On being safe from men

This week, I’ve read a few dozen of the thousands of stories of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, verbal assault, sexual assault and rape that women have shared in my Facebook feed, on Twitter and in essays broadcast online.

I don’t know if men know that women share these stories with each other, sometimes—but sometimes they don’t share them with anyone. Sometimes not even—sometimes especially not—the men in their lives.

And that’s a shame, because that means good men have no idea of the extent to which men in this world do not just talk, but also act.

Especially for men, then, this is what’s running through my mind this week as the mother of a teenage girl.

Today, my teen daughter is going to coffee with a friend after school. This should not be a problem. We’ve already had safety talks, because she sometimes takes public transit alone. Her dad and I have told her to always be alert to what’s around her, that IF she listens to headphones, it needs to be at a low volume so she can hear around her, that if someone approaches her or grabs her, she can make a fuss, yell, fight. I’ve set up text 911 so she could text the police, silently, if someone takes her.

My woman-to-burgeoning-woman conversations go a little farther. I’ve talked to her about walking strong, looking confident. I’ve told her what worked for me, when I was a young woman walking in rough areas, to the record store or a café or my job: make fleeting, almost angry, eye contact, tilt my lips the smallest amount (so as not to be told “you should smile” and not to encourage the person), look away purposefully, stay alert. If someone is behind you, cross the street and keep an ear out. Don’t walk past doorways heedlessly. If someone approaches, be ready. I used to think about what I would do to them: gouge out their eyes, knee them in the groin, maybe kill them with something sharp, like the point of my umbrella, a pen, my fingernails. I meant it, too, and maybe that’s why people on the street always left me alone.

I’m a lucky woman

You see, I’m one of those lucky women. Men have done nothing to me at all. Well, nothing really. Nothing I didn’t ask for. Nothing that wasn’t just words. I mean, I’ve been flashed a couple times, the first time when I was about nine, once at work in the drive-through, once walking down the street with friends, just a few other times, that’s all.

Leered at? Yes, of course, but that’s what I get for having breasts. I mean, one incident was really egregious, a cop on duty in his police car in my neighborhood when I was 20, licking his lips, but the only consequence was that I knew I wouldn’t feel safe to call the police if I were assaulted. What was I thinking anyway, wearing a white T-shirt outside? Once, memorably, by a chef who would drop in at my job to meet with my boss, and I can’t even remember what he said but I knew to never be alone with him. The other times, I’ve given up remembering. You can’t notice these things all the time; it would wear a person out.

When the work supervisor who was new to our office but quickly got promoted over “us girls” came around to check on us, he carried with him a commemorative baseball bat—an office decoration—that was stored in his cubicle. True, he liked to thwack it against his hand while he paced behind us, but there’s no reason to feel intimidated—he’s a good guy.

And it’s silly for me to be biased against CU football players just because one of them raped a friend—oh wait, two of them, two different friends, different times. (One of them went to prison, and last I heard, he was still angry 20 years later about how she ruined his life.) Well, those were actual actions, but when a group of CU players followed me and a friend down the street one afternoon, laughing and saying loudly, “We should rape those girls,” that was words. Just a joke. Locker room talk. Even though we weren’t in a locker room, or near any type of athletic facility, but on a public street near these strangers—but sticks and stones, etc.

Other than that, just totally normal stuff, like being glad when cordless phones emerged, because I figured if someone broke into my house I could hit 911 and throw the handset under the bed so eventually help might come. Like a boy threatening that he should force me to give him a blowjob because I’d kissed him (wasn’t I lucky—he didn’t have the nerve to actually force me after I threatened him back!). Like another doing much more than I was comfortable doing, and I went along with it silently because I was getting worried that he was kind of crazy and might hurt me, and that was the right call! Because later he assaulted a friend whom I’d warned not to date him. Wasn’t I smart? Success!

There are only a couple hundred other times when I was pawed on the subway, “accidentally” touched on the side-boob, groped on a dance floor—so many times I can’t even remember the specifics, just as it would be hard to remember each specific incident when you stepped in or almost stepped in a spot of spittle on the sidewalk.

The only price is my peace of mind

You get the point. I am fortunate. Nothing bad has ever actually happened to me at the hands of men, thanks to my vigilance. And all it has cost me is my peace of mind and sense of security at all times!

I can only hope my daughter will be as lucky. She’s well on her way. She simmers with a barely suppressed anger.

How sad.

This morning I warned her that she and her friend need to be extra careful right now, extra alert. Men are out there who are not the good guys—good guys who might not know the extent to which women walk around the world, as someone said, with the attitude of prey. Those not-good guys might be feeling attacked, and I’m worried they’ll take that out on women right now.

(I’d like to point something else out, if you have known me for years and some part of you is thinking, “Well, that’s what you get for hanging out with punks and weirdos.” In every instance above, these perpetrators were handsome, well-dressed, charismatic, charming. In my case, the nerds, new-wavers, musicians and Mohawked boys were never out of line. I mean, there are good cops and bad cops, good punks and bad punks, good businessmen and bad businessmen, but don’t jump to conclusions based on appearance. Shout out to the weirdos.)

So stay safe, women, daughters, non-conforming people. And good men, make sure you are good, and tell other men to be good, too.

Shame has kept these stories locked away, inside us women. But obviously—it should be obvious, but it isn’t—women aren’t the ones who should be ashamed of being victimized. The perpetrators should be ashamed of laying this burden on us.

Imagine what the world would be like if these men—the flashers, the chef, the football players, the co-worker, the violent dates—didn’t exist. If the men existed, but their actions didn’t, or even if they realized, and were sorry, and atoned. Just imagine: What would the world be like if we were equal, if we weren’t afraid, if half of us weren’t prey?

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  1. October 14

    Love this. Thank you, Susanna, for telling our stories.

    • Susanna
      October 14

      thank you for reading and sharing!

  2. John Holley
    October 14

    Thank you for helping us understand. This permeating vigilance, the constant lack of safety, it is the thing men–white men like me–can not understand. Sure, we become enraged at the incidents and we try to understand, change things we can to ensure safe places around us, but we do not often understand the sheer weight of constant vigilance. Of operating in an environment that could go south, always. We’ve had moments, maybe even extended periods, but there was always safe space in a larger, normal world that would again surround us. Not having that safe space, ever, not being able to trust completely, is a daily abrasion and damage to self we can only comprehend for small moments. Thank you.

    • Susanna
      October 14

      Thanks, John! You’re right, everybody has their moments, but it’s different when it colors so many of your actions that you no longer realize you’re even thinking about it. (Also true of other populations.)

  3. October 14

    I had to pull back from Twitter these last few weeks because I had hit a point where my outrage about people not getting it was boiling over. My Twitter crowd is heavily tilted to the left so it wasn’t what they were tweeting that got to me, rather the constant need to keep saying it.

    Everything you’ve written is so true. It was never the punks and the weirdos I worried about, it has always been the Brock Turners. I perfected my “don’t fuck with me” stare and never wore footwear that I couldn’t run in. I had hoped that my teenage daughter wouldn’t need to learn these same lessons, that we were living in more enlightened times, but obviously that’s not the case.

    • Susanna
      October 14

      Yes! Forgot to add the footwear rule. I was talking with some people about not liking heels the other day, and I realized afterward, I never wore heels because they are crippling … in the moment as well as long-term.

  4. Anne
    October 16

    Thank you, Susanna! Your writing expressed what I have been thinking about the last couple of days! It is horrifying that I could substitute myself for some paragraphs and probably 99.999% of women can find their experiences in this.

    • Susanna
      October 17

      Yes! And it’s upsetting that these experiences are so ingrained that most of us just take them for granted.

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