“Why didn’t she leave, if it was hurting her?” A guy friend asks me.
I forget which of the many news stories of harassment we were discussing, but it involved some all-powerful guy and some way-less-powerful woman. There was no force involved, there was nobody blocking the path to the exit.
It was a story that I instinctively understood as being about a trapped woman. I am imagining huge discrepancies of power and seeing them as tools of force—wielded consciously or unconsciously. In the story I picture, she can't just leave.
My friend is understanding the story as one about miscommunication. He has trouble swallowing the idea of a power discrepancy as meaning every situation has an element of force. He knows the guy was a jerk in this particular case, but... And, if it were really that bad for her, why didn't she leave?
My friend can’t see the bees.
Imagine you are in a room you want to leave. The path to the door is clear, and it’s unlocked. But there’s one, tiny catch.
The door handle is smeared with honey. And on that honey, there are seven or eight bees.
Really picture it. Vividly. Imagine them swarming and buzzing and licking their little bee-hands as they are munching away.
Now, imagine reaching your hand out for the handle, and trying to make your fingers close around those six or seven bees. Imagine your heartbeat picking up. Imagine the feeling in your stomach. Imagine your whole brain shutting down with fear, and you unable to form coherent thoughts beyond “Aaaahhhh! Beeeeees!”.
It’s just bees, though. In the battle of bees vs you, you will win. With no more than a half dozen stings to show for it. For sure.
And yet… how bad would the thing in the room have to be for you to grab that handle?
The answer to the question “if that woman didn’t want to be there, why didn’t she leave?” is “because she was experiencing that horrible sickening terror that comes from coming face to face with bees.” Women’s socialization in this area is like a series of tiny stings that add up to a very effective fear response.
I’m not talking about women with histories of sexual violence, particularly. I’m just talking about the ordinary, every day bees.
Like the time when she was five and she decided that great uncle Fred smelled weird, and she declared in front of the entire family on thanksgiving that she didn’t want to hug him any more. And uncle Fred is the kindest man in the world and said “of course, no problem” but he was clearly hurt. And afterwards, there was a very awkward silence and her mom looked ashamed. And she learned it’s hurtful to people to tell them you don’t want to be touched by them.
Then there was the time when she was in grade two and the kid behind her kept petting her hair and she hated it and when she complained to the teacher (who was having a bad day for unrelated reasons) the teacher snapped that it’s not that big a deal. And she felt bad for annoying people, and she learned to measure whether to speak up not by how something felt to her, but by whether she imagined that others would think her concern was legitimate.
Then there was the time in grade nine when she was kissing her lab partner in the hallway and she liked it at first but then she didn’t and she asked him to stop. And he did, but then he got really weird with her after that and every science class was way awkward for the rest of the semester and she hated it. And she was sad, too, because she really liked him and now she’d screwed it up. And she learned that she’d better not say no unless she was super sure, because she couldn’t take it back.
Then there were all those times in University when the “fun” girls got invited to parties, and the ones who gave lectures about appropriate behaviour did not. And the media stories about women who came forward after assaults, and the way their every action got analyzed and pulled through the mud. And all those seemingly nice guys on apps who are transformed by the words "no thanks" into hateful threat spewing monsters.
Taken together, these experiences are why a woman is unlikely to respond to an unwanted advance with a direct “no thanks”. Instead, she is going to smile, joke, laugh it off, dodge you, make eyes at her friend to come rescue her, and come up with excuses. She is going to try to exit the situation in any way possible that does not involve directly grabbing the door handle. She may even stay in the room, deciding that how bad it is in here isn’t worth taking on the bees to get out.
And she’s going to make all these decisions in a general climate of panic. Like you do when you are TRAPPED IN A ROOM WITH BEES.
And then she’s going to go home and judge herself relentlessly for every decision she made. If she grabbed the handle directly, she’ll second guess whether it really was as bad as all that. If she snuck out in a delicate way, she’ll judge herself for letting something as small as a few bee stings get in the way of openly standing up for her body. If she stayed in the room, she may try to convince herself that she didn’t mind being in the room with the bees, because she doesn’t want think she’s sold herself out just to avoid a few tiny stings.
If she didn’t do battle with the bees, she’s gonna think about whoever’s going to be stuck in that room next, and feel like she sold them out, too—even though she didn’t put the bees there. She’s gonna get pissed at herself, and pissed at the world, and above all she’s going to get pissed-pissed-PISSED (and reasonably so) with a culture that keeps trapping her in the room with freaking BEES.
And then, when some well meaning guy who genuinely wants to understand a story he heard on the news asks her “Why wouldn’t a woman just leave if…” she might BITE HIS FREAKING HEAD OFF.
And then, when some well meaning guy who genuinely wants to understand how to be a decent guy in the world asks her “well, how are you supposed to even flirt, if—” she might also BITE HIS FREAKING HEAD OFF.
Because she will hear it like you would hear it if you were stuck in a room battling bees and your friend stuck their nose in and said “Hey, keep it down in here! I brought a girl home and I am trying to make my move and you are getting in the way with all that jumping and swatting!”.
Buuuut… what’s a guy to do? The average guy didn’t put the bees there. I mean, all genders contribute to “socialization” but they’re mostly just doing what they were taught. It isn’t fair that the average guy should be snapped at for genuine questions, feared when he’s done nothing scary, and generally mistreated by the freaked out wide eyed un-explicably swatt-ey women in his life.
It isn't fair. The average guy is right to be pissed.
At the bees, though. Pissed at the bees.
Not at the freaked out wide eyed un-explicably swatt-ey women in his life, who are strangely impervious to calm logic, articulate devil’s advocate-ing, and pleas about the predicament of the modern nice guy.
If you are talking about the nice guy perspective while everyone else is in bee panic mode, two things will happen. A) people will think you are kind of a jerk who is totally focussed on his own needs, and B) people will be kinda right. Empathy trumps logic every time, because it was a lack of empathy that put the bees there in the first place.
It was "I don't think it's as bad as all that" and "are you sure he meant it that way" and a dozen other things like it and when you start with those, you are pretty much dressing yourself up in yellow and black striped overalls and yelling BUZZ in her ear.
Which doesn't mean we can't have those conversations. We have to have those conversations.
But we can't start there. There has to be empathy first.
So next time, take a minute. Think about all those tiny experiences of socialization, picture the bees swarming on the honey of the handle. Imagine closing your hands over the bees, and feeling them wiggle against the skin of your palm.
And start from there. Not from agreeing with every discussion point. Not with being perfectly politically correct, or charmingly anti-oppressive. Just with imagining the feel of the bees.
And then, let's work together from there.