CW: violence against women, sexual harassment, assault.
Let me tell you a story. Today, a friend of mine jostled into a man on a rush hour tube. The man turned around and threatened to punch her in the face. She cried.
Let me tell you another story. Once, when I was walking home in the dark, a man ran towards me and screamed in my face. When I leapt backwards away from him, he laughed hysterically. I went home, turned on all of my lights and sat in the corner of my living room between the sofa and the wall. And I cried.
Let me tell you another story. A while ago, there was a post circling around the internet about a man who noticed that the woman walking in front of him had sped up to get away from him. He walked faster and so did she. Eventually, she broke into a run. When she tripped and fell, he ran past her and screamed “Who are we running from?!”. A lot of people shared this post. A lot of nice male friends of mine shared this post with notes on how funny it was. They laughed. I bet the woman cried.
In at least two of those stories, the men involved thought they were kidding around. Not having been there for the first, I can’t say for sure whether the threat was a thoughtless, idiotic, off the cuff remark or a genuine threat. But here’s something I am sure about: being able to frighten women and think that you are joking or that we shouldn’t take it so seriously is an act of supreme, huge, massive privilege.
When you say or do something like the guys above did, you know that you don’t really mean it. Here’s the thing: we don’t.
We don’t know until we’ve ignored your shouts of “Hey beautiful!” whether you’re going to throw a bottle at us or not.
We don’t know until we’ve awkwardly returned your smile at the bar whether you are going to shove us against a wall and assault us or not.
We don’t know until we’ve refused to laugh at your inappropriate sexual joke whether you’re going to tell your friends that we were throwing ourselves at you or not.
We don’t know until we’ve pulled you up on sexist language whether you’ll send us photographs of mutilated women or not.
We don’t know when we sit next to you on the bus whether you’re going to start masturbating at us or not.
None of those examples are hypothetical.
I don’t presume to speak for all women here because I can’t. So I’m just going to speak for me. I live my whole life in the knowledge that pretty much every single man I come into contact with is stronger than me. In every interaction, I carry that thought in the back of my head: that you could hurt me if you wanted to. I’m smart, I’m funny, I’m brave, I’m strong, I’m confident and not one of those things would stop you killing me if you decided to.
I am afraid of you. And the numbers back me up in being afraid of you. The numbers say that actually, it’s quite likely that I’ll be seriously hurt by a man in my lifetime. It’s only a matter of time. It’s only a matter of who. It’s basically a miracle that women get out the door in the morning with that knowledge hanging over them. The only thing that stops me living in fear all the time is sheer, indefatigable stubbornness.
We have no idea whether your “joke” is a joke until it’s too late. When you make jokes like that and I give you the hilarious, terrified reaction that you’re looking for, I’m doing that because I’m afraid that you’re going to hurt me. I’m afraid that you’re going to kill me. So I’ll let you choose. You can be funny, or you can be frightening. Because trust me, you can’t be both. Violence isn’t always committed with a fist. Just because we’re not bleeding doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt us. Weigh your damn words, boys. They’re heavy.