The other morning, I decided to cut through a nearby park on my way home from a workout. As I was strolling along, a man approached, clearly staring me up and down. When we crossed paths, he said to me, “You’ve got the face of an angel!” I smiled politely and he continued on, “Do you know that you’ve been kissed by God?” I responded with another smile and kept walking. I felt myself exhale as I saw that he continued walking in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the interaction ended that I even realized that my subconscious had been hard at work for the duration of the 15-second exchange, evaluating threats and calculating the most “appropriate” ways to react. I took in his appearance, body language, tone of voice, and physical size. There was an automatic analysis of his likely intention (to hit on me? to be friendly? to give me his input on my identity as an angel?) and my wisest response (to laugh? to nod? to ignore him?) and never once did I consider what I felt like doing because the focus was on keeping him non-threatening and getting on with my day.
Someone recently shared with me a piece in the Huffington Post by Gretchen Kelly, titled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.” She points out the various ways that women de-escalate and shrink our everyday experiences to avoid confrontation. As soon as I read it, I felt validated and shared it with several of my female friends, colleagues, and clients. It resonated with each of them. I realize as I write this that I conveniently “didn’t think about” sending it to any men. Perhaps on some level, I assumed they wouldn’t be interested, or wouldn’t find it as powerful as I did (which would feel invalidating and make me question whether my reaction was “right”). As social creatures, we naturally look to others for external validation, and when we don’t get it, we naturally question whether our perceptions were accurate. That’s why groupthink is a thing. We like to “belong,” to feel like people agree with us and believe that what we bring to the table is important. So I guess I played it safe by sharing the article with people I could count on for validation– fellow women.
I share Kelly’s worries when it comes to discussing women’s issues. I worry that I’ll be accused of exaggerating or overreacting, or being “sensitive.” In another part of my brain, though, there’s a voice that says “It doesn’t matter. I’m a person, and dammit, all human experience is valid!” It’s a newer voice, probably fueled by my training as a psychologist, but I sure am grateful it chimed in. The fact that this voice is not the most familiar message my brain gives me tells me that as human beings, we need to talk about what’s happening, so that we can stop invalidating each other and start connecting more authentically.
As a woman, I’ve been programmed to do the type of split-second assessment I did at the park the other morning everywhere. It’s something that happens as automatically as blinking. Nobody ever sat me down and taught me to dissect the environmental, social, physical, and emotional elements of my daily interactions with men, but I still learned how to do it. I learned the necessity of de-escalating, as Kelly calls it, to keep myself functioning in the world.
I know that regardless of gender, anyone can commit or become a victim of sexual assault and other forms of violating interpersonal behavior. I also know from experience that when we feel attacked or accused of something that feels “icky,” we become defensive. You could ask me about the race of the man who approached me in the park, and argue that had something to do with my fear. I can already feel my defenses gearing up to “prove” that my fear response was not based on the man’s race, because “Oh my gosh, what if I seem racist?” You could tell me I should have been flattered by his compliment, and I feel myself start to question down another self-doubting road, “Oh my gosh, what if I’m overreacting to something harmless and he was just being friendly?” Those reactions are there because there’s some truth underneath.
Here’s the thing, though. As I mentioned in my post last Thanksgiving, I know that I have biases. I make implicit associations based on race, gender, age, appearance. We all do. We can’t possibly know about all of them, but when we discover them, we can try our best to acknowledge and own them instead of denying them. It’s an uncomfortable process that nobody is ever truly “done” figuring out. But here’s the other thing. I don’t think it helps anyone to pin this womanly “detective work” on racial or any other type of bias. I have had this feeling in response to looks, gestures, and comments from a diverse range of men. Maybe race plays a role, maybe age plays a role, maybe my mood that day plays a role in how I perceive someone… but these are not even close to being the only factors at play. I learned to assess and respond to men to keep myself safe, to prevent a scoff and a muttering of “bitch” under a stranger’s breath, to avoid angering or provoking.
I’ve worked with many clients who struggle to heal from trauma. What I find hardest about treating people who have been abused, assaulted, and raped is that there is this larger-scale minimizing that works against them. We can sit together and validate like there’s no tomorrow, but it often feels like just a drop in the bucket. We still live in a world where de-escalation is the norm. At the society level, we are denying, distorting, and invalidating people’s experiences. I get it; this type of stuff isn’t exactly fun to acknowledge. It’s much easier to say to someone (or to yourself) that “he was just joking around” than to say to someone (or to yourself) that what he just said was inappropriate. It’s much easier to blame the recipient of unwanted advancements (“if you don’t want to get hit on, don’t dress in a tight shirt”) than to turn inward and acknowledge that we said or did something that made someone uncomfortable. Plus, these exchanges often happen so automatically that it isn’t always possible to recognize them before they’re over.
Peel back one more layer of the onion and it’s clear that many of us choose not to bother speaking up, often until things “cross the line” and get dangerous. The shaming/ blaming/ dismissing responses that tend to come from calling out inappropriate and intrusive behavior makes it easier sometimes to just shame/ blame/ dismiss it within ourselves before even acknowledging that something bothered us. We’ve done it a billion times. It often ends up being seen as “overreacting” if we say that someone’s behavior felt scary, creepy, or hurtful. And who wants to be labeled as “dramatic” or “blowing things out of proportion” or “playing the victim?”
Here’s my challenge to all of us: speak up, let yourself speak up, and let others speak up without dismissing. If you’re a woman, admit that something didn’t feel okay to you and let yourself get pissed off. Teach your children that their experiences are always valid, and that if something feels threatening, they aren’t overreacting. If you’re a man, let yourself consider that what I’m saying might be accurate. Notice if you become defensive and think, “it’s not fair to blame us for your reactions,” or, “I’m a nice guy/ social worker/ philanthropist/ feminist/ mensch, don’t try to make me feel guilty about this stuff,” or “men can be victimized, too.” Then, see if you can get to something else, below your automatic reaction. I’m not saying men can’t be victimized, and I’m not saying all men have done this type of thing. I’m just asking for everyone to listen and take it seriously.
I’m not pointing fingers at anyone; this isn’t about casting certain people as villains based on their gender or any other demographics. It’s about getting one another to start listening openly and without defenses. Asking yourself if you’ve invalidated someone is not an easy thing to do. I hate having to admit when I have minimized someone else’s experience, because I feel guilty and ashamed, but I also know it’s the only way to change things. And I know from the number of people I see, day in and day out, who bravely share the pain of their experiences, that we need to make this change.