As I walked my dog that night I saw a dark figure approaching. It was a man with his hood up and instantly my adrenaline started pumping. Despite my quickening heart rate I forced my feet to slow down, all the while thinking to myself, “Don’t be weird. Don’t be weird. It’s not a big deal.”
As the man drew closer I realized he was trying to speak to me. Everything about my body said to just keep walking, but something deep inside me told me to be nice and say hello. I feared being mean more than I feared a stranger.
I’ve made better decisions. The man quickly reached in his breast jacket pocket, pulled out a sharp metal object, and lunged at me. I always thought in a flight or fight scenario I would be fight. Maybe even flight. Turns out, I’m just freeze. Thankfully my dog’s natural instincts kicked in while mine were frozen solid. He attacked the man and fended him off. I don’t want to say he saved my life, mostly because I don’t like thinking about what could’ve happened.
Running home I fought back tears as I realized just how narrowly I had escaped a violent attack.
All of this in the name of not wanting to be mean. I’m grateful to only have left that encounter with a dark memory. Most women are not so lucky. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women one in three women experiences physical, sexual, or emotional violence in her lifetime1.
One in three.
For women there’s this deeply ingrained desire to be perceived as “nice.” It stems from a fear of excess. We’re afraid of being too much of anything, let alone too mean. A traditional view of womanhood seems to tell us to fight the excess within us. Don’t weigh too much, don’t eat too much, don’t drink too much, don’t be too loud, don’t be too smart, and surely don’t be too mean.
Out of a fear of our excess, out of being too much, we strive to be accepted and approved.
We are absolutely terrified of someone not liking us or of someone viewing us in a negative light. And so we begrudgingly give our number to the guy at the bar who made us feel uncomfortable. We say yes to the man who stays over a little too late. We stop on the street corner when we’re alone at night.
But what if we fear the wrong things? What if we’re so in tune with our fear of emotional harm (being perceived as mean or rude) that we’ve lost the natural fear that keeps us from physical harm? We can only listen to one or another. Often there isn’t room for both.
It's through this context and these statistics that we must appreciate this year's Oscar nominated film Room which tells the story of a young woman who was abducted and kept as a sex slave for seven long years. In a gripping and emotional performance Brie Larson looks at her mother to breathe life into the very fears we feel: “I’m sorry if I’m not ‘nice’ enough for you. Maybe if you hadn’t been in my head saying ‘be nice’ that day I wouldn’t have gone to help him.”
So what do we do? Curse and throw rocks at any man who glances our way?
But there are some things that we can do. By no means is this list exhaustive in its attempts to address ways to avoid violence, but my hope is it’s the start of an ongoing conversation about safety, security, and maybe even a little selfishness.
Stop being nice.
We must understand that there are better things in life to aspire to besides “being nice.” Quite often when we aspire to be nice to others we end up not being so nice to ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps us from being known, which makes us desire approval, which could end up creating a lot of compromise. Start being nicer to yourself and allowing yourself the freedom to really get to know you and allow others the same privilege. As writer Allison Fallon says, “Sometimes being nice isn’t very kind at all.”
Rest assured you are nice. You don't need a stranger at the bar or an aggressive ex to affirm that in you. "You is smart. You is kind. And you is important." When you're tempted to try to convince anyone who can't see that from the outset just speak those sweet words over yourself. You are worth choosing, pursuing, and knowing in a healthy and reciprocal way.
Be a bitch.
Leading violence specialist Gavin de Beck spends his entire life studying violence, especially against women. In an interview with Lena Dunham Beck stated, “The primary strategy of persuasion relies upon the idea that women have been taught that if you are aggressive in rebuffing someone, if you are rude, if you are a bitch then that will cause violence. The consequence of that is violence.”
Take it from someone who has studied violence his entire life. We're convinced that being rude will incite more violence when actually the opposite is true. Predators typically want the path of least resistance and someone who refuses to engage with them is a highly resistant path. If a person or situation makes you uncomfortable then it’s best to simply not engage and create as much resistance as possible. They might think you're a bitch but I promise there are worse things to be. Abused, assaulted, and raped come to mind.
It's not a negotiation.
Beck later goes on to say, “When a man says no, it’s the end of a discussion. When a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.” Remember, you’re being kind to yourself and not to someone who doesn’t deserve it. It’s not worth a negotiation to try to convince the other party that you’re still a good person. He's not worth convincing but you are worth more than convincing. Remember from earlier, you're a good person. You don't need to prove it to anyone else.
It's not "maybe I'll just get one more drink" or "well maybe if he comes over for a little bit." If he's giving you the creeps or making inappropriate comments or advances then there's no negotiating. We've all had guys be persistent in their attempts but at a certain point it's not chivalrous or charming but rather a manipulative power play. No means no. End of discussion.
It’s not all about you.
Lastly, I hate that it’s always women having the conversation about violence against women. Rather than teaching women strategies to avoid violence we need to do a better job of teaching men not to be violent. We can’t keep talking about how to not get raped when we need to have a bigger conversation about teaching men not to be rapists.
We can only do so much. If you are the victim of abuse know that it never has been and never will be your fault. It doesn’t matter how many drinks you had, what clothes you were wearing, or how nice you were. Your abuser is the villain, not you.
The best thing we can do is to engage the men in our lives in a healthy conversation. We need to share stories and not just statistics. The men around us need to know what's happening to their sister, their best friend, their mother, their co-worker. It's not some foreign statistic that won't affect the people they love, especially not when it affects one in three women.
Writer and speaker Micah J. Murray writes from a uniquely male perspective by saying, “As men, we are culturally conditioned to believe that we are entitled to women — their attention, their time, their bodies, their sexuality […] If we don’t consciously interrogate and deconstruct this idea, it will permeate our view of women and we’ll never realize it.”
We can’t and shouldn’t shoulder the burden of female violence forever. It’s going to take a community of people, of women firmly deciding to stop “being nice” and men learning they aren’t entitled to a woman’s body, before lasting and permanent change is going to happen. Unfortunately this discussion is just the tip of a very deep and dark iceberg. But it's an iceberg that needs addressing before the whole ship sinks.
Until then may we listen to the good fear inside of us- the fear that wants to keep us safe. May we listen to the people who desire us for who we are and not for what we physically can offer them. And may we dig deep to find ourselves, and with us the courage to stop being so damn nice all of the time.
*I would like to note that some people are just plain evil and no matter how many strategies we employ they will continue to abuse others. These people are horrible and unfortunately cannot be stopped. Again, it is never the victim's fault but rather the villain. Also, concerning the abuse committed against children- no child should be robbed of their physical, emotional, or sexual innocence. Those people intent on robbing such innocence desire power and control in the most manipulative of ways.