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“On High Alert” From a Woman’s Point of View

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Guest post by ObstacleChick

With the recent flood of high-profile sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Roy Moore, and a variety of others, there is a tremendous amount of conversation regarding sexual abuse. While it is despicable that these people abused others, it is good that so many victims have felt empowered to speak up, creating more awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse. A little over a year ago, the conversation came to the forefront in the running community when 3 women in 3 separate states were attacked and killed while they were out running. This excellent in-depth article from “Runner’s World” sums up what women would like for men to know – please read it. There is some good information about harassment in general that will benefit male and female readers alike

Prior to the “Runner World” article, I had not realized that unless I am inside my home or in another place I consider safe, I am always on alert. I am always cognizant of who is around me, whether they look threatening, and locations of my possible escape routes. There’s always the realization that I could become a target of someone with nefarious intent. People have told me that I walk very confidently, with a don’t-mess-with-me attitude. My mother used to joke that she felt sorry for anyone who tried to kidnap me because I would fight like a tiger despite my small stature.

My grandfather was a World War II combat veteran, and he taught me to always be alert in public and how to fight if I ever was attacked. One tip he gave was to carry your keys in your fist with the sharp keys sticking out between your fingers so you could punch someone in the face with the keys. He said to aim for the eyes to inflict most effective damage. If I was walking without keys, he instructed me to pretend to like the guy and touch his face to take him off guard, then to jam my thumbs into his eyeballs, grab his head near the ears, bring my knee up and jam his face into my knee as hard as I could, and then run like hell to a public place. He said to do whatever I needed to do to fight, and to yell “fire, fire” to get people’s attention. He said people might not be interested in an attack, but they would be interested in a fire.

While I have been very fortunate to have never suffered a physical attack, I have been cat-called on many occasions. Once when I was out running on a Sunday morning, someone in a windowless delivery van slowed down to follow me on a less-populated road around a reservoir. I promptly turned around and ran in the opposite direction back toward the homes, church, and police station on the road. I got the license plate number and reported it to the police station. People should not assume that women are only “checked out” when they are wearing something skimpy – this was in the winter, and I was wearing long pants, a jacket, a hat and gloves, and I was still followed — followed for being female while running. In fact, every time I have been cat-called while running, I was mostly covered. The time I was least-covered when I was cat-called was when I was wearing a long t-shirt and long shorts, and I was visibly pregnant. When a cyclist called out “nice ass” as he passed, it was winter and I was covered head to toe. Regardless of what we are wearing, women should not have to hear unsolicited comments like “nice ass” or “hey, hot stuff,” or “hot mama,” and we certainly shouldn’t be followed.

I have reminded my teenage son countless times that cat-calling is unacceptable behavior. The vast majority of women do not like it, and what do guys really think the outcome is going to be? Do they actually believe that if they tell me I have a nice posterior that I will say, “hey, baby, pull over that car and let’s go get it on”? Maybe some women will, but the vast, vast majority will not. And every time someone cat-calls me, it makes me angry. Some people have told me, “oh, that’s a compliment,” or “at your age, you should be glad that someone still thinks you’re hot” (I’m 48). NO! I do not consider it a compliment, I consider it unwanted attention that could be a precursor to something worse. It’s a situation in which I have to evaluate whether I need to flee, fight, or call the police.

Last year when the running attacks occurred, I had discussions with men about always being on alert. Even the most empathetic among them cannot understand what it is like to be on alert like this. Some men thought I was being overly dramatic. Others accused me of having a victim mentality. And yet others thought I was being paranoid. The only people I found who genuinely understood were other women or men who had been sexually assaulted.

Men can definitely be sexually assaulted, and I know of several who have been, but usually the abuse occurred when they were children or teens. Sexual assault is generally an act of control – someone who is stronger or in some way more powerful is exerting sexual control over another person. The recipient may be physically weaker, or they may be in a position of subordination (as in employer toward an employee), or the recipient may be below the age of consent. There may be a combination of these factors. In any case, the recipient is in a disadvantaged position. For example, the accusers of Roy Moore were either below the age of consent or they were young teens propositioned by a prominent attorney – someone with influence in the community. Each girl was at a disadvantage.

How can we as responsible adults make a difference? While I do not pretend to know all the answers to that question, I have identified some things that I can do personally. I can teach my children what sexual abuse means. I can teach them that they can and should say NO in any situation in which they are uncomfortable. I can teach them ways they can protect themselves, both in terms of fighting an attacker and in surveying a situation in which attack could occur. I can teach them to encourage their friends to speak up whenever they encounter sexual abuse. I can teach them to be supportive of others who report sexual abuse and not to automatically blame the victim. Even asking “what was she wearing?” or “was she out alone?” are subtle implications that the victim shares in the blame for someone choosing to assault another human being. Is it wise for women to be on alert, to walk with someone else rather than alone, to perhaps carry pepper spray? Indeed, these ways can help in the immediacy. In the long term we as members of society need to be discussing what sexual abuse means and creating a culture in which victims can come forward and not be immediately doubted and dismissed or considered culpable. We need to stop making excuses for abusers. We need to stop glamorizing and dismissing sexual assault in movies. For example, in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” Han Solo forcefully kisses Princess Leia while she is trying to fix equipment even though she has told him multiple times and in no uncertain terms that she isn’t interested. Fast forward to “Return of the Jedi” when they are a couple. This teaches boys that no doesn’t mean no, she doesn’t really mean it, she wants you to kiss her and she will fall in love with you even though she seems mad at you right now.

No, that behavior is not OK. It is assault.

I hope one day our society will teach our children to use their voices to protect themselves. I hope that they will not feel afraid or like they are being mean by vehemently saying “NO” to someone who wants touch them or convince them to do an act with which they are uncomfortable. I hope that we as a society won’t automatically seek ways to blame the victim or to excuse the acts of a perpetrator. Until then, I will remain on alert.

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Matilda

    There was a proposal by the authority in charge of London’s transport here in the Uk to reintroduce Women Only carriages on some trains. I think they’d had them until the 1950s or 60s. The knee jerk reaction was it was a good idea. Then women began to say, no, that is not equality, we want to be safe in mixed society, not be given special protection from men who can’t control themselves and think it OK to harrass or abuse us. The idea was dropped.

    • Avatar
      ObstacleChick

      Exactly, people should keep their hands and verbal abuse to themselves. I have heard the argument that one purpose of a burka is to protect women from harassment, but I think men should control themselves. Why should I have to wear a garment covering me head to toe? Then there’s the implication that those who don’t wear a burka are fair game for harassment.

  2. Avatar
    Brian

    Very timely message and thank-you. I would add that the most important tool you can give/ ‘teach’ your children is in your own behavior towards them, to allow them freedom to say No to you and to respect their own boundaries in every way, taking direction from them as individuals, not students. Our kids learn from our actions; what we say to them is very secondary. The very best teacher regarding respect for self and others is a childhood where the child has been respected. They know by experience what is proper and correct and are best-equpped to demand it in situations where bullies and creeps present abuse. Likewise, those who have been disprespected and ordered around as children, learn helpless compliance and can find themselves frozen when confronted.
    I am very impressed with your dad, ObstacleChick, his helping you with autonomy and self-defense. I have heard the keys-between-the-fingers before and used it myself on occasion. Regarding cat-calls, one need only look at anybody who does that and it will immediately cure any penchant to participate. The men who verbally abuse women like this are without exception bully-personalities… without exception. As a man, I have always gone in the other direction when this type of verbal shit appears. Even though I was not respected as a child, I learned to turn away from this behavior because I knew what it was like to be bullied and recognized the smell of it as soon as I heard it. I like your response, to turn around and run the other direction as soon as you smell the shit coming your way. It is important to act in defense and not try to carry on and bear abuse as if it might go away. Pricks are pricks are pricks. And without changing the subject, I would like to add how similar these verbal bullies, the cat-callers, are to evangelical preacher-types. These people will tell you you are ugly and hopeless, will verbally assault you with delusional religious talk as if it was a favor to you. When you confront them, they pull up their God-permission to ‘teach’ and ‘preach’. My older brother is like this and rapidly offends. Brother (sic) Dean Saxton is another whack-job who comes immediately to mind, standing on the street and calling women sluts who deserve to be raped. I trust the Weinstein-effect and the hashtag me too movement is a sign of real change afoot.

    • Avatar
      ObstacleChick

      I really hope that that so many victims coming forward signals a major step toward change. Ando you are absolutely right about treating children with respect.

      Yes a lot of evangelical preachera and fervent laypeople can be tremendous bullies – they think they are ordained by God to harass others “for their own good”. Fundamentalisthe Christianity’s hierarchical power structure guarantees bullying will occur.

      You are right that in most cases cat-callers will back down when confronted. One day a postman cat-called me when I was walking. 30 minutes later I saw him in 7 Eleven and he was mortified. He didn’t exactly apologize but he couldn’t get out of the store fast enough.

  3. Avatar
    anotherami

    I had a conversation with my then 26-year old son last year that reflected this reality– that our culture puts women in the position of having to be on constant alert. He was outraged when I said that women must view any unknown man as a potential attacker. He screamed at me, “That’s saying that any woman I don’t know is going to look at me or my brother as potential rapists!! That’s fucked up!” He’s right, it is severely fucked up but it’s also a woman’s reality. We can’t always tell who the creep is, so all men have to become suspects. That includes my own sons if they are among women who don’t know that they are both “good guys”; I have seen them both step in to protect women. But there’s nothing to tell all women that, hence they will viewed with suspicion from time to time. I can’t tell you how much it hurt to have to admit this to my son or how angry it made him. We need to change this aspect of our culture because the way things stand now harms both men and women.

    • Avatar
      ObstacleChick

      Anotherami,100% YES! You are completely acvurate. I told my husband and then 14-year-old son this same thing and they both got angry. They should be angry that it’s the “norm” in our culture that we women have to view every man as a potential threat.

      I was so happy to hear from a friend that my son when 11 stood up to some of the “popular” and influential boys in his grade as they were harassing my friend’s daughter. He didn’t even mention it to me, I heard from her. When I asked him what happened he just said that those boys were saying sexually suggestive things to her and he told them to stop. I asked him what he thought about that and he said the boys were being bullies and that their behavior was wrong. I was proud of him for standing up for right. I am sure you are proud of your sons for doing the right thing too. If only all men would. If only more would try to understand.

  4. Avatar
    Connie

    I’m glad your boys are angry. They should be. I’m angry that I have to view my fellow humans with immediate distrust.

    Glad you explain to the kids so they understand the look they might get is not them but Them; meaning because so many people before were without honor the auto response is to not trust.

    I’m going to make an Everyone Must Do This statement: “However achieved, the population of the USA needs to go through therapy and learn some life survival skills”.

    I personally went through a year of DBT which gave me the language to navigate life. It allowed me perspective to ensure my relationships are supported with healthy boundaries. The therapy helped to deal – ha! It was necessary! To deal with the wrinkles and damage done requires guidance. Someone more fair to oneself than the self. Many of us are our own worst critics.

    My concern in all the bonding with hashtags and celebrity outings is we’ve done this before. We did this in the seventies and then… I don’t know. Lots of theories.

    Let’s not underestimate the desire of a few patriarchal cultists to maintain their control of power. Nuff said on that.

    • Avatar
      anotherami

      In the 70’s, I went from a goofy kid to a married woman and yes, this past year has often felt like deja vu. But there are critical differences this time; how much we’ve learned and progressed since then and it isn’t happening on the tails of the “sexual revolution”. In the 70’s, “everybody’s doing it”. This is the era of The Dating Game, The Match Game, Love, American Style (all launched in 1969) and The Love Boat (1977-87). Kids weren’t taught about “good touch, bad touch” and everyone knew what a “shotgun wedding” was. Then came AIDS and “sex ed” instead of two days of gender-segregated films/film strips and a far greater understanding of childhood sexual abuse and human sexuality in general. We may be having to cover the same topics again, but the society we are having those conversations in has changed; most of those being accused today are at least 50, if not older. Younger offenders are often called out in close to real time (R Kelly springs to mind). So while we may be having to teach men all over again, we’re teaching men who aren’t, in general, like Don Draper to begin with. We made progress the last time, we’ll make more this time, even if we don’t get to where we wish to be.

  5. Avatar
    Joel

    Goes to show how difficult it is for a few thousand years of civilization to reverse billions of years of evolution. In most cases, males are hard-coded by nature to dominate females. Just look what happens when social restraints are removed and we devolve from whence we came (rape of Nanking, Vietnam atrocities, etc. ).

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