It was 1991. Columbine hadn’t happened yet, and I was just a long-haired freak. Sure, I already had my penchant for black trenchcoats, but that was it. I was a meek little fluffy puppy, anticipating emo by a decade.
“I thought you looked intimidating,” she told me.
Maybe I’m mixing my memories – my first college years are blurred with too much drama and not enough alcohol – but I think it was someone I was dating who said it. But I clearly remember the statement – that she had thought I looked intimidating. Me.
“I know better now,” she continued, “but you really did look mean.”
I remember it because of the surprise I felt, the complete shock that someone could see me so differently than I saw myself.
Eighteen years later – another lifetime, really – and I’m shocked again.
I read the excerpt of Men on Rape by Tim Beneke (essentially the same segment is here). It has its flaws; partially due to its datedness (written almost a decade before I was in college), partially due to a few vaguely hyperbolic claims. But one passage echoes for me:
I have asked women repeatedly, “How would your life be different if rape were to end?” (Men may learn a lot by asking this question of women to whom they are close.)
This seems like too easy a setup. So I ask the strongest woman I know how her life would be different if rape didn’t exist. I ask her, because I imagine that a typically socialized woman will have been socialized to be a victim. I ask her, because I don’t want to fish for the typical “correct” answer. I ask her, because I expect her answer to be muted – but I also know that she’ll tell me the truth.
At home, I would not be concerned about working late, or going out alone after dark, or walking back to my car at night. I would not be so hesitant about meeting new people, even in places like bars, so I might be friendlier. I would not be so mistrustful of people in my daughter’s life.
A world without rape would make me more independent because I would no longer be so fearful. That threat hangs over me, as it hangs over all women, all the time. Which is why I cannot imagine such a world. Rape is the threat that keeps women “in line.” In a world without it, women would be, well, uncontrollable.
I am horrified. That’s not what she was supposed to say. She was supposed to tell me that everything was okay, that the threat was exaggerated and things were just fine. Suddenly, my very maleness is a threatening weapon again. Suddenly, those I thought were safe are vulnerable, living their lives with a patina of fear I can barely comprehend, let alone combat. Gratuitous fantasies of slaughtering rapists fill my head; I work to keep my fictional protagonists from becoming avenging Mary Sues.
And I remember another woman, a teenager’s lifetime ago, saying that I looked intimidating.
And suddenly I knew what she meant.
Men. Don’t take my word for it. Go to a woman – one you trust, one you know will tell you the truth. Go to someone who you think won’t give you the textbook answer.
Ask them anyway.