Warning: Adult language and subject matter ahead
My female friends are my sisterhood.
On a recent weekend, four of us banded together, vowing to get some work done. A few hours in, hungry to take in the beautiful California sunshine and move our bodies, we declared a break and lazily made our way to the park, spinning hula hoops on wrists and tripping over exposed roots. These are women who are fantastically connected to their childlike spirits, and I’ve learned so much from them. I felt like a young girl that afternoon, at peace and encircled by friends. We camped out in the meadow, hooping and playing music.
Mere minutes into our enjoyment, though, we were interrupted.
My friend was yelling. “Holy shit, that guy is masturbating!”
We all turned, appalled to find that she was right. Lying on his back in a clearing between some forest growth, a man dressed in dark clothing flagrantly stroked his bare penis. Even after our very apparent discovery of him, he continued to pump away freely, looking directly back at us.
We scrambled to get our things and make our way out of visual range, and though I yelled explicitly at him, he continued to gaze back, unaffected.
By the time we reached the other side of the meadow, our reactions began to form. We laughed; isn’t someone masturbating in public funny? What a pathetic creature, right? I was particularly shocked by his shamelessness—to continue freely even after we became aware of his presence. As the shock wore off, though, the laughter subsided and the anger of one of my friends grew.
“I want to go after him.” We looked at her.
“Well… I think he’s gone already.”
“I don’t care. How dare he abuse our space in that way!”
We continued to hesitate, trying to come up with reasons to minimize this episode and brush it off.
“I’m going,” she said. “Are you all gonna stay here?” She started making her way back across the lawn.
“Ok! Fuck! Ok, I’m coming too,” I ran to catch up with her. By the time we reached his hideout, he had of course left, but my friend continued to march up the hill. She moved without fear, which I couldn’t quite understand; I was uncertain and rather hoped we wouldn’t encounter him at all. Still, I continued to follow, knowing that I couldn’t allow myself to be paralyzed and silenced.
We did in fact see him very soon, a predator standing in the forest. He ran off as soon as he saw us coming, and we continued yelling long after he’d disappeared. I called the police and filed a report, and we abandoned the park, much earlier than we’d intended.
This incident continues to break my heart in new ways with each passing day.
The reality of women’s constricted existence was brought into sharp relief; I felt powerless to make this man—and so many other men—understand that I am not in public spaces for their personal and individual pleasures; I am in public for myself, because I am a human who lives her life and moves about the world. And yet, women—to this day—are still not afforded the luxury of existence without restriction. We experience continual threat of abuse and it remains a liability simply to be female.
We are endlessly interrupted by men who do not register our humanity, but only wish to fulfill their own fleeting desires. This particular man forced me and the people I love into a smaller space and a smaller existence, indicating with his actions that we as women need to diminish ourselves and our personal, unique lights in order to remain safe.
The messages so frequently forced upon women are: Don’t do anything to attract attention, Remain invisible, Don’t “ask for it,” Protect yourself, “Be smart.” I am reminded of the countless resources created for women, listing “helpful” tips to avoid rape, when of course the true list need be directed at the predator, and isn’t a list at all. The only tip necessary to avoid rape is this: Don’t Rape Anyone.
I am growing increasingly tired of being told what I can’t do because of the scores of faceless men who make life unsafe. After all, what “tips” could have been given to me in this recent situation? Don’t go into a public, well-populated place in the middle of the day with a group of people? The focus quite clearly demands a significant shift.
I am equally frustrated that such thoughtless behaviors have conditioned in me a blanket distrust of men, even those who don’t deserve it. How am I to distinguish between the dangerous and harmless ones? I haven’t yet figured that out.
I imagine that many, many women, in our current so-called “Post-Feminist” culture, can relate to feeling an incredible pressure to be “the cool girl.” It is considered the ultimate compliment, indicating that we are “chill,” “laid-back,” and directly translated as “more like a male.” This archetype, however, is abused and often used as a means of silencing or shaming. After incidents like my friends and I experienced, we are quite literally Programmed to respond in ways such as, “Don’t let it bother you too much,” “There’s nothing we can do about it,” and, most tragically, “I’ve experienced much worse.” These are not abstract, potential statements. They are direct quotes, and they bring tears to my eyes.
Unacceptable sexual things have happened to nearly every woman and girl I know. We cannot, and should not, continue living in this reality; humans are capable and deserving of much better.
It is time that we—all genders, sexes, and sexual orientations— raise ourselves up, and cultivate true love for ourselves and our fellow beings.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives