I was walking down the street, a few blocks from reaching my home. After sitting at my computer most of the morning, I knew getting outside, even on a hotter-than-I like day, to move my body in the steady rhythm of a walk, would do me good.
I saw him approaching, stiffly, as if walking weren’t so easy these days, an older white man, cropped white hair, blue shorts pulled just under his exposed bellybutton, white T-shirt riding just above it, something in his arm, maybe a wrinkled-up sheet- I didn’t look at long enough to know for sure. I had planned to greet him with a friendly, “Hi, how are you?” but he spoke first.
With a smile on his face, “You better get you a really big dog. When they get pretty like you, you need a big dog to defend yourself.”
“I don’t need a dog. I can defend myself,” I said casually, not stopping, past him by this point.
“What’d you do? What’d you learn?” He had stopped and was turned toward me, still smiling.
I turned his way, still moving, “I know how to talk to people.” I waved and kept walking, a tornado whirling in my head.
The conversation lasted no more than 15 seconds.
I know how to talk to people? Does that protect me?
Short answer: Yes. I've been in situations where my use of clear, calm words has diffused what could have become a violent situation, either for myself or others. When I have been in Palestine, I have more than once used words, or even simple body language, to protect myself or others from people, most often Israeli soldiers, with weapons held in hands.
Long answer: Unlike the last recent encounter where my “prettiness” was a wasted commodity for someone else’s pleasure, today it was a detriment to my safety.
In both cases, these statements were offered as compliments, or at least I assume so from the smiles on their faces. In neither case was my body assumed to be my own. Instead it was something that someone else (presumably a man) should “have,” and my own dominion over it rendered it either worthless or subject to violence.
Let’s break it down a little more:
A man I’ve never seen before thinks that the best way to engage with me is by telling me that the way I look is so much of a danger that someone (I assume, a man) might hurt me to possess it.
Saying that I need a dog to protect myself IS NOT A COMPLIMENT. It is not a compliment to me and it doesn’t exactly paint a glowing image of men. It is, rather, a threat. “You should be afraid, even in the middle of the day, of men,” (smile on the face) “who will naturally want to forcibly take you because of the way you look.”
Women are attacked and abused and raped at alarming rates regardless of their looks. Men who are attacking, abusing, and raping women may use “pretty” or “not pretty enough” or “you in some way don’t meet my standards of pretty” or “someone else might be attracted to your pretty” or “you’re using your pretty to attract someone else” as an excuse for their misplaced anger, an outlet for their rage. But let’s be clear: a woman’s looks, whether “pretty” or “ugly” or something else, are not the problem. A woman can present herself however the hell she wants. No man (or other woman, for that matter) gets to decide that. No one gets to attack her for her decisions.
I remember most vividly a time many years ago in which I feared for my own safety. I was dating the man who threatened me. He happened to do so when I was taking care of a large dog. The dog was no deterrent. I don’t know if it was my words or the fact that I was able to move us somewhere where we were visible to others that protected me from harm. But I got away, in the moment and for good.
Violence, or the threat of it, is the problem.
The problem is men who thinks it’s OK to offer unsolicited “advice” to women. The problem is men who think they have the right to any woman’s body, regardless of her feelings on the matter. The problem is men who think they have the right to attack her, verbally or otherwise, if she dares to refuse his advances, however polite or grotesque they may be. The problem is blaming and shaming women for violence done to them (“What was she wearing when she got raped?” as if the rape happened without someone actively doing it to her). The problem is not holding men accountable for their actions. The problem is young men like Brock Turner who brutally rape a woman and, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, blames them on “alcohol and sexual promiscuity.” Hint: rape ≠ sexual promiscuity. Hint: Alcohol is no excuse for rape. The problem is men like Turner’s father who think that punishment for “20 minutes of action” should be lenient or nonexistent. I wonder if he’d feel the same way if someone spent a similar “20 minutes of action” with his wife or daughter. I fervently hope he, they, never have to find out.
I had a student once who wrote a heartbreaking personal story of being held back, held back, at a party as another guy raped his friend. The problem is that that happens.
The problem is that from a very young age, girls receive messages that their primary asset is the way they look. And very rarely does the way they look conform with the images they see, thus setting them up for constant striving towards the impossible. The problem is that from a very young age, girls learn to be passive, to question their instincts rather than trust them, to keep their emotions in check. The problem is that from a very young age, boys learn that certain expressions of emotion, the “soft” ones, are not acceptable. The problem is that from a very young age, boys receive message that aggression and toughness are what define their masculinity.
The problem is that not enough men who agree with everything I’m saying hold other men accountable when they do or say things that promote rape culture and misogyny. The problem is anyone, man or woman, who teaches girls and women that it is up to them to keep from getting raped or attacked or abused or killed, but doesn’t teach boys and men not to rape or attack or abuse or kill women.
The problem is that we don’t emphasize enough the power and the necessity of mutually respectful relationships. We must teach boys and girls, men and women, most probably ourselves included, how to be in relationships that honor the fullness of expression that each of us has to offer. We need not look too far in our world to see this.
I don’t plan to get a big dog.
I know how to talk to people, or at least I’m trying. I’m learning. I want to talk to people. I want to reach out to their hearts, to your heart, with mine.
I do not put my trust in fear. I put my trust in the belief that most of the time most people I meet will treat me like a person if I treat them like a person, even if the encounter starts with something other than respect. I know it is so hard to offer respect in the face of animosity. So I will practice. Practice. PRACTICE. I know that if that doesn’t work, walking away is usually an option. Or walking towards another good soul.
And so I will keep walking, forward when possible, backward when necessary, head held high.