Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault
“Come to the back room, girls, I’ll show you around.”
Right away, his words set off a thousand different alarm bells in my head. My gut is telling me to get out, but he’s holding the ice cream we just ordered, and we can’t really leave without looking crazy, or possibly offending him. He keeps talking, asking us questions about where we go to school, how old we are and what our plans are for today. I make eye contact with my friend, praying she picks up on my panic. Thankfully, she does, and we manage to pay and leave without a problem. Still, I’m shaken up.
Every woman on this campus can probably think of a situation bearing some similarity to that one. When a woman — or anyone female presenting — is out in public, there’s a lot they have to keep in mind: travel in groups, carry pepper spray, share your location with your friends and don’t leave your drink unattended, to name a few. The fear is omnipresent, a background hum in the music of our lives, and even if you check off all those boxes, the danger remains. Last March, 33-year-old Sarah Everard was raped and killed on her walk home in London. She was on the phone with her boyfriend, wearing bright clothing and walking in a well-lit neighborhood. Not only was she familiar with her surroundings, but several people knew her whereabouts. Seemingly, she did everything right, but it wasn’t enough.
Tragic cases like these make it hard not to assume the worst. As a woman, letting your guard down can have disastrous consequences. A recent study by anti-harassment organization Hollaback! and Cornell University showed that 85% of women reported their first experience of harassment before the age of 17, and a shocking 12% reported harassment before the age of 11. Seventy-seven percent of women reported being followed at some point, and — perhaps most concerningly — half of U.S. women under the age of 40 reported being groped or fondled in public.
These statistics speak volumes about the disturbing reality women face in places such as public transit, parks and college campuses. It’s not a choice. From a young age, we are forced to be wary of the men around us, and when incidents of harassment and assault do occur, the blame is often pinned on the woman herself. Questions like, “why didn’t she fight back?” or “why didn’t she say no?” get tossed around without ever actually addressing the problematic double standard at play. Women are socialized to fear strange men, yet are also expected to ignore this fear and be assertive and aggressive when targeted.
By the time a woman has reached adolescence, she has most likely internalized one important fact: You should never intentionally make a man angry. Be polite and understanding, even when you feel unsafe, because you do not know how they will react. We avert eye contact with those catcalling us so as not to encourage them, and we certainly don’t holler back. We tell men who hit on us that we have a boyfriend, not that we’re just not attracted to them.
When the man in the ice cream store began to make me feel uncomfortable, I found myself scrambling for a way to escape the situation without coming off as rude. Not a single part of me ever considered telling him off or storming out of the store, simply because I feared his reaction — and rightly so. Aggression can have violent consequences. Just recently in Detroit, 27-year-old Mary Spears was approached by a young man hoping to get her number. She rejected him several times before her fiancé intervened. The encounter eventually ended in a shootout that left Spears dead and five others wounded.
These incidents are obviously rare. It is a minority of men who harass and assault women, let alone who commit murder. Still, these stories send a message to women everywhere about what could happen if they choose to stand up for themselves in the face of harassment. A Tumblr page entitled “When Women Refuse” is dedicated to sharing the stories of those who have faced violence after rejecting sexual advances. Take just one minute to scroll, and you’ll find story after story of harassment and assault directed at women who simply said no. How can women be expected to shrug off these advances if these are the possible consequences?
Many want to chalk up women’s fear in public to sheer paranoia. Some even believe that women should take forms of sexual harassment like catcalling as a compliment. I mean, why be afraid? Most men are great, right? Except the ones that aren’t. A study from The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that one in three women have experienced abuse from an intimate partner, and that one in seven women have been stalked by an intimate partner to the point that they feared for their lives. If the people closest to these women are capable of that, why would wariness of absolute strangers be deemed paranoia?
Maybe the man in the ice cream shop was harmless, but even if he was, I cannot say that I would react differently a second time around. Though it’s amusing to entertain the idea of telling him off, it is much more likely that my fear of the consequences would prevail, and the same is true for many women around the world. We are taught to pacify the men who are a threat to our safety because standing up for ourselves poses a greater risk than benefit. Women everywhere are forced to reconcile with the idea that when alone in public, some men — even if only just a fraction — view them as something to be objectified, and they must navigate the world accordingly.
Our wariness isn’t a personal insult to all men, but instead a defense mechanism. All of society — men in particular — have the power to change this. Many do not realize that they are inadvertently making women feel unsafe, but there are things that can be done to prevent this: keep your distance, don’t flirt if the woman is not showing interest and recognize that their reserve is most likely not a reflection of you, but instead a reflection of their desperation to get home safe. Perhaps most importantly, teach boys and young men that women in public spaces are not public property, but instead people who are just trying to go about their day. Constantly living engulfed in a cloud of fear is exhausting, but together we can begin to ease this burden and make women everywhere feel safer.
Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.