“Men just don’t know” what women go through by living in fear of rape, of pressure to have sex, of being objectified, of being treated as things or property.
That is the common wisdom. I ran into it again while backing up my wife’s computer.
She had been reading a woman’s blog about coping with those fears and wondering why the man/men in her life were not empathetic. The blog had the subtitle, “The conversation no one else is having.”
Maybe, the writer said, those conversations are not happening because men just don’t know how women feel.
She outlined some examples:
• Girls of 13 having to deal with older boys and men three or five times their age staring at their breasts.
• Walking through a parking lot after dark, clutching a cell phone, finger hovering above the “call” button.
• Having the boss who can fire you slap you on the butt, leer at you, and make suggestive come-on comments.
There are more, but you get the idea.
She claimed that we men don’t know how these things make women feel – terrified, helpless, and hopeless.
Ah, but we do.
In the 1950s, when I was eight or nine years old, I went to the YMCA in Warren for swimming lessons.
We swam naked, in keeping with the pseudo-ancient Olympics spirit of the times. We stripped in the locker room, and then went through doors and down metal-treaded stairs to get to the pool. There, we saw other boys our age — plus teenage boys with pubic hair and developed genitals, assisting as instructors. This was intimidating.
They looked at our crotches and sometimes giggled. These were guys who could beat us up without working up a sweat. Yes, we can understand the feeling of being visually “sized up.”
Nobody raped us, to my knowledge. Nobody tried to grab us in a sexual fashion.
But we were whipped in the crotch by hard-snapped wet towels swung by boys who were larger and stronger than some of us. Similar stuff was commonplace in gym classes all the way through elementary, junior high and high school.
Nobody patted our buttocks and hinted that we should go to bed with them. But older guys sure did grab our genitals, or swing at them, just to see us wince. When one of us was alone and out of our own neighborhood, a group of older guys from another neighborhood would sometimes make us do humiliating things just to avoid a beating.
I was never forced to give up my lunch money or the money I held from collecting paper route bills from customers, but I knew kids who had undergone both experiences. That isn’t just bullying. It is robbery. I have never been robbed face-to-face, either, but I have had my room burglarized while in college. I know “feeling violated,” different in degree and damage but the same in fear, shame (totally illogical, but shame nonetheless) and vulnerability.
Every large adult male was at one time a boy. Even large six-year-olds are smaller than average-size 12-year-olds.
Women call it “sexism.”
Men call it “bullying.”
That difference in terminology sometimes leaves women feeling that men do not care.
“He can’t possibly relate,” women say.
Oh, yes we can.
I have mentioned during 40 years of writing these columns that I was sexually assaulted as a youngster. I didn’t mention it at all for about 35 years. Like other victims of both genders, I buried the memory.
Eventually, as attitudes changed, I let those memories “out of the box.” I still won’t talk about the details to anyone except my wife, but yes, I can understand rape, sexual assault, humiliation, fear, paralysis, and helplessness.
So can many seemingly fearless guys.
A lot of us who were not actually assaulted did feel threatened in that way.
Sexual or not, assault be physically and psychologically devastating in its own right.
Yes, some women feel that men “just don’t understand.” Some of us genuinely don’t remember how it feels to live with fear every day, because becoming an adult male involves either being fearless within our own little cocoons of home, work, neighborhood and community – or pretending to be. Openly weak adult males are prey to other, predatory adult males, so we bottle up those fears and feelings, most of the time.
But we have them. We were smaller and weaker. We were, or could have been, prey.
We can relate to women.
See, it isn’t “men” or “women,” or even “straight,” or LBGTQ.
It is “people.”
That “conversation no one else is having” can be held. Not in public, of course; we guys have to be macho then.
But there are reflective times, times to talk.
“Do you remember being bullied? Do you remember what it felt like?”
A conversation along those lines can morph into “the conversation,” and bring men and women together to comfort and help each other.