This is how a lifetime of potentially dangerous situations affects every woman.
Whenever I speak about or write about women’s issues — dress codes, rape culture, and sexism — there’s this thing that happens. People ask: Are things really that bad?
Aren’t you being overly sensitive?
Every. Single. Time.
And every single time, I get frustrated. Why don’t they get it?
I think I’ve figured out why.
Some of them don’t know. They don’t know about de-escalation. Minimizing. Quietly acquiescing.
Hell, even though women live it, we aren’t always aware of it. But we’ve all done it.
We’ve all learned — by instinct or trial and error — how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable.
To avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all ignored offensive comments or laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.
It doesn’t feel good. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired. It’s not something we talk about every day.
We don’t tell our partners or friends every time it happens.
It’s so frequent, so pervasive, that it has become something we just deal with.
So maybe they don’t know.
That at the tender age of 13, we had to brush off adult men staring at our breasts.
That the guy in English class who asked us out sent angry messages just because we turned him down.
That our old supervisor used to regularly pat us on the ass.
And they surely don’t know that most of the time we smile with gritted teeth. That we look away or pretend not to notice. They likely have no idea how routine these things are, so that we go through the motions of ignoring it and minimizing, both internally and externally. We minimize it because we have to. To not shrug it off would put us in confrontation mode more often than most of us feel like dealing with.
We learn at a young age how to do this. We probably didn’t put a name or label to it, or even consider that other girls were doing the same thing.
But all the while, we were mastering the art of de-escalation.
We go through a quick mental checklist so that we can make a quick risk assessment. Does he seem volatile, angry? Are there other people around? Is he just trying to be funny, albeit clueless? Will saying something affect my school/job/reputation?
In just seconds we need to be able to determine whether we will say something or let it slide. Whether we’ll call him out or turn the other way, smile politely or pretend that we didn’t hear or feel it.
It happens all the time. And it’s not always clear if the situation is dangerous or benign.
It’s the boss who says or does something inappropriate. It’s the male friend who has had too much to drink and tries to corner us for a "friends with benefits” moment, even though we’ve made it clear we’re not interested. It’s the guy who gets angry if we turn him down for a date. Or a dance. Or a drink.
We really don’t think anything of it. Until we hear that the "friend” who cornered us was later accused of rape. Until our boss makes good on his promise to kiss us on New Year’s Eve when he catches us alone in the kitchen. Those are the times we may tell our friends or partners about.
But all the other times we felt uneasy or nervous but nothing more happened? Those times, we just go about our business.
It’s the reality of being a woman in our world:
It’s laughing off sexism because we felt we had no other option.
It’s feeling sick to our stomachs that we had to "play along” to get along.
It's feeling shame and regret the we didn’t call that guy out, the one who seemed intimidating but in hindsight was probably harmless. Probably.
It’s having our fingers poised over the "call” buttons of our phones when we’re walking alone at night.
It’s positioning our keys between our fingers in case we need a weapon.
It’s lying and saying we have a boyfriend when a guy doesn't want to take "no” for an answer.
It’s being at a crowded concert and having to turn around to look for the jerk who just grabbed our ass. It’s knowing that, even if we spot him, we might not say anything.
It’s walking through the parking lot of a Home Depot and politely saying Hello when a guy passing us says Hi. It’s pretending not to hear him berate us for not stopping to talk further. What? You too good to talk to me? Bitch.
It’s the memory that haunts us of that time we were abused, assaulted, or raped.
It’s the stories our friends tell us through heartbreaking tears of that time they were abused, assaulted, or raped.
It’s realizing that we know too many women who have been abused, assaulted, or raped.
It occurred to me recently that a lot of guys may be unaware of this.
They have heard of things that happened. They’ve probably, at times, seen it and stepped in to stop it. But they likely have no idea how often it happens. That it colors so much of what we say or do.
Maybe we need to explain it better. Maybe we need to stop minimizing it in our own minds.
The guys that shrug off or tune out when a woman talks about sexism in our culture? Maybe it’s because they just haven’t lived our reality. Maybe the good men in our lives have no idea that we deal with this stuff on a regular basis. And it doesn’t occur to us to talk about the everyday stuff that we witness and experience.
When I get fired up about a comment someone makes about a girl’s tight dress, they don’t always get it. When I get worked up over the everyday sexism I’m seeing and witnessing and watching, when I’m hearing of the things my daughter and her friends are experiencing, they don’t realize it’s the tiny tip of a much bigger iceberg.
Maybe men won’t understand how pervasive everyday sexism is unless we start telling them and pointing to it when it happens.
Maybe I'm starting to realize that just shrugging it off and not making a big deal about it is not going to help anyone.
We de-escalate. We are acutely aware of our vulnerability — that if he wanted to, that guy in the Home Depot parking lot could overpower us and do whatever he wants.
Guys, this is what it means to be a woman.
We are sexualized before we even understand what that means. We get stares and comments from adult men before we can process what they mean. We learn at an early age that to confront these situations could put us in danger. So we minimize and we de-escalate.
The next time a woman talks about being catcalled and how it makes her uncomfortable, don’t just nod. Really listen.
The next time your wife complains about being called "sweetheart" at work. The next time you read about or hear a woman call out sexist language. The next time your girlfriend tells you that the way a guy talked to her made her feel uncomfortable. Listen.
Listen because your reality isn’t the same as hers. Listen because it’s very likely that what you’re hearing about is probably only the tip of the iceberg.
Listen because the reality is that she or someone she knows was abused, assaulted, or raped.
Listen because she may be trying to make sure what she lived through isn’t something her daughter will have to live through. Listen because nothing bad can ever come from listening.