It’s a common scene in our relationship: We’re walking down the street at night and Alex, my partner of over three years, suddenly speeds up. Or maybe he switches sides with me on the sidewalk. Or maybe he falls quiet as I watch his eyes dart to the car pulling up behind us.
He’s alert, and he’s spotted danger nearby. He’s planning in his head how he would respond if someone suddenly jumped out of that car, or if the person walking a little too close behind us had a gun. I can sense him tensing up. He’s focused on just getting us home until the danger has passed.
The other day in a conversation with a mutual friend, Alex told her that he was more alert to danger than me. He pointed to his tendency to tense up on the sidewalk, his keen eye for baggy jackets that could be hiding a gun, and his heightened sense of cars slowing down. I, on the other hand, must be less aware of these lurking sidewalk dangers since I rarely respond.
But the truth is, I’m not less aware of the danger: I’m just more used to it.
For men, danger has a pretty narrow definition: someone who looks tougher, bigger, crazier, or shadier than you are. The corner store dunk, the “thug” with sagging pants and loud music, or the homeless man mumbling to himself on the sidewalk, for example.
For men like my partner who grew up in idyllic suburbs with forest trails, dog parks, and man-made lakes — the idea of “danger” must feel pretty foreign, isolated primarily to the cities or the Bad Part of Town™.
For women, the group of people considered “dangerous” is much more ubiquitous, and there’s no part of town where you can avoid it.
No matter where a girl grows up, she knows two things for sure: 1) men are dangerous, and 2) there’s no avoiding them. Whether it’s on the street, at the mall, or in the train station, women are constantly surrounded by danger.
It may be easy for men to write off the constant fear that women experience. “Not all men!” they say. But it doesn’t take all men to make women afraid. The point is that enough men are a danger to us that it is reasonable to consider all men dangerous when interacting with them. In fact, keeping women afraid is part of keeping women in their place. This is a necessary function of patriarchy.
The danger we experience as women living in a world with men is both constant and normalized. On my commute from West Philadelphia to Center City on any given morning, for example, I might have five different experiences with men that make me feel afraid:
- Passing that guy on the corner by 52nd Street who always makes some sort of comment to me, even though I always ignore him.
- Waiting at the train station, there is a man yelling at someone behind me — possibly his girlfriend.
- Getting on the train, I have to choose between sitting next to one man, or risk being squished between two in the aisle.
- Once I’m off the train, I pass the construction guys who are always at the Halal cart. There are about ten or eleven of them, and they have me surrounded on both sides of the sidewalk.
- Finally, at my office building, I’m alone in the elevator with a man who seems to have his hand in his pants — there are no security cameras.
Usually, these incidents don’t result in any harm. Only a few times in my life has a cat-call escalated to anything worse. I’ve never actually been assaulted by a man in an elevator. The yelling men on the train usually keep to themselves. Usually.
While I’ve never been assaulted in an elevator, I have been stuck with a man who held the “door close” button until I gave him my number — then yelled “Fuck you, bitch!” down the hallway after me once he realized it was fake.
One time, two men in a red car decided to stalk me on my walk home from work, hollering the whole way about what they would do to me when we got there — until they realized I was walking to the police station.
Nothing usually happens, though.
After being exposed to people who are a danger to you day in and day out, multiple times a day, eventually, you get used to the danger. People adapt to their environments, and most women I know are pretty adapted to the fear of men in public.
We all have our coping mechanisms — for example, I like to wear large headphones. While my partner says they make me a target, I’ve found that it prevents men from trying to talk with me — having an excuse to ignore men prevents most escalation. Normally, women are not allowed to ignore men. We need an excuse.
Rather than tense up on the street when we sense danger while walking with a friend, women prefer to start a conversation with each other. Looking busy, engaged, and making noise makes you look strong — like you are part of a herd. Appearing weak or vulnerable in front of a man is a mistake. That is when they strike.
Women know these things.
We’ve learned it through trial and error of attempting to survive in a world with men. We’ve learned it from our mothers, sometimes explicitly with words and sometimes just through her example. We’ve learned it from our friends, by hearing their horror stories and swearing not to replicate their mistakes.
When I don’t respond to “dangerous” men the way my partner would like, it doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the danger. We just have different thresholds for what really scares us — because women are used to dealing with danger in a way men simply can’t relate to.
This doesn’t mean men’s perception of danger in public should be ignored. Maybe because women are so used to being afraid (and having to just swallow that fear and get on) the ones who really should scare us fly under the radar. It never hurts to have two perspectives on a situation, and the second set of eyes and instincts can only make us safer.
Yet, when men feel like they are doing the heavy lifting of protecting women from danger, they should try to remember from whom they are really protecting us: other men.
And women tend to be the experts on living and coping with male violence.
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