The Guarded Posture I Reflexively Strike

[Content Note: Misogyny.]

I was speaking to Iain about some of the responses I'd gotten to the Ladies' Man piece. We were sitting on our deck, as the sun set and the air hung heavy with a clearing rain, having a drink and a smoke. I was talking about the idea of feeling safe with straight cis men, how rare that is for me—and for many of the women I know.

I was telling Iain about the pushback I get when I say that I don't feel safe around most straight cis men, how I'm called a man-hater and a misandrist and a "profiler." How it's assumed I mean that I'm afraid of physical harm. How I'm told that nobody wants to rape me.

When I talk broadly about wanting to feel safe with men, I'm not even talking about physical or sexual assault. (When I am talking about that, I make it abundantly clear.) What I'm talking about is wanting the safety of being able to be myself, without having my identity used against me.

What I'm talking about is how I can't walk into a room and leave my womanhood behind, and thus any man who wants to trade on his male privilege and use misogynistic stereotypes against me has a ready-made weapon for harming me.

What I'm talking about is how I cannot magically discern which men are going to do this to me; I don't know until they reveal themselves, and by then it is too late—I am no longer safe.

What I'm talking about is how I know from a lifetime of experience that the men who choose not to harm me in this way are way more rare than the men who do.

Women who live at the intersections of other marginalized identities walk into a room with every attendant vulnerability which can be exploited by any man (or other woman) who chooses to exploit them.

I walk into a room not just as a woman, but as a fat woman and an ugly woman, carrying with me all the marginalizing narratives specifically about fat and ugly women. Here is Dustin Hoffman, breaking down into tears, as he recounts the numbers of women to whom he paid no attention, whose humanity and value he didn't even acknowledge, because they weren't attractive.

I walk into a room as a woman with a publicly disclosed mental illness, and as a woman who may walk in with an awkward gait, depending on what my back is doing that day. I bring with me the marginalizing narratives about crazy women and "broken" women.

I walk into a room as a survivor. As feminist. As atheist.

These things can be, and have been, used against me, too. By men, especially, who connect them inevitably to my womanhood.

Some of these things are visible, the moment I walk into any room. Some of them I have some measure of control over disclosing or concealing, depending on whether I intuit they'll be used against me.

When I say I want to be safe, what I mean is that I want to be able to be my whole self, without the fear that revealing my whole self will invite abuse.

I said to Iain, "It's about safety. Surely you see that. Surely you have seen how I don't feel safe with most men."

Iain nodded. He had surely seen it. "Your whole demeanor changes," he says. "Even your posture changes. Your body language is different. Your humor becomes more barbed. You're more—" He searched for the right word.

"Guarded," I offer.

"Yeah, guarded," he said.

"It's a self-defense mechanism," I said. "Born out of necessity, learned over a lifetime. You've seen why I need it. You've seen the interactions, over and over, that render it necessary."

"I have," he said. "I know." He said this with compassion and validation. He had seen it. He knows.

He understands how elusive this safety is for me, and why it is that when I am introduced to straight cis men unknown to me, or when I am in the presence of straight cis men who have already conveyed to me, through comments or "jokes" (so many jokes; such great jokes) or talking over me or talking down to me or ruthlessly insulting me or shaming me or auditing me or physically intimidating me or engaging in any one of an endless number of shitty behaviors, that they view me as less than, and want to make damn sure that I know that is how they see me.

I cannot afford the emotional cost of good faith, not anymore. My posture changes; my humor becomes more barbed; I am wary, as I size up whether there is even a chance that I might be safe.

This is the guarded posture I reflexively strike. The ladies' men in my life know damn well why I need to strike it, and they don't take for granted when I let down my shoulders and with it my defenses.

They see it as a gift, not a target.

It is always, always, the men who make themselves just trustworthy enough so that I relax, only to treat my unfixed jaw like a bull treats a bolt of red fabric, who then shame me for being guarded and ask terrific questions about why I gotta be such a bitch.

To which I can only reply with gales of mirthless laughter.

Which doesn't sound anything at all like the loud, raucous, reverberating laughter that escapes from my throat among friends, in spaces where I feel safe.

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