by John Hoffman
Like many people I was touched and impressed by the Women’s March on Washington, and the sister marches in other cities all over the world. But of all the photos and video clips I saw, here’s the one I thought about the most. It was a photo of a young guy marching in Buenos Aires holding a sign that said, “I’m half naked and surrounded by members of the opposite sex… but I feel protected, not intimidated. I want the same for them.”
So do I.
This is an issue that doesn’t get talked about often enough. Sure, we talk about keeping women safe from sexual assault and domestic violence. And we should. But there’s another aspect of safety that matters. That’s the inner unsafe feeling that girls and women experience in situations where men would feel perfectly safe.
Think of how you felt as a teenager when you were walking home on a dark and street. A couple of tough guys from your school suddenly appeared, coming toward you. Remember how you felt inside – nervous stomach, tense body, alert brain? Those bodily feelings were a sign that your stress response system was in a state of alarm, ready to run, cower or fight. There were emotions too. You at least felt uneasy, if not outright fearful. Much of the time those guys probably didn’t turn out not to be a real threat. But, you still felt unsafe for awhile.
Girls and women feel unsafe like that a lot more than men do. And much of the time it’s not because some guy is openly threatening her. But her brain and body are anticipating that possibility. She’s expecting unwanted attention because of the way she’s been treated by men in the past. That could have been everything from catcalls, being rated on her looks, unwanted touches or harsher forms of harassment. Or maybe it’s just that guys so often say pseudo friendly things like, “Hey baby,” “Hey Beautiful, or simply, “Smile!” Females almost never do this sort of stuff to males. Imagine how those experiences change your view of going about the world everyday.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask some of the women you know. They’ll tell you. Or watch this video of a woman who was filmed for ten hours walking the streets of New York alone. She gets unwanted comments from strangers about every five minutes, not to mention whistles and the kind of lewd looks you and I have never had to live with. And unless you’re the sort of guy that makes those comments, that female experience mostly flies under the male radar screen.
When I walk around the streets of my town I feel perfectly safe. I’ve always felt that way – except maybe the odd time in my younger days, late at night on dark, unfamiliar streets after the bars closed. But, like I said, a lot of women and girls feel at least on edge if not out an out unsafe pretty often, and they shouldn’t have to.
Women have become more vocal about this kind of street harassment in the past five years or so. Good. But men have to step up too. And that involves much more than being sympathetic. Obviously men have an obligation to not engage in street harassment and to speak up when other guys do it. There’s also a fathering aspect to this. I can’t imagine that any half-decent father wants his daughter to feel unsafe as she walks the streets of her town. And I doubt you’d like your son to become one of the guys who makes girls and woman feel unsafe. We need to talk to our sons about girls’ and women’s right to feel safe, and the subtle and not so subtle role that boys and men play in making women feel unsafe. We also need to show them what they can do to create more safety for girls and women.
I think we also need to consider how our sons see us treating our female partners and daughters and how we talk about (and to) women in general. We need to think about how they see us respond to harassment when we see it or sexist content in video games and movies.
None of these ideas are particularly new. I’ve been hearing about these male responsibilities for at least 30 years. But usually they couched in terms of bringing down patriarchy or something else that sounds political. I’d like to bring it down to a basic human right. Feeling safe.
Women have the right to safety — not just to be safe, but feel it in their bones. Women are talking about how to support and help each other. But the real solution to this problem is on men – what we do and say and how we raise our children – particularly our boys. Let’s do this.