I am aware, painfully aware, of three separate instances of men acting inappropriately towards a woman that occurred to people I know over the last couple of months.
[Trigger warning: Sexual harassment and rape]
In once case, a man drove up to a woman who was just getting out of her car, in a relatively secluded parking, to ask her what kind of mileage she got on that model and make. In the second instance, a man skated (on in-line skates) up next to a woman who was skating on a long trail a mile or two into the woods where no one was around, and insisted on “teaching her” how to “draft” which involved him skating to a few inches behind her and holding his hand on the small of her back while he explained how great that felt. In the third instance, a stranger cornered a women in an enclosed space, tried to rape her, and in so doing hit her several times in the head while pulling off her clothing.
It isn’t possible to comfortably place all three of these instances into one category. They are not all three “creepy behavior, guys just don’t do that,” they are not all three “unwanted sexual attention” and they are not all three “violent attempted rape.” I’m saying this, the stuff I just said here in this paragraph you are reading, in a tone that you can not read (because I’m not bothering to write it that way) but that you could hear if you were here right now and I read it out loud, in a tone of dripping cynicism, the kind of tone you use when speaking to someone who is beneath contempt because of their attitude towards humanity and who you know will willfully misunderstand and scream and yell about whatever you say regarding the topic at hand. Phrasing this a slightly different way, if you are already mad at me for referring to those three events in one paragraph, then you are hopeless and I don’t want to talk to you. Stop. Reading. Now. You will not be allowed to comment on this post in any event, so just go away.
It is possible, however, that you understand why one might speak of these three things in one paragraph. In one case, the worst thing that could happen did not happen, but the guy in the story certainly was trying to make it so. In the seemingly least severe case, in the parking lot (or so I judge) it may well be that the guy asking about mileage was just asking about mileage. However, I don’t think he was. You don’t find out the mileage of a widely driven model of car by asking a person who happens to be driving one. People do not really know the mileage of the car they are driving. More importantly, if you are a guy, you should know better than to drive up to some woman who is all alone in a lonely parking lot, stop your car and come over to her to ask her a random question. And, when she looks at you, says nothing, gets back into her car and drives to a new parking spot far from you because you creeped her out, you should not be surprised. Regarding the second incident, again, the 45-52 year old (estimated) man could have grown up in a world where approaching a woman who does not know you on a lonely path in the woods and touching her without her even seeing that coming is normal. But I think not. I think that guy was either deluded into thinking that a certain percentage of strange woman he randomly touched would suddenly want to blow him right then and there, or he had nefarious goals in mind and did not expect the burst of speed he encountered. In this case, I happen to think the former is more likely than the latter for various reasons I won’t go into.
So, maybe I’m a little more suspicious than I need to be. In case II, the woman involved was less suspicious than I was, until she and I chatted about the event, after which she seemed to think this was actually a semi-bad thing that happened. So maybe I ruined it for all the perfectly innocent guys who wander around in the woods touching women they don’t know perfectly innocently. Whatever. In the case of the parking lot, the woman involved told me that she had no idea if the guy was up to something, but reasoned that the consequences of an unlikely event (an attack or whatever) were severe enough that the small effort of driving across the lot was worth it. In the event that he followed her she would then know to dial 911, or run his ass over, or whatever. Otherwise, no big deal either way.
In other words, everyone involved seems to be a little more cautious than they probably need to be, but the goal is not to hit some optimal median of reaction, because that would mean that half the time one under-reacts. That’s fine in Poker, in Horse Betting, in all sorts of activity. But, over a period of 20 or 30 years, the correct number of times to be molested or raped is not half the number of times it could have happened. No. It is zero. Just zero. And, in at least one of the cases to which I refer, the woman had prior nasty experiences already, thank you very much.
So yes, there is a point to all off this: In the first two instances I mention, but not the third, it is very possible, even likely, that the man involved was either totally innocent of any sort of nefarious planning or even (immature and sophomoric) unrealistically hopeful sexual thinking. But he was still doing something wrong even if that is the case. This is because from the point of view of the woman, he could easily have been a rapist or something like a rapist, and there is no way at all for the woman to know this. Imagine the not too unlikely case where either of those women was previously assaulted in a similar setting (park path in the woods or a lonely parking lot), and an “innocent” question or an “innocent” light touch on the small of the back was a trigger? Trigger or no, both of these men did something they should not have done.
And this is why I wrote, over a year a go, a blog post about how under certain circumstances certain men should cross certain streets at certain times to avoid freaking out certain women that they are encountering while out walking. When I wrote that post, it fueled a just started and ongoing reaction to Rebecca Watson’s comment “Guys, just don’t do that” in reference to a guy doing something somewhat but not terribly dumb, and that fueled-up reaction became the First Great Sorting among the skeptics and atheist communities. With these three occurrences happening in one short period of time, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit that post, so I’ve placed a shortened and revised version of it below. Before we get to that, let me provide a short list of things guys should not do:
- Don’t follow a woman on to an elevator and ask her if you can join her in her room or her in your room at 4:00 AM after she has told you she is heading to bed.
- Don’t skate up to a woman on a lonely forest path and touch her even if you have what you think of as a good excuse lined up.
- Don’t drive over to a woman who is all by herself in a lonely parking lot to ask her a question that you really don’t need to ask her. If you have a valid question and it’s an emergency, go ahead. But not just some random question that you made up so some girl would have to talk to you.
- And in the middle of the night, there are times (not all) and places (not all) that you should somehow diffuse the sense of threat a woman might feel when your giant manly hulking form lurches towards her on some lonely street. So, diffuse, and stop whinging aboout it.
And now….the updated original post:
I am not afraid of dogs, and most women are probably not “afraid of men.”
Except I’m actually afraid of dogs and most women are justifiably afraid of men in a certain way. Your job as a man is to understand what that means. If this puzzles you, especially about the idea of women being afraid of men at all, then you need to reconsider your position.
I admit that I see “pit bulls” as potentially dangerous. When I was a kid, it was German Shepherds (or similar dogs) that were routinely trained as “one-man” guard dogs or attack dogs, and if you saw one either it was on a chain (not a rope, a chain) or on your leg (in a bad way). Seriously. These days, Shepherds are kept because they are good with kids. Go figure. The point is, I’m fully aware that almost 100% of the danger level of a dog is based on its training and treatment and not on its breed. So, when I see a “pit bull” I know intellectually that this could be the most gentle beast I’ll ever meet in my life.
So the other day, I walked outside and found myself utterly alone. Surrounded by garage doors and closed windows in a sort of cul-du-sac, I knew that you could probably pop someone with a small caliber handgun and no one would hear it or see it. I wasn’t thinking that exactly at the time, but I could sense the loneliness and remoteness as I closed my garage door behind me, heading for the mail box, with the medium-term intent of hopping in my car (which was not in the garage) to head off and pick up Huxley from daycare.
That’s when the dog showed up. It was a pit-bull like dog, though I have no idea what the actual breeding history of this animal was. It was tall, almost as tall as a Dane, but had the pit-bull head and a boxer-like body. Some sort of Frankendogish mastiff derivative, perhaps.
The dog was un-chained and frenetic. The first thing it did was to run at me and bump its head into my leg. Then it ran around in the cul-de-sac, running up to doorways and then turning instantly away each time. When I say running I mean mainly walking very fast. The dog was only bounding into the air now and then. It came towards me a couple of times but almost as though I wasn’t there, it would just pass me. Instinctively, I employed the usual voice and hand gestures one employs to bring a dog to a spot and have it sit, so I could look for ID on its collar, but it would have none of that. This dog was not receiving any of my signals.
That, and the fact that it was foaming at the mouth, gave me pause.
Different instincts suddenly kicked in. I’ve had encounters with dangerous dogs, and if you’ve read the Lost Congo Memoirs you’ll know that I’ve had dealings with rabid dogs as well. After the fourth or fifth time that the frenetic zombie-like (but fast-style zombie, not slow-style zombie) frothing beast passed by, having made my way to the car, I quickly unlocked the door, hopped in, and slammed it shut.
That is when I noticed that my heart was racing and my adrenalin was pumping. I had just encountered a rabid dog that, once it freed itself from whatever trance state the brain-eating disease hat put it in, was going to turn on me and bite me in the face (last place you want to get bit by a rabid dog).
Or not. Probably not. The foam was surely just drool. Its frenetic behavior was probably just because it was lost. Its failure to understand my commands was probably … whatever. The dog was probably just confused. I suppose. Maybe.
So, I usually keep what happens in my house private, or at least if I write about it check first with the involved parties, but I think I will be forgiven for spontaneously telling you about a conversation I had with Amanda last night.
For the course of much of Rebeccapocalypse (the maneno with Elevator Guy, Rebecca Watson, and so on) Amanda was out of town while a friend of mine visiting from out of town and I huddled over our computers down in the blog cave, or visited SkepchiCON where, coincidentally, the Actual Rebecca Watson and other Skepchicks were hanging out, where the two of us fussed over the problem. So, Amanda missed all of the run-up, hadn’t read any of the blog posts, and had gotten only the briefest overview of events from me after her return. The story of Rebecca and Elevator Guy was low priority for her at the moment and the story thus went to the back of her head (well, probably, actually the front, but that’s not how we refer to it) for processing. Then, last night, the whole thing rushed forward and Amanda ran down to the blog cave to tell me something. I should say, this is a rare event. She was kinda freaked out.
“Do people get it?” she asked me, kinda freaked out (as noted).
“Get what?” I was distracted and unclear on the point she was making.
“Do people get what it is like for a woman to have a man join her on an elevator in the middle of the night? Do they understand that this is ALWAYS something that raises one’s stress level, even if just a little?”
“Sometimes more, sometimes less, it depends on your state of mind, the time of day, all sorts of other factors, but if I’m in a hotel somewhere in the middle of the night and some guy I don’t know gets on the elevator, my stress level goes up and stays there until one of us gets off. If he says something to me other than ‘nice weather we’re having’ I get much more stressed. That’s true to some degree for all women.”
“Elevator? What?” She was going fast, almost upset.
“If the guy did what that guy did, asking me to his room, I’d totally Freak.”
Ah. She was talking about Elevator Guy. “Yeah. Desiree said would punch him in the face.”
“That guy’s gonna have a bloody nose. Hey, did I tell you about this dog the other day?”
Anyway, in life I was not as clueless as the above dialog suggests. Amanda hadn’t really been thinking about the issue at all, and the moment she gave it any thought she immediately concluded that Elevator Guy did the wrong thing and that Rebecca Watson, in pointing this out to the clueless, was doing all women in the West, where there are elevators and a chance of some equality, a service. And every other woman that I’ve spoken to about this has said the same thing, more or less.
Guys (and some gals) who are not getting this are making two mistakes. First, they consider the event post hoc and say that no one was attacked or raped, therefore there was no threat of rape or anything else serious. If it didn’t happen, it couldn’t have happened. (I will assume you get why that is stupid.) Second, they think of this sort of thing generally and figure that the chances that Elevator Guy was a real threat was low. Why or how they assess this is beyond me, since they weren’t there, but I suppose statistically it is a reasonably valid guess … chances are the foam is just drool, chances are the frenetic behavior is just confusion, chances are the zombie-like state of the 160 pound dog is just … oh, wait, sorry, I was talking about Elevator Guy. Right. Chances are that Elevator Guy was just a socially ignorant slightly drunk dweeb of no consequence.
Or not. And it is the “or not” part that a woman MUST pay attention to in order to live her life as long as she can before her first sexual assault, or to increase the amount of time spent between her most recent sexual assault and her next one, or to make the next sexual assault hopefully non-fatal or something that she can get out of quickly or minimize in some way. Because very few women get away without something happening in their lifetime.
It occurred to me some time ago that my knowledge of a woman having been sexually assaulted in the past is correlated with how much I know about that woman generally. I quickly add that correlation is not causation. The point is that if you know a woman and don’t have knowledge of her prior sexual assault, that may not be because it didn’t happen. It just may be because you don’t know.
In fact, if you are in your 30s or older and you don’t know of any women who have had a sexual assault or something in their history, that means that there are certain conversations you are not having and that you exist in a state of cluelessness. Almost certainly.
When I was about 14 through 17, hanging around in an inner-city crime ridden urban environment, with no car, and spending a lot of time at night on foot going places, I learned to do this trick. Say I’m walking down State Street and it’s 1:00 AM and there’s a woman walking in front of me in the same direction. With very few exceptions, I’ll overtake her, and there will then be this long, maybe one-third of a city block long period when I’m right behind her, then right next to her, then just in front of her.
From any of those three vantage points, I could grab her. From behind, or from next to her, or by turning around and grabbing her from the front. Then I could push her to the ground and drag her into an alley or whatever.
But I would not do that. Therefore, the woman walking alone at 1:00 AM in the morning downtown has nothing to worry about, right? Well, actually, since she does not know me she has a great deal to worry about because the chances that some guy walking (fast) alone down State Street in the middle of the night is some sort of sexual assaulter or mugger is hard to assess, and not zero.
So I learned this trick. Cross the street about a block back and “pass” the lady that way. Same with a potential head-on encounter. If you see a woman walking towards you in the middle of the night on a lonely urban street bla bla bla, my practice in those days was to cross the street to not stress her out.
Interestingly I stopped doing that second move when I moved to South Minneapolis a number of years back because because the social context there was very different. It would have been considered very bad form. Instead, you make eye contact and say hello. To everybody. That’s how we roll in that neighborhood. Context is important (a fact that many of those who have been harassing me on the Internet ever since I first wrote this post a year ago do not, and never will, understand.)
All men. ALL men who have given sufficient consideration to women’s position in our society do something like this walking trick (maybe not even about walking, but about something) in the right context (for some that will be common, for others, rare). If you are a man and you do not know about this then there is a problem with you.
Here’s the thing. A woman normally possesses a certain sense of caution related specifically to things that mainly happen to women, which does cause stress. A man should respect that and act accordingly, by doing certain things and not doing certain things. Every single person I’ve spoken to about Rebeccapocalypse has had a view of this roughly in the same range: Rebecca displayed normative behavior in being put off by Elevator Guy and it was up to her to decide to speak about it, and generally a good thing to do so. People do disagree on the modus operendus of speaking out, but not dramatically. Everyone understands that a woman should have a certain sense of caution … as should a man but in different ways, for different things, to different degrees … and that a man should respect this and act accordingly. By doing certain things and not doing certain things.
But then there are these people, mostly guys, and also Richard Dawkins, shockingly, who don’t get it at all. I’m thinking that the fame factor has caused Dawkins to live a life in which certain conversations have been avoided, and he is just socially retarded because of this, though in most ways he is a fine example of an English Gentleman. Or maybe being socially retarded and being an English Gentleman are the same thing in certain areas. Oh, right, this might apply to privilege, might-en it? And privilege might be what makes men tend to be stupid about certain things. Get out of my way, Bitch, I’m walking down the street and I don’t care that trammeling past you is going to freak you out. Your problem. What are you doing out in the middle of the night by yourself anyway? Oh, if I was asked over for coffee at 4AM in the morning in Ireland on an elevators, I’d see it as a complement! Yes, yes, I suspect Richard Dawkins has been asked over for coffee and servicing at the wee hours of the morning many times, because he’s a star and that is what happens. So from his point of view, I suppose he was giving Rebecca the highest complement when he figured that she had no brief: “Rebecca, you are one of us stars! You have a groupie! Good show, Old Girl!”
Oh, but sorry, my cynicism is getting the better of me. All that shit that was in my head came out rather suddenly. Sorry about that. Anyway, I want to close by restating my point so it can’t be missed.
I was freakin’ afraid of that dog, even though I know how to handle big dogs. I was afraid of that dog even though I’ve smelled the breath of more than a few wild super-carnivores who were busy contemplating me as a meal or a rival, so a dog should be nothing to me. I was afraid of that dog even though I’m not afraid of dogs. I could not help myself from being afraid, and I have chosen to do the very unmanly thing of not lying to you about that. My heart was beating when I got into the car, into safety.
And here’s the thing, the point you need to get: I can only tell you about the dog. I can’t tell you a story about a sexual assault. I don’t have one. I only have the dog story for you because I’m a 50-something year old man, not a 50-something year old woman. If I was a 50-something year old woman, I’d be able to tell you stories on point for the current discussion, stories about men who cornered me, who touched me when I didn’t want that, who verbally threatened me, who woke me up in the middle of the night or tracked me down on some dark street or who freaked me out in an elevator. If I was typical, that is.
But I only have the dog story to help you empathize with Rebecca because I’m a man.
Oh by the way, that assault I mentioned in the beginning? Yeah, it was in an elevator. The woman was not able to get away by pressing “door open” and walking out the door as Richard Dawkins recommended. Oh, she pounded on that button as she screamed for help but it didn’t work. What did work was fighting the guy off, and that only worked because she was big and strong enough, and only then, barely. So Richard, do you have any further advice for women about how to not be raped? Thanks, please keep it to yourself. Nobody wants to hear it.