Don’t stay out too late. Pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t have headphones in when you’re jogging. Watch your drink at all times. Don’t drink too much. Carry pepper spray or a pocket knife. Lock your car doors. Don’t get on elevators alone. Travel in groups. Share your location with a friend. Watch what you wear. Don’t go home if you’re being followed. Don’t open the door for strangers. Avoid eye contact.
These are all pieces of advice women have been given their entire lives to “be safe.” These precautions we take are examples of how women have to exercise constant vigilance to try to protect themselves from unwanted advances, attention, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
The examples I listed above are not even half of the steps we take. But the truth is no matter what we do, no matter how “safe” we are, we end up getting taken advantage of.
Does that mean all of those steps we took were in vain? No. The problem does not lie with women taking these measures to have some semblance of a normal life.
The problem is that society has placed the burden of being careful on women. That means that allegedly we hold the power of whether or not we end up being harassed, assaulted, or even killed. Allegedly, as long as we take all these steps, we won’t get hurt.
But when all these precautions fail, the question should not be about what the woman does to protect herself. The question should be were we ever safe in the first place?
The problem is that society has placed the burden of being careful on women. When all of these precautions fail, the question should not be about what the woman does to protect herself. The question should be were we ever safe in the first place?
In the aftermath of any violent act against a woman, the media’s response is always directed at the woman. How she should have been more careful; how she should not have made a specific decision; how she could have done this better.
The media’s response to calling out the man responsible for that violent act? Crickets. This promotes the convoluted idea that as soon as you let your guard down you are inviting men to take advantage of you.
The root of the problem of violence against women lies with men who commit violent acts. Many men have committed atrocities against women for centuries. Violence against women can manifest itself in different ways.
It is not only physical but also emotional, mental, legal, and societal; examples include harassment, rape, manipulation, controlling finances, and anti-abortion legislation. Since violence can take so many forms, it is crucial not to pigeonhole violence to physical acts, because we risk leaving women behind.
The reason why violence against women continues is that there is no accountability and responsibility whatsoever placed on perpetrators. This happens through victim-blaming and focusing the narrative on negative behaviors or decisions of the victim.
Additionally, people come to the aid and defense of the perpetrator, sharing stories of how he had a good heart or character. Society and the media all support these methods and help further alienate and isolate victims. The ones who speak out face repercussions like losing their job or being ostracized by their family.
The abhorrent treatment of women who speak out and share their stories only makes victims more reluctant to come forward. These women’s stories are invalidated, denied, or simply brushed off. I can’t decide which is worse, suffering in silence or speaking up without being heard. Regardless of what path women choose, we are still suffering. It feels like women are caught in this cycle of pain — waiting to see who will be the next victim.
Sadly, there are always many others who become victims, so much so, we transition into their stories without even finishing the ones before them. One detail that stands out amidst these women’s stories is their perpetrator is almost always a man and someone they know.
There is nothing more difficult than the pain of being betrayed by someone you know and love. And I am talking about the men whom we trusted, whom we shared our stories with and believed to be good — the very ones who had always been reliable and supported us in everything we did.
Why? How could someone you built a relationship with hurt you so easily? I’m terrified of the answers. Could it be this was all a ruse, that they never actually cared in the first place? Or, did they care and somewhere along the way decided they wanted something different?
Perhaps they thought they were entitled to what they took because the women they knew trusted them? Maybe they are insecure in their positions with these women, and breaking the relationship is easier than facing their fears?
Regardless of the reasons or excuses that many men tend to make, I don’t think women in such situations could ever forgive them. In fact, I don’t think such men are worthy of forgiveness.
As difficult as this is, the answer is not in never trusting men, because not all men are like that. The men who choose to hurt you will do so because of their ego, pride, selfishness, and/or anger. They come from a place of weakness and insecurity. They need to break something or someone to feel as if they are in control or even powerful. It’s pathetic and even pitiful. But, know for sure that you did nothing wrong. You did not deserve this, and you can move forward.
While we can’t change the past, we can work to make sure our sons do not grow up to become the men that hurt us. To mothers of sons, tell them about consent. Talk to them about respecting boundaries. Encourage them to speak up when they see any kind of violence against women. Teach them how to be allies, and how women can be intimate and non-intimate partners and friends. Don’t let them fall into the trap of “boys will be boys,” or engage in “locker room talk.”
While I can’t guarantee that your son won’t fall privy to society’s embodiment of alpha male ego and toxic masculinity, I do believe in this. Your son will remember these conversations, he may have a girlfriend, be married, or has a daughter. He will have a choice to make — the right decision or the decision to ignore it all.
If he makes the wrong decision, please know that you as a mother contribute to his upbringing; you plant the seeds, and he has the choice to help them grow or let them wither. As difficult as it might be, I hope you hold him accountable for his actions. A betrayal to a woman in his life mirrors his betrayal to you. I hope he makes the right decision, for you and the women in his life.
To the men in our lives, my message is simple. It should not take something happening to your mother, wife, daughter, or sister for you to take action. Your complacency is the reason why women are trapped and will continue to be subjected to the violence of men.
Men are more likely to listen to other men when being criticized or reprimanded. You claim you would do anything to protect the women in your life — the women you love. Why are you allowing the men you know to hurt a woman who is loved by her father, brother, husband, and son?
The solution is simple: Take action, call out problematic behavior, be an ally.
Stop being complacent. Stop thinking someone else will handle it. Stop being comfortable. Complacency sends a message that such behavior or act was okay. This is selfish because you care more about yourself and what repercussions you might face.
You have to understand what a privilege it is to do nothing and act like nothing happened because to you, “nothing” happened. It does not matter who the person is, what they do, where they come from, what their background is. We cannot continue to drum up excuses and allow men to move on while we leave broken women behind.
I would be amiss in putting this responsibility only on men. Women, especially women in positions of power and privilege, are just as responsible for allowing this cycle to continue. I have witnessed women who could have put an end to abuse or called out the men in their lives fail to do so. Time and time again I am left shell-shocked wondering if we can’t trust other women to be there for us, fight with us in our darkest times — who can we trust?
I was faced with the daunting reality that these women let these incidents slide for the same reasons men do. It’s easier to let that incident go instead of getting involved. They don’t want to risk their position or reputation. Or worse, they see the woman as one less person to compete with, one less threat to their empire or path to glory. I can’t tell which is more painful, a room full of people doing nothing or a woman who turns a blind eye to your suffering.
It’s ironic how we believe it is easy to be careless and reckless towards someone we don’t know, but actively exhibit that behavior towards the people we trust and love. I want to believe we can create a world where women and girls do not have to live in vigilance and a false sense of security. I want to believe we can trust our male counterparts and develop healthy relationships without being stabbed in the back. I want to believe women will stand by us instead of taking the easy way out.
But I turn on the TV and I see these news headlines. Some days it is a phone call from a friend. Other times it is a jarring image on social media. Every time, hope dwindles. I wonder what she was doing at that moment, what she was thinking, and the precautions she took.
Was she alone? With people? Was it in public or at home? Did she trust them or even know them? Did she realize what was happening? Did she know it was too late? Had she fought back or called out for help?
I know change will require dismantling years of conditioning before we ever reach a world where women can feel safe. But this is possible, we saw with the #MeToo movement a significant rise in not only validating women’s stories but also holding individuals accountable.
I know even if we do everything right, there might still be instances of violence against women. But how people respond and react to it will be different. How people listen to and understand women’s stories will be different.
It is too much to ask for perfect, and perfect is impossible for human beings. Fighting for the right to exist without being subject to violence is not too much to ask for.
This is a right we should not be asking for in the first place. This is a burden that has been placed on women, and through everything we have been through, we carry it well. But you can only carry the weight of the world for so long. It’s time for men and women to carry their share of this burden.