions of something not being right, and I felt 100% safe and comfortable with these guys. Even then, when they offered to give me a ride, my brain started whirring and trying to figure out if I was being lured into some kind of trap, and the "be safe" part of my brain told me I should say no, just in case, and wait the half an hour for the hour bus ride back to campus (although, was I being unsafe by waiting at a bus stop in the city after dark?). Despite these guys being some of the nicest, gentlest human beings I'd ever met, I was still massively apprehensive about going up to their apartment even though they were not insistent about it in the slightest and seemed only eager to show off their new puppy, which, in fact, was exactly the case. And in their apartment, my brain was going, "OK, are there any signs they're trying to keep me here? What will I do if they suddenly try to attack me or block the door?"
This is what it means to be a woman in a society that tells you that women are to blame for the things that happen to them because of their own lack of caution, and that men all secretly want to rape you if you give them the chance.
People mistakenly thought I did what I did only because I was too stupid to be afraid enough for my own good. But I did it in spite of my fear, a fear which was in spite of having any good reason whatsoever to fear, other than a glaring cultural narrative telling me that my gender made me vulnerable, and their gender made them dangerous.
We were at a campus event on a Saturday night, sometime between 11 and midnight, at a building about a 7-minute walk from our dorm. One of our female residents, who was also at the event, came over to talk to Mike and mentioned not feeling comfortable walking home alone this late at night. Mike went off to find someone to walk her home, and one of our friends, another hall director, started going off about how utterly ridiculous it was to be uncomfortable walking alone on campus when it's a short walk and the campus is well-lit along the way.
Any guesses as to the gender of this friend?
Although I wasn't personally uncomfortable walking home alone, and did so shortly after midnight while Mike was still helping clean up, I completely understood this girl's anxiety about it. It doesn't matter how well-lit the campus is or how short the distance, because she's been the recipient of the same "advice" I mentioned above about how if you don't want to get raped or attacked, you have to follow a checklist of things like "Never, under any circumstances, walk home alone at night."
She also knows, I'm sure, that even if she faced up to her fears and made the walk by herself, if God forbid something did happen to her, she would be blamed. For not following the checklist. And then people, possibly even the same people who mocked her for her fear of walking home alone, would be quick to say, "Well, of course she got raped. A 19-year-old girl walking alone at 11:30 at night? She could have easily asked a friend to walk home with her and then this wouldn't have happened."
When people talk about things like "rape culture" and "male privilege," this is the kind of thing they're referring to.
For your average woman, there's no good way out of this bind. If you are unafraid, or if you continue to live your life as if you are unafraid, then you are "naive," "ignorant," or "careless." If you are afraid, or take the steps you've been told you're supposed to take to protect yourself, then you are "overreacting," "ridiculous," or "letting fear rule your life."
I don't have an easy answer to what is a huge cultural issue, but I do have one basic takeaway from these stories, and that is to trust adults to run their own lives. Which is, obviously, applicable in many situations, but I think it's particularly important when talking about and to women about how they assess and manage risk in their lives, specifically regarding physical safety.
"Trust" doesn't mean "never say anything ever." But it means that when someone tells you that she was in a situation that, theoretically, could have been risky for her, keep in check that instinctual response rising up that says she must not have considered the risks of the situation, and that you need to tell her to be more careful. Assume unless proven otherwise that she was well-aware of the potential risks of the situation and made a decision that she felt was in her best interest in the grand scheme of things.
And when someone does take precautions that allow her to feel safer or more comfortable, trust that she is the best judge of what she needs. Don't lecture her about how the risks she's worried about are small, or about how most rapes are not actually strangers jumping out of bushes despite what the cultural narrative may tell us. Depending on your relationship with her, there may be a time and a place for that discussion, but in general, allow people to do what they need to do to feel safe. Trust that they know themselves better than you do.
Do you have a story about either side of this coin, or what we can do to address this double-bind?