Sorry, Men. It's Not Us, It's You.

Photo: Dean Drobot / Shutterstock
Sorry, Men. It's Not Us, It's You.

Earlier this week I was out for a walk by the lake near where I live. Two men came rushing up a hill toward me, away from the lakeshore. They were moving FAST, and I sprinted to the other side of the trail, quickly grabbing my husband’s arm and positioning myself behind him.

I didn’t realize until I got out of their direct path that one of the men had cameras dangling from around his neck. Both of the men were wearing masks, so I wasn’t too concerned about them breathing on me. All I noticed at the moment was their rapid movement, their speed, their size, and that they were coming right for me.

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Why did I react like this? I was scared out of my mind. Out in the open, in the early evening, on a walk with my husband.

My heart was pounding and I took my husband’s hand as we walked away. “They’re photographers?” I asked him, feeling slightly foolish. “Why were they running?”

I have felt threatened by men on the street, in coffee shops, and on walking trails. Men have whistled at and cat-called me from moving cars and across busy intersections.

A tall, imposing older man bumped into me on purpose at a concert in an attempt to get me to leave my prime viewing location. He used his body to try to persuade me to move away when my husband was standing right next to me.

Once I was approached by a man in a bookstore, which at the time was my dream meet-cute scenario.

That dream died a tragic death when the man who approached me said something appalling and I had to text some girlfriends for help before escaping to the safety of a T.G.I.Friday’s. Imagine being so troubled that I found refuge at a Friday’s! Before the man came up to me, I was sitting by myself, perfectly content, reading a book at the store.

It doesn’t take ALL men to ruin an experience for a woman. It only takes one.

I’ve felt threatened at a variety of ages, from my early 20s (when a young man at a party complimented me on my bracelets and rubbed them suggestively between his fingers) to my early 30s (when a male friend who I invited to my home began to touch my feet in a way that made me uncomfortable, so I asked him to leave).

When I was younger I lacked what I now call “danger radar,” a spidey sense that tells me when a man’s intentions are not aligned with my own. If a boy was staring at me from, say, across the mall food court, I was flattered. I attempted to develop reasonable expectations for male behavior, based on lessons I learned from PG-13 movies and Dawson’s Creek.

If a guy stood too close to me it meant he liked me, right? My self-protective bubble was basically nonexistent. I wanted to be normal, to be friendly, to be a “cool girl.” Now that I’m older, I don’t bother with wanting to be liked.

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One problem with how we look at behavior is whether women are “unreasonable” by expecting men to grant them space and respect. Should women need to ask for space or respect?

When a former boyfriend was bothering me, I contacted the police numerous times to request assistance. The treatment I received in response to my inquiry was enough to make me question whether a restraining order was worth it; I ended up not filing one against him.

He continued to harass me — showing up at my apartment uninvited, banging on my door and yelling my name, sitting on the curb by my car in the parking lot at my office.

My boundaries with this particular former boyfriend had been spelled out clearly and he refused to abide by them. When I blocked his number he showed up in person. He wore me down, mostly because I was afraid of his behavior.

The way he handled my ending our relationship was incredibly childlike — akin to a toddler throwing a tantrum — screaming, crying, throwing his limbs around, and engaging in a circular argument with me. I would talk to him outside on the street, feeling safer that he wasn’t inside my home.

Working within the system that was supposed to protect me didn’t help (the police never came by to tell him to leave when he sat on a rock outside of my apartment) so, I tried to de-escalate the situation on my own. It didn’t work.

Whether a woman knows a man or not, he can represent a threat to her. Men with whom we are familiar, such as my former boyfriend, can use their knowledge of us to weasel their way into our hearts or homes.

“My dog is sick,” he might say. “You should come to see him and say goodbye in case he dies.” Strangers represent different kinds of danger — lying to get our attention or even standing too close behind us in line (an even bigger problem given that we are still in a global pandemic).

I have made plenty of bad decisions in my life regarding men and how I interact with them.

The men involved played active roles in causing me both physical and psychological harm. One problem with how we look at behavior these days is whether women are “unreasonable” in expecting men to grant them space and respect. Should women need to ask for space or respect?

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Let’s look at the conversation around so-called “man-spreading,” in which men take up more than their fair share of space on public transportation or in an airplane, whereas women tend to curl up into tight little spaces to avoid touching other people.

Jokes are made on Twitter, memes circulate, but does behavior change? Absolutely not. If a woman waiting in line at the grocery store turns around and asks the man standing close behind her to move back a bit, what happens? Likely he will call her a psychotic bitch and otherwise cause a scene.

Now that I’m in my mid-30s I know to ask for the physical and emotional space that I need. My protective bubble is immense. My danger radar is on high alert and has been since last March when the Covid outbreak began.

That radar developed over the years in the back of Ubers, in the company of friends, and during flirtatious exchanges with men I met on dating platforms. My mind took note of things — response times, brushes against legs propped on barstools, the way a man watched a woman walk by at a baseball game.

I began to listen to that spidey sense. There’s a reason women’s intuition is so well respected.

Whether a woman knows a man or not, he can represent a threat to her.

I’ve seen numerous social media posts about how women feel threatened. The comments on those posts from men seeking attention are, well, effective. “Why should I have to go out into the street just because a woman is walking down the sidewalk?” Sorry, but if you were a good person you wouldn’t complain about it. You would do it because it’s the right thing to do.

What if that woman walking by was your sister?

Back when I was in college my girlfriends and I would call each other as we walked across campus.

We didn’t have smartphones yet, and the phone call was our way of maintaining a connection with a real live person, so that any would-be attackers would see that someone would be immediately alerted to our plight should they try to steal our backpack or shove us into a van. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was something.

I think about Sarah Everard and the last phone call she had with her boyfriend. I think about how many times in my life I’ve walked home from the train, or from a restaurant, or from a friend’s house late at night — keys between my fingers, no headphones on, the terrifying sound of footsteps behind me.

Women live and exist in fear that cannot be defined. We know that people are capable of terrible atrocities. We’ve heard whispers of these horrors all of our lives. Many of us have experienced physical pain and abuse.

Men might ask, “What are you so afraid of?”

Believe us when we say, “You.”

Laura Williams-Burke is a writer and author. Her forthcoming children's book, A Friend for Milton, will be released in March 2022. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.