Not purely animals

Paris
Paris, July 2016.

I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.

I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.

(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)

In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.

(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)

Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)

“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?

This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.

It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.

Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)

If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.

I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.

Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.

We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.

Woolf, more on street harassment, and simple things

How Virginia Woolf did not age well (or, rather, she aged very rapidly) and yet she maintained this essential quality of light elegance, quiet composure. In contrast to her brilliant, racing mind? I feel somewhat obsessed with that photograph of her, from 1938, just three years before she died; her limpid expression, the angle of the camera, the light behind her.

In the grim state of affairs regarding women’s public safety, my conclusion is thus: You simply cannot trust men you do not know. This sounds dark and cynical, but I feel dark and cynical about the state of women’s freedom and the outrageous lack of respect for women as human beings. A close friend worked at the same hospital as Hannah Graham’s alleged murderer and rapist and said he was the nicest, gentlest guy; so did many of his friends. “So, now knowing all of this, and knowing how I found him to be such a trustworthy person,” my friend said, “how can you trust anyone?” We let the question fall and didn’t answer, because what could we say? Who can you trust? But “anyone,” to me, is the limiting factor. I’d answer that you just can’t trust unfamiliar men with your physical safety, ever. Because Lord knows a woman isn’t going to rape you and then throw your body in a stream.

We were talking about this case again with friends around a bonfire and the daily reality of street harassment came up. Except that the men around us — thinking, respectful, generous men — seemed somewhat shocked that this was a daily reality for us women. We women all agreed that we were always on alert, everywhere, even in daylight, even in familiar places. Stories about harassment that had happened just a few hours prior bubbled up. The men were silent. But none of it was unusual to the women. Constantly checking our surroundings, whether day or night, watching for suspicious characters, cringing when walking past a construction site: these are not behaviors that men commonly concern themselves with.

Someone said, “Well, they’re just yelling at you; they don’t have any real power over you.” But men who harass you on the street do, unfortunately, wield a form of power over you. Because they make you afraid. They make you feel unsafe. They make you frightened of your surroundings, mistrustful of society at large. They make you feel exposed and vulnerable. This is how a patriarchal society works.

I have to quote Rebecca Solnit again, because I feel like I just can’t get over this:

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Please, look me in the eye and tell me that we don’t need feminism. That women have enough rights already. Say it to my face.

We talked about ways to respond to street harassment and didn’t come up with any workable solutions. Responding, to me, is giving such a man what he wants (recognition that his words have affected you), even if that response is a middle finger (or a thumbs down, as someone cutely suggested). I’ve always chosen to ignore, to steel myself to wear an unfeeling mask. But I don’t know if that does anything to resolve this ongoing issue.

Every time something as horrific as Hannah Graham’s murder crops up in the news, every time a man shouts an obscenity at a woman in the street, the only refrain I can recall is you are not free, you are not free, you are not free…

As a corollary to this conversation about street harassment, my friend Tara made an interesting side note. “No one hollers at you when you have a bunch of babies strapped to you,” she said, with a wry smile. That interested me. I wonder if other mothers would report the same? Street harassment is negated if you are accompanied by small children?

A woman will also never experience catcalling if she is accompanied by a man. Presumably, that woman is owned by her male companion and she is therefore protected, as his property, from verbal abuse. So there’s that. (Which also enrages me in a different way. That even the basest men somehow respect this misogynistic code of behavior toward one another — if a man has “his” woman with him, “his” woman is therefore ineligible to receive harassment. But a woman daring to walk alone? Open season!)

Virginia Woolf, June 1926. (c) National Portrait Gallery. #virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf, June 1926. National Portrait Gallery.

This devolved rather quickly. I had intended to write about simple, pretty things.

Like how my rosemary has flourished in the front yard. Like the way Eden leans against my chair while I am reading and looks directly into my eyes with an unblinking, expectant stare. Like the fact that I am savoring Lila and reading it with worshipful patience. Like having lunch with Guion on the deck on a weekday, with the dogs sunbathing, with the leaves fluttering to the ground, with the yellow jacket persistently hovering over your raised spoon.