Monday, May 26, 2014


"#YesAllWomen because I shouldn't consider every man I pass when walking after dark potentially dangerous." ~Twitter

On Wednesday mornings, I prepare for class as a Toastmasters group meets upstairs. Every Wednesday as the meeting upstairs breaks up, a woman comes downstairs by herself to use the restroom. We are alone together down there, two strangers, a woman and a man. The first time we encountered one another I saw her hesitate in a posture of caution. I smiled and said "Good morning," attempting to show her that she had nothing to fear from me, and she bought it enough to briefly raise her eyes to mine before putting her head down and moving quickly past me to the women's room.

It's been a weekly encounter now for at least nine months. Obviously, she's decided that I'm not a threat, at least not in these circumstances, although she's still frugal with eye contact and her clipped, "Good morning" in reply is clearly a message that this is as far as she wants our relationship to go. In other words, I remain suspect simply by virtue of being an unknown man alone with a woman in a relatively isolated place. And I don't blame her.

Before becoming a preschool teacher, I think most women who knew me would have described me as flirty. Looking back, I'm sure that it made some women uncomfortable, but I think I usually knew where the line was, and no one ever told me to knock it off. Even as a married man, with my wife's approval, I enjoyed engaging in silly, slightly racy, usually harmless banter with women, but I recognized that if I was going to succeed in my chosen profession, I would have to unlearn those habits. The idea of a male preschool teacher was challenging enough for some folks and the last thing anyone needed was another reason to feel uncomfortable. This is why I'm torn between the urge to say to this Wednesday morning woman, "Hey, I'm Teacher Tom! No worries," and the knowledge that, of course, that's exactly the sort of thing some creep would say.

I don't like being suspect, but understand it, even accept it. And then it pisses me off that I have to accept it. I don't harass women. I can't say that I'm entirely without prejudices because I am, after all, at least in part a product of my society, but damn it, I try to be a good, then better, man. I hate that anyone, woman, child, or man, is suspicious of me: I don't want to be the source of fear and caution, of heads bowed down and feet hurried. That's not who I am, but sadly it is who men are.

Of course, all men are not misogynistic jerks and rapists. Indeed, most of us as individuals are all right and, while mistake prone, both willing and able to learn to be better. But we are all suspect, until proven otherwise.

As the father of a daughter, I understand the suspicion of unknown men. One sunny day, when she was 12, I took her downtown with a couple friends. I loitered about a half block behind them as we walked, wanting to find a balance between their need for freedom and my need to protect them. I was appalled at the number of men my age who whipped their heads around to check out these high spirited little girls in their summer time shorts. I fought the urge to call them perverts or worse, but recognized the urge in myself to look at attractive women, albeit, I hope, more discretely. At the time, I imagined the girls where oblivious, but knew it wouldn't last. 

What a frightening and confusing thing it must be to be ogled, to be crudely or aggressively hit on, by strange men your father's age, or any age for that matter. Or to have your body or clothing or face critiqued by obnoxious strangers who feel somehow that you, by virtue of being a woman, owe him his twisted standards for feminine beauty. What a horrid thing to feel constantly threatened in this way, even while walking down a crowded city street, not to mention finding yourself alone in a basement with a strange man. I don't know how women do it, to be honest, which is why it's so crushing to me when I contribute to this undercurrent of fear simply by virtue of being an unknown man.

I've written before about the Superhuggers, a performance art group with which I've been involved for a long time. We turn up at community events and hug people in an effort to spread joy and love. It's a female dominated group and most of us are north of 40, people in the middle of their lives, experienced in the ways of the world. It's not been discussed, but I'd reckon we all identify ourselves as feminists. At the end of the day, every one of the women have stories to tell about men who were inappropriate, who fondled or molested them, who did things that just might get them a sock in the nose had they done them to me. Yet these women shrug it off, almost as if it's too old hat to really even mention, coming back year after year to be a Superhugger in spite of it. And that, to me, is even sadder than their outrage: the fact that these incredible women, in order to spread love, have decided to put up with this crap. I'm humbled that women, all women, must summon so much courage, or at least set aside so much fear, just to go through their day to day lives; just to walk down the street, just to hug some people, just to go to the freaking bathroom.

Of course, I'm thinking about this today because of the latest chapter in the endless story of mentally ill people and guns in America. This time it was a perpetrated by a guy in Santa Barbara who apparently believed that women either owed him sex or they must die. It doesn't take much imagination to see this as merely the extreme end of the continuum upon which ogling, wolf whistles, and rape appear. I've spent many hours these past couple days reading the #YesAllWomen Twitter posts, which ought to be mandatory reading for all Americans, men and boys in particular.

Anger is too simple and ultimately impotent. Education is essential, but too, too slow. Resignation is both not an option and often the only option.

I want to come to the end of this post with an idea for how to make things better, but all I can come up with is to say that I'll try to be better myself, I'll call other men on their misogyny, and I'll understand when you avert your eyes, bow your head, and quicken your step, even as it breaks my heart for all of us.

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Angela said...

I love your project, your outrage on our behalf, and it seems like you GET the exhaustion of setting the bar so low in what we women expect of men. I recommend you keep your eye on Jackson Katz, who is addressing male violence as a systemic, structural problem. xx Angela (aka funnermother)

Elisa said...

Wow. All I can say is 'thank you.' Thank you for this mindful post.

Elisa said...

Wow. All I can say is 'thank you.' Thank you for this mindful post.