What To Say to a Woman

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The other night, five female friends and I were in a nearly empty movie theater watching Harry Dean Stanton’s final film, Lucky. There were maybe three other viewers scattered throughout the place. A man entered and took a seat immediately in front of us. He spent some time at one end of our group, then got up and moved down a few seats to sit directly in front of me.

Right away, after he took the seat in front me, I felt slightly uncomfortable. Why, in such an empty theater, would he choose to sit in the row in front of us? He also didn’t sit and look ahead at the screen, but instead slumped sideways in his seat, resting the side of his head on the seat back, almost as if he planned to sleep. Eventually, I noticed the light of his cell phone on. Yes, impolite for your cell phone screen to be glowing in a theater, but not criminal. But then, he slipped his cell phone down low between the seat and just above the floor in our aisle, giving his camera a clear view of our bottoms.

By this point, the friends on either side of me were also noticing his behavior and concerned, uncomfortable, and upset. They didn’t see him slide the cell phone through, but just his odd behavior of sitting right by us, sitting sideways, and not watching the movie and instead having his cell phone glowing seemed potentially threatening somehow.

I whispered to my friend what I’d seen with his phone and we decided to move. One of our group said something to the man as she passed him. About ten minutes after we moved, he got up and left. The movie was only half over.

Was he trying to up-skirt our group? Probably. When the movie ended, I sought out theater staff to alert them to his odd behavior and tell them they may want to keep and eye out for him in the future.

So this is what it is like to be a woman. You trust your instincts and watch the creep meter, but you also don’t want to assume men mean to exploit you, objectify you, or do you harm. It’s a challenging line to walk and get right — and your safety depends on getting it right.

As I relayed the account of what happened to a male friend, I ended by making a frustrated comment like, “come on men, you can do better!” He took offense and chose to try and school me for being sexist and over-generalizing.

Here is what I’d like to say to men out there about our current, highly charged climate regarding sexually abuse and how you can be supportive of your female friends, co-workers, relatives, and partners.

1) If we are opening up and sharing our experience of harassment, abuse, or sexual assault with you, we obviously trust you and consider you a safe person. Please don’t get defensive and feel like you need to explain to us that not all men are jerks or abusive. We obviously know that, since we feel like we can talk to you. But that doesn’t not change the fact that most women experience harassment, abuse, and even sexual assault throughout their life. That doesn’t mean the women don’t have to be on guard in a way around men that men will never have to be on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis around women. That doesn’t mean the woman speaking to you dislikes or distrusts all men, but she unfortunately probably has not just had one or two, but dozens, possibly hundreds of experiences were she has been harassed and verbally or physically assaulted by men in almost every setting you can imagine — on the street, in school, at work, while babysitting, at home, on a date, in the subway, during a job interview, at the grocery store. It is ubiquitous. Think of it this way, if a friend of yours who is African American is telling you about how they were followed throughout the store by a white security guard when they went in to buy a shirt the other day, and then later that same week were pulled over by a white officer for a taillight being out and were asked to step out of the car, pushed down on the hood spread eagle, and patted down, and they say, “what is up with white people? Why are they always assuming if you’re black, you’re a criminal?” Would you listen to them and believe them and understand where their frustration is coming from or would you lecture them about being racist?

2) Just listen and be empathetic. Tell them you are willing to listen, that you believe them, and you are sorry that this happened to them. Try to imagine how it feels to be treated like an object instead of a human being. Understand harassing and assaulting women is a way to try and steal away their power and make them less than. Sympathize with whatever emotions the encounter raised for them, whether that is fear, anger, frustration, sadness, rage, despair, or a sense of helplessness. Don’t judge them for how the situation made them feel or tell them what they should have done or said. Provide a strong shoulder, a non-judgmental ear, and an open heart.

3) Offer your support emotionally or even physically if it is appropriate. Be an ally. If they are being harassed by someone you know, offer to stand with them in the future and call out the harassment and abuse. There is strength in numbers. Don’t remain silent and be complicit when you see sexual harassment or abuse happening. It is not “boys being boys.” Some might argue it is only words or gestures and, therefore, harmless, but since one in four women is raped in her lifetime, women are horrifyingly aware that inappropriate and disrespectful words spoken about women and tolerated by those listening creates an unsafe environment for women. A guy yelling “nice ass” to you on the street doesn’t make you feel flattered, but much more likely makes you feel intimidated and fearful if you are a woman. You wonder about what else he might say or do. Will he follow you?

4) Do not blame or shame a woman by asking questions or making comments about where they were at the time, what they were doing or not doing there, and what they were wearing or not wearing. The only thing that can prevent a woman from being harassed or assaulted is if a man does not engage in that behavior. A woman’s age, appearance, state of alertness, or physical location cannot keep her harassment or assault free. Harassment and sexual assault can, and does, happen to every type of woman in every type of place. Do not perpetuate the false narrative that if a woman dressed more modestly, behaved more demurely, stayed out of certain locations, and remained always hyper alert, she would not be harassed or assaulted. That is a lie, plain and simple. When something does happen, she is the victim. There is nothing she did that explains or justifies harassment and abuse. Not ever.

As a rape survivor myself, I am keenly sensitized to the issue of female harassment and abuse. As virginal sixteen-year-old wearing corduroys, a sweater, and ski jacket, I never expected to by sexually assaulted by the young man I had been dating. But it happened, and I’ve had to work to recover from that assault and not let it destroy my life. Because I am a rape survivor does not mean I hate or distrust men. But it does mean that I am painfully aware that even people you know can potentially hurt you. Despite that, I hold on fiercely to the belief that all people are good and kind and trustworthy. Everyone has their story that brought them to this moment in this way. Everyone is trying to find happiness and reduce their own pain. We are all capable of growing and evolving and overcoming our pasts.

#Metoo is highlighting what a huge problem we still face when it comes to sexual equality and treating one another with respect. Let’s view this as an opportunity for growth. Let’s do better by one another. Let’s believe one another. Let’s support each other. Let’s change up the dance steps. Let’s make our world safer and kinder. Let’s overcome our past.

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