Every so often, people will tell me that the fact that my trust level with men I don't really know is always at Base 0 (i.e. assume he could be a murderer-rapist-jerk and act with due caution) is reverse sexism. Or they'll say that I'll never find the boyfriend I want so badly if I keep being so picky, that my standards are too high. Other times, they tell me that feminism is no longer a necessary social movement, that sexism is over (and then they start half-yelling about the wage gap being a myth in the middle of class and I have to leave crying because I have a flashback FUN PARTY TIMES).
These statement are always incredibly infuriating, because they so deeply invalidate my experience as a woman dealing with men in modern society. The fact of the matter is that men pose to a very real threat to women today, a threat that the very real sexism in our society encourages and ignores. I have been a victim of this. All women have been a victim of this, and because it's a reality, we have to act accordingly: with caution towards the individual and feminist awesomeness towards the society. I've talked plenty about the second, and will continue to do so, but today, here's some thoughts on the first: here are some of the reasons why women like me have to be cautious of men.
Men can be victims, and that matters, But women live in this state of victimization all the time. Here, let comedian Louis C.K. do some explaining:
That's a big part of my caution: that experience, and knowing that it means, statistically, I'm likely to fall into that pattern again. I'm more likely than women who have never been in that situation to end up in an abusive relationship. (In some ways, though, because I'm aware of that and because I know what it's like, I'm less likely. I just have to be vigilant. Which, obviously, I am.) But I've also been through more than that. I've faced plenty of isolated incidents that all add up to me starting at Base 0, because I know what it's like to be hurt by men and I know how big that threat is.
Eleven years old. A man tells me that when I'm married, I need to have sex with my husband whenever he wants it, whether I want it or not. I feel extremely uncomfortable and afraid, but I've not been taught the intricacies of consent. I don't know what marital rape is, and I won't until I'm in college.
Despite all of this, I fall madly in love with that boy, a long and intense and obsessive and unhealthy situation, fueled by my OCD and my desperate need for validation, that will lead me to the brink of suicide and back, a 'romance' that I'm still not sure how to frame in my head. Twilight will encourage me to hold on to this 'love,' although I probably would have even without that book series. He never reciprocates in any outright way, thank God, honestly, because that would have been the most horrific mess imaginable.
Another boy on the bus tries to force a pornographic image into my face. Another couple of dudes won't stop yelling the word "penis."
In the class I transfer into, another guy becomes interested in me, and he attempts to manipulate me into going on a date with him, even though I tell him my religious beliefs mean I can't, by crying and talking about how I've broken his heart. A week later, he asks out my best friend, and a week later, another one of my friends. (When we're eighteen, my friend is coerced into actually going on a date with him and he keeps touching her against her will.)
In the lunch line, some dude snaps my bra, and I'm terrified to even look around, but another guy, a popular kid who has always been nice to me, jumps in to talk to me, successfully keeping anything like it from happening again. I am deeply grateful to him still.
One boy in my history class, out of nowhere, tells me that I'm "so fat and ugly I shouldn't come to school and make people look at me." It's the cruelest thing anyone's said to me, especially with me in the midst of a bunch of severe body image issues. It's exactly what Codi the OCD has been telling me all this time, and I believe it.
My friends are all going through even worse experiences with boys who won't stop following them, boys who physically attack them, boys who call them nasty names, boys who cheat on them, boys who pressure them to do things they don't want to do. These are not my stories, but they affect me deeply. I want to protect my friends. I can't.
Sixteen years old. As soon as I'm old enough to date by my religious standards, a guy friend of mine asks me out. I don't want to go on a date with him, but at the same time, I feel like I don't have the right to say no, that I should feel lucky to have someone be interested in me. I'm also afraid. So instead of telling him the truth, I hide in my house while he calls me repeatedly, one of the stupidest things I've ever done. He's nice enough when he realizes I was trying to say no, but I'm so ashamed I don't speak in the class I have with him for the entire rest of the year. It was a terrible decision on my part, but it's also something that society and past experience has trained me to do.
Seventeen years old. A guy friend tells me that another guy is in love with me and has been for a while. Even though I'm not really that interested, I decide I want to go to Homecoming with the other guy. After all, I'm a sappy romantic who has yet to actually go on a date. When I ask my guy friend to help me set it up, though, he laughs in my face and tells me it was all a joke. I'm so stunned I can't speak.
Eighteen years old. Me and my friends get catcalled walking down the street. It's the first time that's ever happened to me (which is quite a privilege, really, going that long without being whistled at), and I have no idea how to respond.
My first semester of college, a guy in dark clothing follows me halfway across campus, making strange noises. I am so terrified I can't breathe. All I can think is that I'm about to be raped, it's about to happen, please God please let the doors to this building be open, let someone be there. I make it to the place where my friends are waiting, and he turns around and leaves, but I am inconsolable. I cry for hours, straight through a choir concert, and am terrified to be alone. This incident triggers a breakdown that will, a year later, lead me to finally getting diagnosed with OCD.
A guy in church that I was becoming friends with starts coming on to me too strongly. He makes suggestive comments in public, to my embarrassment. When I realize that I'm supposed to be going to a church event, essentially alone with him in a car for hours and then surrounded by strangers, I try to find a way out of it. No one listens, even though I'm scared and crying.
To try and convince me to go anyway, he comes over to my house when my parents are gone. I sit on the couch as far from him as I can, piles of laundry between us. He moves the laundry to sit next to me and starts rubbing my back, telling me that he'll protect me, that I don't have to be afraid. In my panic, I freeze up. I think that maybe if I lean into it, if I let him hug me, it won't feel so awful, but it still does. Afraid and full of shame at my own inability to fight back, the only way I can think to get him away from me is to promise I'll go. He leaves and I spend the next hour crying harder than ever. I manage to get out of going only after my brother sits on my packed bag, refusing to move until after the car has left. For weeks, I can't leave the house without having a panic attack, especially if the destination is church.
Twenty years old. I'm now familiar with Twitter and the social justice community, which means I understand these concepts more than I ever have before, I have the language to fight back, and so I start posting about it at last. When I try to defend a friend online, I get called a " stupid c---."
Twenty-one years old. I finally understand consent well enough that I'm not afraid of having sex someday.
Twenty-two years old. I have three different arguments with meninists who don't recognize my personal knowledge on the subject and who try to mansplain at me and otherwise invalidate my feelings and experiences. A guy on Twitter also responds to a feminist-themed tweet of mine by describing a sexually explicit thing he wants me to do.
I struggle, every day, to hold onto hope that this world can change, and that somewhere out there is my future boyfriend, that he is a good guy, because after everything I've been through and everything I know, I cannot settle for less. I deserve more than this. All the women of the world do.
We deserve better. That's what it comes down to. I have a right to protect and take care of myself, because I, like all woman, possess infinite worth. Feminism isn't about hating or demeaning men, it's about loving women. It's about asking more for women. But because I live in this world, where these things happen all the time, I have to be wary of men. Those are the facts.
So to all the men: you do best by respecting my feelings and my boundaries, listening to the stories of women who have been through this and worse, and not thinking that your experience is the only one that exists. Let me be the one to worry about whether I'm being open enough to allow good relationships to happen. I promise, I'm trying. It's one of the hardest fights of my life.
You can help by genuinely being good. That means being respectful. That means caring. That means recognizing that feminism does still matter.