Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Defense of Self, Part Two

I recently visited my father. He happens to be one of the kindest, most chivalrous people I’ve ever met. He’s that old school guy we don’t have enough of these days who holds the door for you and helps strangers and believes the handshake should be as binding as a legal contract. Yet like so many men he too is entrenched in gender behavior to such an extent that he is unaware of its influence. And coming from him, I know it’s not malicious or meant to harm. But it is just as insidious.

On a recent hike we met two women on their descent. We chatted briefly about the nice day before my dad joked that he would join them since they had the easier job of going downhill. I felt them recoil. Not from my dad as a bad guy but in the internal alert all women have that tells us an uninvited male is asserting claim on our space. Joking or not, it makes us instantly assess our safety and wonder if we will need to defend ourselves.

In the past, I would have brought this to my dad’s attention later with a “don’t say things like that to women,” or “do you know how uncomfortable you made them?” But I don’t bother anymore because the answer is he truly doesn’t know. He thinks I’m just being reactionary and ridiculous when I bring it up. But I saw the ice that flashed across their faces. I don’t think men can see it. They are, and I’m generalizing, not attuned to read subtle energy changes the way we are -- the way we’ve had to be to keep our wits about us and our bodies safe.

Later that day my dad and I went to dinner. A man at the bar wouldn’t stop staring at me. After a good half hour of this I mentioned to my dad how uncomfortable it made me. He shrugged and said “Take it as a compliment. He just doesn’t know how to communicate it in a tactful way.”

Hmmm. A compliment. I saw his point and I tried to let it go as I squirmed in my seat. I thought about my options. I could get up and say something to the man about how rude he was being but then I’d be the asshole. Why is that? Why am I the bad guy if I set a boundary for myself? Big secret answer: because society doesn’t want women to have boundaries. They are to be objects. Property.

My stomach knotted. I was sitting there with the chief protector of my well-being and yet feeling like a rabbit dangling before a wolf. My kind and upstanding dad could never understand the upset and injustice of the moment. He could never get the experience of being a woman under a male gaze.

A compliment? I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks: should my friend who was raped take that as a compliment too? Poor guy just didn’t know how to properly express his admiration or desire for her? I know this is an extreme leap but, f**k NO! Unwelcome male attention is never complimentary. It is disrespectful and invasive and damaging. But what can we do? Not much until society shifts to value women and their right to feel safe and comfortable in their own skins. Given two thousand years of patriarchy, that’s not likely to happen in the next week or so.

So what do we do in the meantime? Mothers, train your sons to respect all women as yourselves. Train your daughters to take pride in themselves and stand up for themselves. Girls, get your butts into a boundary setting self defense class.

Now that I’ve had my amazing self defense training which included a huge amount of verbal boundary setting things would go differently. Now I’d walk up to the staring man and say “Sorry to disturb you but when you stare at me it makes me feel uncomfortable. Would you please stop.” If he squirmed in discomfort, so be it. Why should I work to make him comfortable when he’s making me uncomfortable? So ingrained in us girls is that useless response! Most likely, he’d be so surprised he’d acquiesce. I’d thank him and be able to enjoy my dinner with my dad.

And if he kicked up a fuss, so be it. When men start to realize that women aren’t afraid to cause a scene to stand up for ourselves maybe even strangers will treat us with the same respect they’d accord their mothers or sisters. Now that would be a compliment.

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Blogger Brett said...

Except... there is the issue of "intent" to consider.

When your dad mad his innocuous remark to the women, was there any intent on hispart to make them feel uncomforatble? No, and that's why comparing it (even facetiously) to rape is more than a little ridiculous.

Similarly, when the guy in the restaurant was staring at you, do you claim that it was his intent to make you feel awkward and uncomfortable? What would be the intent if you went over to drop a remark on him specifically to make him feel as awkward as you claim to feel? Does intent have any meaning and value in this discussion, or are we men now supposed to read minds and know for certain that precise moment when looking at a woman—for whatever reason—magically moves from "notice" to "gawking" in her mind?

And at the restaurant (or bar or whatever) are you absolutely certain that he was looking at you due to some reptilian sexual interest, or is it at all conceivable that it have been something else?

That would have been a gloriously wondrous scene: you holding your head high, approaching Staring Guy, and sounding your mighty yawp:

"Pardon me, but your gaze makes me feel uncomfortable, and I'm asking that you stop now."

"No problem, lady. But you might wanna blow your nose—you got a quarter-pound boog hanging. It's making me a little queasy."


8:34 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

A wonderful point. I only wish it were so simple. Unfortunately with the rape and assault stats against women so very high, we need to be vigilant. It is a state of being that most men, unless small or bullied, cannot relate to at all. Of course we're not asking you to read minds. But, if more of the good guys like you consider how things might seem from women's POV, this world would certainly be a better place for all. It's delicate territory we have to work together to get across. Thanks for reading and discussing.

10:05 AM  

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