Different Perspectives, by Necessity

[Content Note: Fear/threat assessment; harassment; privilege.]

In my previous piece, I linked to my essay "On Sitting with Fear," which includes this passage:
Women live a life of sustained fear. Which is not to say that most women exist in a state of heightened anxiety at all times, but is to acknowledge the reality that our lives are fundamentally different from men's because of a real threat of rape/violence at the hands of men, mostly men we know. (And because we are stupidly and wrongly tasked with its prevention.) Men's and women's lives are very different in that way.
Recently, I had an experience that perfectly highlighted this difference.

Iain and I had just finished dinner at a restaurant and were walking across the parking lot to our car, which was parked on the edge of the lot near the sidewalk, which runs alongside a busy four-lane road. Most times, after we finish a meal, we like to stand by the car, just hanging out and chatting, let our meals settle, maybe having a cigarette if one or both of us is off the wagon.

This particular evening, however, when Iain suggested standing for a bit, I said, "Let's just get in the car; otherwise, that guy's going to keep us here forever." I opened the door and was in the car before Iain had finished saying, "What guy?"

The man about whom I was speaking had been making a beeline for me, and, once I made myself unavailable, he turned direction and headed straight for Iain, trapping him in a conversation for what seemed like forever, asking for whatever he thought Iain might have to offer—money, cigarettes—and ignoring Iain's first few attempts to politely extricate himself.

I just waited in the car. It was going exactly how I knew it would go.

When Iain got in, he grumbled a sort of mild complaint about how difficult it was to get away from him. "That's why I got in the car quickly," I explained. Iain replied, "I didn't even see him before he started talking to me."

I knew this, too. Which is why I had warned Iain to get in the car. Because, as we were walking across the parking lot, continuing our languid conversation begun at the table, I had, without any effort or distraction, noted the man ambling down the sidewalk, noticed him noticing us, calculated that he was exactly like a hundred other men who have approached me with faux friendly overfamiliarity in the hopes of extracting something from me, and assessed that he would be likely to ignore any attempt to draw a boundary, and in fact was likely to get increasingly more aggressive the more I tried to get away.

I knew how long it would take him to reach us, the route he'd take to try to conceal himself behind other cars as long as possible, that he'd go for me first instead of Iain, and exactly the spot in which he'd intercept us if I didn't ever so slightly quicken our pace.

All of that happened within seconds. In a part of my brain that barely penetrates my consciousness until the conclusions have been made and recommended course corrections been established, just buzzing around in the background of my daily movement.

Meanwhile, Iain hadn't even noticed him at all, until he was right there.

I observed this disparity to Iain, and he acknowledged it. And then he added, not in a diminishing way, "Well, he was harmless anyway."

That, too, is a difference in the way we experience the world. The man who was, indeed, perfectly harmless if a little annoying to Iain might not have been harmless to me.

Maybe he would have. Or maybe he would have been one of the men, multiple men, who have approached me in precisely the same way, but wouldn't leave me alone. No matter how polite I was. No matter how long I listened to them tell me a rambling story. No matter if I gave them money or a cigarette or part of the sandwich I was eating or whatever. One of the men who clung and stayed and got closer, and maybe started touching me, as I tried to move away, as I told them I needed to go now, I'm sorry. One of the men who escalated into rageful shouting, because who the fuck did I think I was, anyway, fucking bitch.

Men who people dismiss as "crazy" or "drunk," and who may well be people with mental illness or addiction, but do not approach Iain, or other men, in the way they approach me, or other women. Which seems rather more important.

There are people who will be very keen to not understand what I'm saying who will believe that I'm racist, or fearful of homeless people, or stingy. And I won't be able to convince them otherwise, even though, as it happens, this man was white and didn't appear to be homeless, and I happily give whatever I've got to spare to most people who approach me.

This is about how, by necessity, I have learned, like many women learn, to move through the world with a heightened awareness; to move through our daily lives in a way that most privileged men never will.

It's important to note this difference, because it's a cost to women. It's a cost to us, to expend this sort of psychological energy, in an effort to keep ourselves as safe as we can, in whatever ways are within our control.

And it's important to note in order to underline the difference in perspectives, to ask men to consider that men who look harmless to them may look very different to women, not because women are weak or mean or unjustifiably paranoid or "profile men," but because those men are actually not harmless for us.

And because privilege allows a certainty of safety and freedom for fear that some men—George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn, Theodore Wafer—turn into justification for killing anyone who they assert interrupts their physic tranquility, even for a moment.

Other people sit with fear, and/or heightened awareness, our whole lives. And we manage not to harm people who make us uncomfortable, or annoyed, or even afraid.

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