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Monday, June 19, 2006

Fuck fear

posted by bitchphd
This is a follow up to this post, a little epiphany I had on Monday prompted primarily by thinking about the article I'd just finished. At some point in the discussion to that post, we started talking about whether harassment is inherently gendered, whether people are safer or less safe in public, and so on, and it reminded me of Monday's thoughts.

One of the things that my pseudonymous blogger survey responses revealed is that, by and large, women are more likely to use pseudonyms out of fear of harassment and stalking. Men say they worry about their work, and sometimes talk about privacy issues, but they don't use words like "fear," or really "worry" (that was my word). Men's choices seem to be expressed more as preferences--"I'd rather keep my work and online life separate," say. And the few guys who talked about fear tended to displace it onto their wives--"my wife worries about our family's privacy"--whereas women talked specifically about their fear for themselves and, if they had kids, their kids.

Now, initially reading this, I thought, okay, common sense. Then it suddenly hit me: really??? I mean, we're talking an online environment here. Sure, if you post your name and picture you could be recognized. If you post your addy you could be stalked. But really, it's pretty unlikely. AND, I realized, why are women more afraid of it than men? Immediate answer: well, studies have shown that women are a lot more likely to be harassed onlilne than men are. Ok, so that's conditioning women to be afraid--but it isn't the thing women fear. We don't fear being called "bitch" or "slut" or asked "are you hot?" by random internet strangers. What the women in the surveys feared, and I've seen women say this online too, is being personally and physically threatened as a result of their online presence.

And again: why would women fear this more than men? Random internet person develops some weird obsessive fixation on another random internet person, stalks and threatens him/her. I've seen this happen to both women and men. But guys don't seem to fear it the way women do.

And what hit me suddenly--duh!--is that the only reason women fear this shit is because we are trained to fear it. And of course, underneath all that training is the fear of rape. And from that follow two things:

1. Men who hassle women online ("hey baby," "you stupid bitch") or in real life (wolf whistles, etc.) are actively training women to be afraid. Whether or not they realize it, that's what they're doing. Which makes the answer to the question "why do guys do that? Do they think I'm going to say, "hey, daddy, let me give you my number?"--and we've all asked that, and laughed about it--suddenly clear. Of course they don't do it to pick up women. No women has ever responded to that, and men know this. They do it to instill fear.

God damn, that's shitty.

2. A lot--most!--of the "safety advice" and "precautions" women are advised to take, or offered, actually reinforce this fear. Not too long ago I was visiting some friends in a city where the bus system has a rule, prominently posted on the bus, that it will make unscheduled stops after 9 p.m. for women only. I thought, "why just women? Guys can get robbed or assaulted too." And then I thought, "oh, b/c if a guy is following a woman, she can get off at an unscheduled stop and he can't follow her."

But I also realized that one effect of this sign was to make me think about that possibility, to draw my attention to the idea that I should ask the bus to stop nearer to where I'm going after 9 p.m. (for the record, I never do this). And it made me think of how, all my life, I've insisted on walking home alone, walking after dark, refusing to "take precautions." And how I've always said to myself that this is because I will not live in fear, like it's a matter of principle (which it is). But I also realized: it's also a very practical thing to do: one effect of it has been that I am seldom afraid on the street at night.

Once in grad school, a friend of mine got held up, at gunpoint, after a party. Not five minutes before it happened, a group of friends and I who were leaving the party together passed the two guys who robbed my friend, who had left with us but walked the other way down the block. The party was in my neighborhood, where I regularly walked after dark, and for a little while afterwards I thought "maybe I shouldn't do that."

But the thing was, the person who got held up? Was a guy. The group I left the party with? Mixed women and men. We didn't get robbed, because we left in a group; he did, because he left alone.

And because he was a guy, he saw no reason not to--and none of us offered to walk home with him.

I wager that, with the exception of rape, men are more likely to be the victims of random street crime. But all the precautions about avoiding it are aimed at women, and they are all implicitly about avoiding rape. Even though we know that most rapes are not random street crime, but are committed by friends, dates, acquaintances, and so on. So not only is this advice bad advice to women, the unspoken corrolary--that men don't need to worry as much as women--is really bad advice to men. And the problem is, by giving women but not men this advice, we perpetuate the idea that violence is sexualized (and therefore men, who are not sexualized, do not have to worry about it), and we turn reasonable things like walking home with a friend into things women do out of fear and men don't do at all. If everyone did it, it wouldn't contribute to the sexualized fear problem: it would just be a matter of common sense, as unremarkable as having coed public restrooms. (Remember the great anti-ERA argument, that having co-ed restrooms would be dangerous to women? Well, they've arrived. And I'm not afraid of them. Are you?)

So on the street or on the internet--in public--women are afraid, and men are not. And the reason for it has everything to do with the sexualization of violence, which is perpetuated in so many ways, by so many men (and women)--both the guys who hoot at women on the street corner and the friends who give women well-meaning advice about how to be careful, aka how to live in fear.
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