Where Logic Meets Love

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

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Two Sides of the Same Coin | Faith Permeating Life

Side One:

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.

Side Two:

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."

The Coin:

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?


  1. Interesting. I wouldn't have had an issue going to those two guys' apartment, but that's partly because you mentioned that the guys were a couple. I would probably be too scared to go to the apartment of a straight guy I'd just met, even if he seemed nice. And I know that's not completely fair, but it's kind of like asking a stranger to watch your purse for you- you really have no idea what they're going to do.

    I'm way more afraid of being alone with a guy I don't know than of walking alone at night, incidentally. It might make the news when a woman is assaulted walking home, partly because those attacks are often by strangers, but I think it's way more common for someone to be assaulted by someone she knows or has met in a private setting.

    1. This. A gay couple is a very different situation than two straight roommates.

      I have never been in a situation to worry about sexual assault, but I have been the victim of armed robbery. So perhaps I lean toward the slightly paranoid.

      Most straight men aren't rapists. Most people aren't criminals, but enough people are for me to err on the side of caution.

    2. Although I agree somewhat that two guys are different than one guy (at least in terms of my personal feelings of safety), I disagree that two gay guys are that different from two straight guys.

      If, as everyone seemed to believe when they told me to be more careful, two guys had planned ahead of time to assault someone by luring her back to their apartment, then they could have very well told me anything (e.g., that they were a couple) in order to get me to feel safe enough to do so.

      If that's not the case, then I reject the notion that two straight guys would suddenly decide to rape me by virtue of finding themselves with a woman in their apartment.

      In any case, I stand by my point that we need to trust other adults, particularly women, to assess the level of risk in a situation and make their own decisions. Going over the particulars of the situation and saying, "Well, you made the right decision because they were gay" or "It would have been unsafe if there'd only been one guy" is doing the opposite of this. It's a form of victim-blaming, saying that we, outside the situation, know how another person should assess the risks of their own situation and that if they act outside of the boundaries of our assessment, they are partially complicit in whatever happens to them.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Obviously your judgment was correct.

  2. This is really thought-provoking- for your first story, I can't decide whether I agree with you that there's nothing to fear, or with everyone who was shocked at your apparent disregard for safety. I guess I've been taught to be super-afraid of going places with guys, and I don't have any idea of the actual reality of the risk. Hmm.

    1. Personally I don't think you can make a hard-and-fast rule that going somewhere with a guy (or anyone) is always a good or bad choice, which is why I say we need to trust each other's decisions. All life involves some level of risk, and we all have to make decisions based on our own risk threshold and assessment of the current situation. I think it's much better to make a decision about being alone with someone based on things like "Do they make me feel uncomfortable? Do I have a weird feeling about this situation? Do I have a specific reason to believe they might harm me?" as opposed to "Do they have a penis? Yes/No."

  3. I've been on both sides of this coin. Sometimes I'm comfortable with things that shock other people, but sometimes I've been the person who is made uncomfortable by something and other people don't understand why. Intuition is a weird thing, but it's worked for me so far. And I agree with you that the rest of us need to stop imposing our own messages on others, before they lose touch with their innate sense of danger entirely. Actually, a man being overprotective of me and not respecting my intuition makes me feel more uncomfortable than, say, walking by myself at night.

    1. If you haven't read The Gift of Fear, I highly recommend it. His main point is about the power of intuition and how it's a more reliable guide of what's safe than the cultural messages about what you should and shouldn't do.

      I definitely know what you mean about being uncomfortable with someone not respecting your intuition. The message is, "Your assessment of risk is invalid; I will tell you what is and is not safe for you," and that can be a controlling and scary message, particularly if it's coming from someone you don't even know that well.

  4. The Gift of Fear is an excellent book. My parents never read it (and it didn't exist yet when I was a kid) but they taught me basically the same thing: My instincts are there to protect me and deserve to be honored. An important part of this teaching was talking me through situations where I or they felt uncomfortable about my being with a particular person: Was it because I was shy of unfamiliar people in general or my parents were prejudiced against some group to which the person belonged ("teen boy with car" is a group), or was it because that specific person triggered instinctive fear? We should respond to the first type of situation with a little push of courage (assisted by double-checking the escape plan), but the second type of situation is safer to avoid.

    Have you seen my very old article How Fear Handicaps Feminism? It's about several kinds of fear, but one of them is the fear that men are attackers and women are helpless victims. Yes, that situation is statistically more likely than the reverse, but the more important fact is that in most cases nobody is out to harm anybody.

    In my first semester of college I was sexually assaulted by a man I knew and had invited to my room, not knowing that the punch at the party had been so strong that I would pass out. Of course this incident really shook my sense of safety! But I had to admit that the guy's roommate had told me he was a jerk and that my mother (who had met him when visiting a few weeks earlier) had told me she thought he was very creepy, and that I had ignored my own sense because the guy was tutoring me in calculus and I really needed the help. I should have kept him on tutor level and not been so friendly. Lesson learned--but I modified my behavior toward other men only for the rest of that semester before I began to trust my sense again.

    Two years later, I moved off-campus to share an apartment with two men who had advertised for a housemate; I got to know them solely by talking on the 30-minute round-trip walk to see the place. It worked out just fine. But I had rejected a couple of apartments that I would have shared with people who seemed "off"--and some of those were women.

    Over the years I've seen more and more reasons to trust my instincts (or God's guidance--may be the same thing). For example, my impulse to get off the bus early protected my then-4-year-old and me from direct experience of dangerous chaos related to the G-20 summit, but on the other hand when I let a neighbor I barely knew lure my child and me into his apartment for a strange reason we were completely safe.

    Great article! I'm glad you're thinking and writing about this issue.

    1. Just wanted to clarify that when I said what I "should have" done with the calculus tutor, I'm not blaming myself for being assaulted. It was totally his fault for thinking that was an okay thing to do to anybody! Perhaps I could have avoided his doing it to *me* by not giving him that opportunity, but that does not mean my being friendly and treating him as if he were a civilized human was a wrong thing for me to do or that I deserved to be treated that way.

    2. Was it because I was shy of unfamiliar people in general or my parents were prejudiced against some group to which the person belonged ("teen boy with car" is a group), or was it because that specific person triggered instinctive fear?
      I'm glad you brought this up, because this is something I struggle with, and I'm still working on how to make this distinction. I usually see people make the recommendation that your safety is always #1 and you shouldn't worry about offending people (e.g., by not getting on an elevator with a person you get a bad vibe from). However, I'm concerned about perpetuating prejudices, and so if I feel that my discomfort is probably more a result of prejudice/cultural conditioning than because of anything about this particular person or situation, I try to push myself, like you said, while still not rendering myself completely helpless.

      I'm sorry to hear that you were sexually assaulted in college. You are absolutely right to recognize that "This could have possibly avoided the situation" is not the same as "It is my fault that this happened to me." I have become more sensitive to victim-blaming language in recent months and am wary of the way that cautionary tales / "how not to get raped" tips can carry an undertone of placing responsibility on the victim if anything does happen to them. I would like to hear more acknowledgement of the fact that all aspects of life carry some elements of risk, and we all make risk/benefit assessments when making daily decisions and need to be better about trusting other people's ability to make those assessments for themselves.

      To use a completely different example, when my driver's ed teacher continually mocked me for being overly cautious about turning out into traffic, it caused me to doubt my instincts and almost get in an accident by pulling out into traffic too recklessly.


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