What the fuck is wrong with you people, Part two: Being terrified of everyone else on Earth

Another one of the things that I have run into lately that makes me grind my teeth is a post on the general topic of why it can be profoundly creepy when strange people come up to talk to lone women in public. Most of the post I have no problem with -- it was actually a very good primer on body language and how to tell if someone is interested in having a conversation with you or wants you to GTFO so she can finish her book. I am completely for teaching people how to interpret other people so that we can all get along more smoothly in our daily lives. Most people pick up socialization the same way they pick up their native language; the ability to describe what human beings are doing when they are doing human-being things is important, and we could all benefit from some externalization and analysis of our own social cues.

The thing that made me angry was the framing. The author's entire case for explaining all of this boiled down to, "You"-- and here read: men -- "have to accept that we" -- and here read: women -- "react to you as if you are all plague-carrying zombie maniacs because we have no idea if you are a violent rapist or not."

No, I'm serious. The author apparently thinks it's perfectly rational to tell men that women have the perfect right to consider them dangerous lunatics until proven otherwise. As if "I really don't want to talk to you," isn't a perfectly valid reason to, y'know, not talk to someone. I do not understand how you can do this in the same breath as decrying people who assume that people of racial/ethinic/religious group Q are all obviously baby-eating lunatics and think that this is totes okay.

They also dragged in the "1 in X women has been sexually assaulted" statistic, which is completely fucking meaningless when stripped of important context, like what their sample size was, what their sample population was like, what they decided counted as sexual assault, whether this was based on self-reporting of a thing they specifically called 'sexual assault' or self-reporting of specific behaviors without the label applied, etc. Doing this is deeply disingenuous -- as far as I can tell, it's intended to leave the reader with the distinct impression that one in every X women is dragged into a dark alley and violently raped by some monster who happened to ride her bus, while completely glossing over the fact that most assaults, sexual or not, are actually committed by someone who was in the victim's social circle, and often someone they knew quite well. While any number of people above 'zero' is an appalling number of people to be harmed in this fashion, it doesn't have anything to do with the theme of the article. Your Uncle Vinnie who keeps staring at your teenage friends whenever you have a pool party, while skeezy, is not a stranger attempting to ask you about your book while waiting for the train. That is an entirely different set of problems which will not be solved by educating the well-meaning but clueless portion of the unknown male population on what it means when she doesn't bother to look up at you when you talk at her.

This kind of paranoia makes me want to bang my head against the wall. When you go from "women, like all humans, should have the right to make decisions about what they do and do not want to do with their bodies," to, "women only act like paranoid wrecks because you make it necessary for us to do so," you're undermining your entire point. See, guys? Women would totally talk to you if they weren't convinced that you looked like a creepy rapist! We'd love to be your friends, but the slimeballs out there make it necessary that we mace you immediately once you violate our 20' bubble of personal space! If you think that women have the right to have desires and opinions and preferences, then why do you keep justifying telling them to do things by saying 'we have no choice'? Of course we have a fucking choice! What's wrong with admitting that maybe you just don't want to talk to that particular dude at that particular time? Are you worried that the Girl Scouts will revoke your sensitivity merit badges if you admit that sometimes, you just don't fucking like someone? What the hell is this?

Jesus motherfucking H. Christ on a purple polka-dot fucking pogo stick. Telling women to consider every man who crosses their path is a potential rapist. What the hell kind of a way is this to live your life? Technically, it's true -- technically, every building I walk into is a potential murderer, because how the hell do I know it isn't going to fall down on my head? If I spent half so much time protecting myself from rogue buildings as you seem to think I should spend protecting myself from random strangers, I would have a lot of nice people in bright white coats feeding me some serious psychiatric goddamn medication, I tell you what.

I am not telling anybody that they're required to talk to anyone they don't want to. You are not obliged to engage with strangers in line at the supermarket. But for the love of little green apples, spending all day, every day, assuming everyone is guilty until proven innocent is no way to conduct your life. Don't scan for threats. Just be aware of your environment. You see all kinds of things when you pay attention. Yeah, sometimes you spot someone you decide not to share a subway car with. But you know what else I spot? The guy on the corner, across from the Catholic church, who sits out on his porch every afternoon, chillin' with his dog. This is a dog who could engage in a battle of wits with a boot and lose, but it's a very sweet dog nonetheless. Or a pair of young women, both of them very obviously dressed up for a date, canoodling cutely on the subway platform, and nobody else in the place giving two-tenths of a shit. You see students reading a textbook about something you've studied. You see buskers singing in the park. You see fliers for parties, ads for free concerts, and notices about lost cats. Stuff that's dangerous or that sucks a lot still stands out, but so do other things that don't make you want to triple-lock your doors and sleep with a baseball bat in the bed next to you.

Guys, the world is just not that bad. It is okay to talk to a stranger for four and a half seconds before deciding that they set off your Creep-O-Meter and telling them to back off. It is also okay to make a snap judgement about someone you have only known for four and a half seconds, and are never going to see again. Don't use your brain to rationalize ignoring your gut if your gut says 'scary thing, move away', but don't use your brain to convince your gut that no red flags obviously mean that there's one giant red flag that you're not seeing. You will drive yourself crazy.

Please, please believe me on this count. I grew up with a crazy woman who stuffed foam sheets in the windows next to our front door, because she was alarmed by the possibility that someone walking down the street might see the lights on and conclude that someone was busy watching TV, or possibly just existing, inside their own home. She called up and harangued the telephone company every six months or so into giving us another unlisted number. When I left for college, she told me never to go out for dinner after dark, whilst dropping me off in a place where the student union was literally a hundred feet from my dormitory door, with an open walking path, half a dozen street lights, an emergency phone, and a parking lot where the campus cops habitually hung out on the way -- and "dark" during the winter was about 5:30pm. We never talked to the neighbors, I knew none of the other people on our street, we were not allowed to play in the front yard even if someone was watching, and my mother never, ever, ever answered the door without making it very clear that she was holding back a large, vicious, ill-behaved dog (who never was; most of them probably would have eaten a burglar, if one had woken them up, but they were all well-trained, and half of them actually scared themselves with the sound of their own barking), even if the person ringing the doorbell was a Cub Scout. I lived like this for eighteen years. This is not an existence you want.

Human beings are not perfect. After all, at least one of them is Ted Bundy. But honestly, the vast majority of the hinky ones will set off an internal Creep-O-Meter, and if there were that many Ted Bundys out there, that one would not be particularly infamous. I find this whole "intellectually force yourself to trust no one" thing to be horrifying as all hell. This sort of thing leads to dehumanization of the other, and I seriously really hope that the world hasn't forgotten what that's like, because neither I nor anyone else will come out of it very happy if we end up needing a refresher.


  1. I think I know what post you're talking about. It made a bit more sense in the context of being part of a discussion of street harassment of women, but even then some of the comments made me think the authors needed to see a therapist about social anxiety issues instead of being terrified of walking around outside.

    Maybe I'm an outlier, but I have random strange women tell me how nice I look just as often as random strange men, so it's never occurred to me to consider most of it harassment.

  2. Part of the problem is that women are often raised to believe that they must be nice...to everyone. Or, if they are not nice, they need a very good reason. Personal safety can be considered a valid reason to be not wonderfully charming to a stranger, and so that becomes the reason. It may just be that the woman doesn't want to talk to the person, but, that isn't a good enough reason for way too many people. If it is safety, though, and women are tasked with keeping themselves safe, then ignoring the dude becomes marginally ok. Except that the dude often feels that since he isn't a threat, she has no right to shut down the conversation. Just not wanting to talk isn't a good enough reason for her to not talk to him.


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