Being Afraid

This last summer I had the opportunity to discuss an important topic with a person who had political views completely opposed to my own. He was a Swedish Democrat (for those of you not familiar, the Swedish Democrat, SD, party in Sweden is generally known as the right-wing racist party) and was trying to get me to understand all the problems that are facing us due to all these new immigrants and refugees that have been “let in” recently. I argued that we had problems before too, and you just cannot lump all people together like he was doing, there are bad eggs in every cultural basket so to speak. At one point, when trying to convince me he said: “OK, but imagine if you are on a tram, what would scare you the most: 10 immigrant men surrounding you, or 10 Swedish men surrounding you?” I looked at him in amazement and told him frankly: “Well, actually what would scare me most is being surrounded by 10 strange men, in that situation, I really don’t give a damn where they come from or what they look like, just the fact that they are 10 men scares the crap out of me.” Our conversation kind of died out after that…

Last week when enjoying a nice feminist dinner/get-together, stories arose regarding scary and threatening situations we had experienced due to men. One woman told of a time when she had recently moved to Paris and was walking the streets, in the middle of the afternoon, all wide-eyed and full of wonder, when a group of guys decided to mess with her; pulling her hair, taunting her, following her. No one did anything to help her, but she managed to get away, just to be followed by another man who she had to tell several times to stop fucking following her: “But I’m not like those guys!” he persisted. “Well if you really are not like those guys then stop following me.” Really, it should not be that difficult to take no for an answer. I told of the time I was vacationing in Egypt with a friend and we decided to take a boat trip to go snorkeling. For some reason I just kept getting water in my mask as soon as I got in the ocean and one of the guides quickly took that as an opportunity to lead me away from the rest of the group, from my friend, to “help” me with my mask. After doing so, he also helped himself to my body, holding me tight so I couldn’t get away and slipping his hands under my bikini. I tried to push him away, tried swimming faster but there was no use. I was scared, I didn’t have any control over the situation and thought that he might even become violent if I struggled too much. Just let him keep his disgusting hand there then, hopefully this will all be over soon. That is what I told myself. Another time when taking a nice walk during the night in my neighbourhood I was followed by a gang of 5-6 guys on motorcycles and had to escape by going into the yard of another house and hiding in the god damned bushes until they decided I wasn’t worth the trouble and went away. I remembered crying my eyes out when I finally got home. I was so fucking scared.

And I hate it. I hate being scared of approximately half of the world’s population. But I am. I really am. I happily watch thrillers and horror flicks when I’m alone, I love a little rush of adrenaline when some monster or ghost pops out of nowhere. However, when walking alone, day or night, I am never scared of any monsters, ghosts, ghouls or wild animals, the only thing I am ever scared of then is men. Strange men following me, strange men putting their hands on me, strange men not understanding, or wanting to understand a No. Strange men thinking that a woman’s body is not her own. Because it isn’t, right? I mean, according to society, according to advertising, according to the gender norms that make up our institutions and structure our every day lives, us women do not really own our bodies. They are the bodies of everyone, for everyone to gawk and gaze at, for anyone to touch whenever they feel like it. We are taught to smile and be readily available. Be happy for the attention. Wanting the attention. Well, what if we don’t care for the attention? What if we go out of our way to not get that damned unwanted attention?

In a social experiment, Jackson Katz asked college women and men what they did on a regular basis to avoid being sexually assaulted. Needless to say, the responses were not just different, but frighteningly so:

I myself can put a “check” on several of the female responses, and even add some more of my own. I can only ever dream of one day being able to respond the way the men did. Perhaps when I’m dead, I can stop worrying about it… This reminds me of that quote by Margaret Atwood:

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

How skewed is the world that we are living in?

A guy recently told me about this girl he’d been chatting with for months and finally he was invited to her home for dinner for their first date, but when he got there, there was no dinner, instead she told him that the only reason she invited him was because her boyfriend was away and she just wanted to fuck and then never see him again. He said he was disappointed cause he thought she wanted to get to know him and instead he felt like a piece of meat. What he didn’t say was that he, in any way, felt threatened or scared in that situation. Whereas I, when imagining myself being in that situation, would freak the hell out. I would try getting away as soon as possible and never make that mistake ever again. Well, actually, I would never put myself in that situation in the first place: going home to a strange guy on the first date? No thanks, that one goes on the list above as things to avoid. Instead, I tell the people closest to me every time I do go out on a date with someone I do not know. I even try giving them as much information as I have about the guy just in case. A friend of mine actually told me once that her cousin usually looks up the guys phone numbers in order to get their full names and addresses, then texts those details to her friends before meeting the guy, so if she ends up missing they will know where to look first. Seriously. Just writing this is almost making me laugh because it is so ridiculous, the crazy lengths that women feel like they have to go to just to avoid getting harmed. And men, well, they don’t even think about these things.

How lucky for them.

Not all men

I recently came across this article (in Swedish), in regards to the “not all men” debate, about how men, ordinary Swedish (or other..) men, help themselves to women’s bodies. Somehow, the “right” that men (think they) have to put their hands on women, surpasses the woman’s own rights to her own body. How is that normal? How can anyone think that this is ok, truly, really, ever?

The author of the article, an ordinary Swedish man, talks about this skewed, unjust problem, and tells stories about how this all started in middle school, where boys, ordinary boys, chased girls, put their hands on them, looked down their pants. How it then morphed in adulthood and was translated into more violent sexual assaults and rape. The author saw his friends, co-workers, acquaintances, all ordinary men, help themselves in different ways to women’s bodies, and he thought, foolishly, that he would never, could never, do something like that. Until he did. Cause the problem here is not that the rapists, assailants, grabbers are all monsters that hide during the day and come creeping out of the bushes at night. No, it’s that they are ordinary men, who take a step, or two, or a hundred, too far, who help themselves to something that they have been brought up to think, is rightfully theirs.

The stories he told all sound familiar to me, and I am sure, to all of my female friends, however my, our, point of view is from the other side. I too remember how the ordinary boys in middle school all of a sudden started to grab us girls, how they sometimes playfully, sometimes violently, put their hands on our bodies. How we were just supposed to deal with it, to feel flattered by it, how “boys will be boys” was an ever present echo in the air. I cannot possibly recall all the numerous times that my ass was grabbed by an ordinary boy in school, but I do remember a specific instant: a regular day when I was sitting on a table outside the lunch room, waiting for my friends, and this ordinary boy, one of the cute older boys, came sitting next to me, how we talked, joked, and how he suddenly slipped his hand on my butt, like it was inevitable, normal, something that I should feel good about. And the problem was, that I in one sense did feel good since that was what I was supposed to feel; if the cute boy at school put his hands on you, you were supposed to feel proud, flattered, happy. The question of whether or not you wanted his hands on your body at that particular moment, was not even a question at all. Obviously, whenever he felt that some ass-grabbing was due, that was always the appropriate time. So while I sat there, feeling his hand on my butt, I felt nervously happy, but at the same time, very, very uncomfortable. In my head, I tried to convince myself that it was ok, that it was something good, that I should just shut up and be glad about it, about getting this sort of attention. Cause if I told him off, surely, I would be the biggest dork ever. Right? He would then probably tease me, or even worse: never pay attention to me again. And since my “worth”, my raison d’être was (I was taught) linked to the amount of attention received from the cute ordinary boys at school, I could never say no. Looking back now, I wish I had done something, but while thinking this, I get angry, because no; it was not my responsibility to not get grabbed by him. It was his responsibility to not put his hands on me. It was not my fault then, and it was not my fault years later when snorkeling in Egypt, where a guide decided to conduct me away from the group and put his hands on my breasts inside my bikini. It was not my fault any of the numerous times while out dancing with my friends when  someone came and touched me from behind. It was not my fault when I was grabbed on the tram. It was never my fault when some ordinary man put his hands on me without my consent. It’s their fault, always.

And like the author in the article argued: this is such a regular, normal, ordinary thing that happens to everyone, and if you cannot count at least 10 women who have been sexually assaulted in some way, and 10 men who have assaulted a woman, that is because they have not told you about it. It is not because it does not exist in your immediate circle of friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, it is not because the ones who do that are monsters in hiding, or because “not all men” do that. All men, ordinary men, are capable of doing that, even the nicest ones, even the ones who “would never”. That is why the “not all men” argument has to die out. It has to be buried and forgotten so we can move forward and deal with the issue at hand, the norms that teaches ordinary men that they have the right to women’s bodies, that they may put their hands wherever they want, whenever they want.

This is a man’s issue, a woman’s issue, a human issue, everyone is involved, in some way or another, even those who de facto do not put their hands where they do not belong, if you are silently letting that happen around you, it makes you culpable too.

All men, ordinary men; it’s time to take a stand.