A close friend of mine – let’s call her Jane – had a homeless person walk up into her personal space at a gas station last week and ask for money. When she politely said no, he screamed “BITCH” at her and walked away. It was upsetting of course, an unnerving thing to happen in the middle of the day in a public place. Jane posted about it on Facebook and another woman – say, Julie – commented that Jane “should have lit him up.” Julie is a close friend and I adore her, but my gut reaction when I read her comment was, “Don’t do that.” Jane responded to her that it didn’t feel safe to do so, a sentiment I understood.
The same thing happened on my feed a couple of months ago when a woman posted about a small but violating aggression that happened to her in public—several people made similar comments: “you should have kicked his nuts in” and that sort of thing.
Just as these exchanges were weaving together in my head, Donna Karan let loose with this little gem in regard to Harvey Weinstein this weekend:
“How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it? By presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality? What are we throwing out to our children today? About how to dance, how to perform and what to wear? How much should they show?”
Seeing a pattern here? I am. It’s a short hop from “You should have…” to “You asked for it.”
I get the instinct here – stand up for yourself, be a force in the world, don’t let the assholes win – but buried beneath that bluster is one glaring sentiment: why did you let that happen to you? It’s a subconscious dig at the victim, implying that they’re a coward for not returning aggression. Not to mention that it implies that incidents like this can be prevented. It’s the kid brother of “your skirt was too short,” and “you shouldn’t have had so much to drink.” Women bear the weight of what other people do to them, forever and ever amen.
A couple of weeks after I got mugged (in the middle of the day in a grocery store parking lot), I took a ‘self-defense course’ that turned out to just be a female cop delineating how terrifying it is to be a woman in the world. I told my story with a shaky voice to a room full of silent, wide-eyed women. The police officer then spent several minutes discussing what I had done wrong: I held my hands up in a “victim’s position” when he got in my face, I didn’t keep a sharp enough eye on my surroundings, I shouldn’t have taken so long putting groceries in the car. While my offenses were neatly spooled off, no one thought to mention that maybe, just maybe!, the fucking METH HEAD WHO THREW ME TO THE GROUND AND RAN OFF WITH MY PURSE had a little bit of blame to carry.
You want to know why women are so angry? Because in addition to performing a bizarre set of ablutions each time we step into public – cross-body your bag, take the headphones out, don’t stare down at your phone but keep it in hand in case you need it, walk confidently and quickly, hold at least one key facing outward, etc etc ad infinitum – we know that if anything should actually happen, we’re going to have to answer for it. Relate what we did wrong. Regret that we didn’t react harshly. Promise ourselves we’ll do better next time.
For at least a year after the mugging, I changed the way I dressed. I didn’t realize it at first. But one day, looking through clothes in the closet, I woke up out of my fog long enough to hear my inner voice saying, “What won’t make me stand out?” It threw me and I thought, my god how long have I been doing that? I have no idea how this thought fixed itself in my head, which is the truly terrifying part. I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts when it happened—not that it matters one whit. My outfit had nothing to do with it.
So where did that thought come from? Why, out of all the jumbled emotions that arose from the incident, did I choose to fixate on my freaking clothes? Because I was trying to make sense of it, trying to pinpoint why I’d ‘attracted’ violence on that particular day. Because it had to have been something I had done. Because we’ve told ourselves so many times as a society that women attract violence and harassment, that we now all believe it. No, it’s not even belief. It’s baked into our psyches, a fact of life as accepted as the sky being blue.
That, my friends, is complete and utter bullshit. And I’m not doing it anymore, even in the smallest of circumstances. How each of us reacts when something unsettling happens is our own damn business and not for others to judge. And completely and entirely depends on the time of day, the location, the aggressor, and who else is around. If you want to spit in a guy’s face, punch him in the balls, or sing the entire cast recording of Hamilton at him, do it. And if your reaction is one of shell shock, the shakes, or complete and utter terror, THAT IS OKAY TOO. You are not weak because you didn’t rip someone’s eyes out. You do not deserve to have a man waddle around naked in front of you because you have on a skirt. You are a human woman just trying to live in the world and people who assault you are assholes. Period. End of story.