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I've lost count how many times I've barked, "I can't believe you did that!", while only an astrophysicist could calculate the number of times I found myself on the receiving end of it. This statement itself must be within a certain context, of course: it makes sense to shout that as you drive to the emergency vet because your dog ate your pan of magic brownies, or maybe you say that with admiration to a friend who just completed the IronMan. The context I want to focus on is when we say this in anger, and anger is nothing more than an aggressive form of fear.
The concept of fear has been on my mind all weekend, particularly since I finished reading Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear, a book on how to use fear as a tool for survival. There's an emphasis on distinguishing fear from worry, resulting in a more balanced engagement with the world, a concept that seems to be slipping away. At its core, fear is designed to keep you alive, but it does little more than disconnect you when exploited; this is where victim-blaming comes in.
Victim-blaming is something I do less of as my emotions continue to mature, which I hope continues until I turn to dust. We're probably never done "growing up," for each phase of life is accompanied with new lessons; it's up to us to decide if we're going to be attentive students or not. Damn, I could kick myself when I think about the stuff I missed, don't you? I try to take comfort in knowing that lessons are learned when you need to learn them, something I used to hear with enraged ears. It could be frustrating when you experience something difficult only to have someone enlighten you with the "It's all part of God's plan" gem. I usually take the God concept out of it, but you get the gist of it: patience and empathy will allow you to heal from your "mistakes," and by doing so you may just find yourself able to forgive the actions of others; life is easier to get through when you're not weighed down by anger...
...which I believe is fear wrapped in a tough leather jacket. Take a look at the wall of this post, way up top. If you don't already know, it's a still from The Accused, and the man you see in the foreground will lead the gang-rape of Jodie Foster's character, who must then fight the legal system to bring the rapists and their enablers to justice. As per usual, she is forced to defend her actions:
- Why did you get drunk at the bar?
- Why did you wear a skirt?
- Why did you dance with that man?
- Why did you let him kiss you?
- Why didn't you fight back, or you know, just close your legs?
- Why did you let him cover your mouth and hold your arms down?
- Hey, just how many sexual partners have you had?
- I can't believe you did that!
Yup, victim-blaming...and we all do it, even me. I'm not too proud to admit that I almost always do this when I hear of an assault, rape, or murder: I imagine myself in the same circumstances but smarter. I mean, I wouldn't get drunk around guys I don't know. I wouldn't dance and kiss some guy on a dance floor in a seedy bar. I would fight back if...see what I mean? This victim-blaming stems from a desire to feel safe, to emotionally distance ourselves from traumas that could happen to anyone, including men. In fact, male rape is so uncomfortable for most to talk about it's often treated like a punchline, because nothing's funnier than men being raped, amiright? Shudder.
I'm fortunate in that I've never been raped or violently attacked, but there were many times where it could have happened, and I think about these moments when I'm quick to judge the actions of victims. I'm going to now share a story where I made decisions that could have easily resulted in a violent attack, and believe me when I tell you that even the most intelligent people can find themselves in vulnerable situations. I wasn't completely clueless to the potential dangers I was in, but most of us can agree that hindsight cures color blindness, allowing us to see those flags slowly change from yellow to red. Pay attention to the words I make bold.
Back in 2007 I went on a bike tour of the Pacific Coast, and just about everyone I met was awesome and helpful, which is why it's harder to listen to your gut when it's telling you to be cautious. Your brain takes over, "Everyone has been so great, there's nothing to fear, stop being such a cynical New Yorker," etc. Eventually I arrived in the surprisingly uptight town of Monterey, where I had a hostel booked. You meet all sorts of people on the road, and most want to treat you to a meal or help you out in some way; it's just cool to meet people who cycle and camp as a way to experience the world. One man I met was Johann, and despite him being "perfectly nice," a small but noticeable feeling of caution was present (remember this). It turned out he was a traveling PA for the prison system, and he told me that he books the hostel because it allows him to pocket the rest of his motel stipend. This didn't seem too crazy to me, as Monterey is NOT a cheap place to live or visit, if it had been I wouldn't have stayed at a stupid hostel that guaranteed me 4 1/2 hours of sleep and 12 seconds of hot water. I'm not judging the guy's class status, but if I had a full-time job that covered hotel costs, I'd want the private accommodations of one. It would annoy me to have to follow the hostel's restrictions, none of which would be present in a proper hotel (particularly the strangers sleeping inches away from you). Staying in a bad hostel is like vacationing in a minimum-security prison. But maybe I was being too judgmental; 2007 wasn't exactly generous to the 99%. Besides, I was staying at the same place, so why was this something that didn't sit well with me? Maybe he was putting himself through grad school or something...
Johann was in his late 30s, tall with dark hair and glasses, not conventionally attractive. He was pretty impressed that I had arrived there after leaving Vancouver a few weeks' prior. Johann had a very effeminate way about him so I assumed he was gay (I know, not very progressive of me). This caused me to let my guard down a little, so when he offered to drive me into town for dinner I agreed. I got in his car and we headed down to a little vegetarian restaurant, a welcome change from the camping food I was subsisting on. During dinner he asked me about my queerness, curious about how one "knows they're gay" or not. I try to keep this topic brief, as it tends to invite inappropriate questions. I kept waiting for him to talk about his queerness, but he never did. Johann wasn't invasive or rude in his conversation, just a little awkward. He paid for dinner, and we headed back to the parking lot.
"Hey, do you need a trip to the grocery store? You may want to stock up," Johann offered, since bike touring often means traveling with only the essentials. I agreed, as the campground I was to reach the next day had no potable water; it would do me good to replace rations, right? So that's what we did, and soon I found myself returning to his car, ready to head back to the hostel. We left the parking lot before he spoke up again.
"So I don't know if you're interested, but I like to drive down to the water for a while before heading back to the hostel; it's really pretty." I honestly just wanted to head back to sleep before the next day's 65-mile climb, but I felt like I had to acquiesce to his simple request; he was so gracious to buy me dinner and take me to the grocery store, I mean, wouldn't it be rude of me to decline and ruin his nightly plans? Anyway, I had been to the waterfront earlier that day to find it teeming with cars and people, so I agreed. He drove down further down than I had anticipated and pulled up to another waterfront spot. My stomach dropped when I realized that there wasn't one car or person in sight: we were completely alone. Sure there were houses is the distance, but it was dark. Very dark. Too dark. I tried to think of where I was in relation to the hostel when Johann interrupted my thoughts.
"Hey, I gotta pee so I'm gonna head over there. You mind?" he asked, nodding over to some nearby beach shrubs.
"Go for it," I said, scanning the area to see the best route to flee. I tried not to think about the man holding his dick just a few yards away, the pseudo-stranger who just drove me to a desolate beachfront. I told myself that I would be okay, just be nice, be pleasant, don't anger him...
Johann emerged from the bushes and walked toward me, a confused look on his face. He gently held his hand out to me, palm up, as if I were to take his hand..
"Feel my hand," he said. My mouth turned dry with fear, and I could barely speak.
"What, why?" I choked out, buying time to see if I figure this one out.
"Just touch it," he said, taking a step closer.
Be gracious, be sweet, don't make him angry...
Being face-to-face with someone who may attack causes you to engage differently than you anticipated. Sometimes "doing nothing" is a survival tactic to avoid triggering a violent rage. The wind whipped strongly off the ocean, making it doubtful that anyone would even hear me scream. I gingerly allowed my hand to touch his, ready to run.
"Isn't it soft?" he asked, still appearing confused.
"Um, yeah but—"
"Isn't it soft like a woman's? I don't understand why you wouldn't be attracted to me," he said, his eyes pleading. "I don't know why you wouldn't like me," he repeated, as if that cleared things up. I could tell this guy had major sexuality and gender issues.
"That's a longer conversation, one that I'd rather have at the hostel," I stated in what I hoped was a firm voice. I prepared myself to run.
"Oh, you want to go back? Okay," Johann said, as we headed back to the car. Again, I didn't want to get in, but I figured if he was going to attack me, he certainly could have done it already. I pulled my seatbelt over me without locking it into place. As a precaution, I made sure my door handle was able to be unlocked; I'm sure you've heard stories where women accept rides from guys who rig their cars to be traps.
I don't remember what we chatted about because by that time my cortisol must have been off the charts, making it impossible to focus on anything but surviving the short ride back to the hostel. I exhaled when we pulled into the hostel's parking lot.
"So what time are you leaving tomorrow?" he asked casually, as if we'd just returned from a carnival.
"Definitely early," I answered, yawning extra loud for effect. I thanked him for dinner, and the night came to and end. We entered the sleeping quarters, where I did anything but as the other residents coughed, tossed, and snored into the night.
The next morning I made my way to the bathroom to change into my cycling clothes, tired and dreading the difficulty of the day. I returned to the room to find one of the other cyclists had accidentally closed the locked door. I gritted my teeth, furious that this goof just delayed my leaving by over 1/2 an hour. For starters the day's ride required an early start, and secondly I wanted to avoid Johann. Once inside I grabbed my stuff and headed out to the parking lot where my bike was locked up in storage.
"Hi," a familiar voice said. "Just wanted to wish you a good trip."
I looked up to see Johann, who woke up early to meet me by my bike. My jaw clenched but I did my best to appear calm. We exchanged pleasantries, and it was on the tip of my tongue to read him the riot act about last night's potentially life-threatening trip to the shore, but I didn't want to offend him. Yes, you read that correctly: I was concerned with his feelings as much as I was advocating for my own safety. After all, he knew I was going to be ascending Highway 1 all day until I hit the next campground; what if I irked something in him and he chose to follow me? I left this story out of the biking blog I posted years ago, almost convincing myself that I dramatized an innocent moment with an awkward guy, which is an attitude that is used to gaslight victims. Yeah, now I know better.
I bet more than once you said to yourself, "I can't believe she did that!" Admit it, I would have a similar reaction if someone told me this story. I'd do whatever I could to distance myself from the gullible idiot who got into a strange man's car, because I'd never be so stupid to...
...and that's victim-blaming, folks. The sad fact is that more people have been conditioned to chastise the victim over the offender. It's why we berate girls for drinking at a party but pardon the boys that roofie the punch. In other words, women who drink should be punished but men who spike the drink are seen as normal, "boys will be boys," if you will. That phrase should bother men just as much as it does women. "Boys will be boys" allows you to do silly stuff, like flush cherry bombs down the school toilets, but it also grants you permission to take what you feel entitled to, with few repercussions. It's worth mentioning that in a cruel twist of irony, male victims of violence are told to "man up" when they share what happened to them, making men even less likely to report rape than women. Geez, no wonder we're such a fucked culture.