He thought he was inviting me to lunch. I thought I was about to be raped.
This was two days after #metoo went viral. On that Tuesday afternoon, I happened to be in a female body, on a solo trip abroad.
As I make my way toward the seafront wall, a man on a motorcycle pulls up, his vehicle idling across my path. “Hello beautiful” he says. I ignore him. His outstretched hand offers me a cigarette. I shake my head. No. He flips the engine off and lights one for himself, smoking it as he straddles his bike and eyes me between puffs. I squirm silently and wait. After what feels like an eternity, he finishes his cigarette and zooms off.
I continue down the winding path to the beach. Moments later, the man reappears having parked his bike, and follows me. I am alone, trying to enjoy a quiet moment with the ocean. But I can see him approaching out of the corner of my eye and I feel uncomfortable, even though it’s the middle of the day.
This man is now blocking the only path out. Instinctively, my eyes dart around, looking for other ways to get back to the main road. I scan the beach for other people who might hear me if I screamed.
He starts to move toward me. As he comes closer, I jump off the narrow concrete path onto the rocks to avoid having to pass close to him — scratching my arm in my haste. He stands a few feet away, trying to convince me to come with him, speaking in his own language. The only word I understand is “eat”. He wants me to go to lunch with him, I guess. I say no.
At first I say my ‘no’ softly, shaking my head with my back to him as I shuffle away. I turn my palm to him to signal ‘stop, don’t come any closer’ as he follows me down the beach. I say no again, a little louder this time.
He is still trying to convince me, trailing after me as I clamber further out on the rocks. I start to feel panicked, my breath labored, heart racing. Finally cornered, I turn around. And in that instant, my fear explodes into rage. A banshee voice that doesn’t sound at all like mine shrieks NOOO!!! And two arms that don’t feel like mine wave wildly above my head.
I finally turn around to face my pursuer, to look him squarely in the eye. And I am surprised to find myself looking into the face of a bewildered, scared little boy. His confidence has dissolved and melted into confusion and embarassment. Clearly flustered, he scrambles to leave.
Martians and Venusians meet on Earth
Scenarios like this one are a common occurrence for me, and for most of my female friends. So much so that these incidents usually fly by without much fanfare. I managed to capture this one because #metoo was on my mind.
And #metoo has since grown from a viral social media post to a cultural earthquake. I feel hopeful that we are shaping a new way of relating. Yet at the same time, I am also concerned. I worry that this ground-shifting movement may have the unintended effect of widening a chasm between men and women.
On empathy and boundaries
I know my male friends will never know a 24/7 baseline level of fear simply from walking around the world in the body they were given at birth. And I remember how much I startled the man on the beach. My internal program of panic was completely perplexing to him. When we consider the other side of the story, we expand our capacity for compassion.
Of the innumerable boundary violations that I have experienced, I estimate that at least 80% of the time, the person involved has no idea about the impact of their actions on me. Maybe I was in too much shock to speak up for myself. Maybe I allowed it to happen in the context of a power dynamic. Or maybe I dismissed my own boundaries as unimportant.
Indeed, the man who played the leading role in the rape story in my life — more than a dozen years ago — has no clue about how his actions impacted me. He likely remembers the episode as a drunken hookup, if he even remembers it. He’s not your typical Hollywood villain. If you met him you would think, “what a great guy! I’d love to have a beer with him.”
He has no idea how I was affected by his behavior because I never told him. I was frozen in fear. I was shushed in shame.
But that was then and this is now. Now I own and honor my boundaries. Now I know the power of my truth. Now I can scream loud enough to be heard. Now I will chase down the perpetrator of a hit-and-run groping and make him face me so I can say to him “not okay.” These are things I’m still learning, as part of the feminine voice that’s emerging.
Different bodies, different world views
But why are men and women in such a severe misunderstanding to begin with? From his point of view, the man on the beach was innocently (if perhaps too insistently) inviting me to lunch. Meanwhile, I was on high alert, fearful of being assaulted. How can we experience the same reality so differently?
Let’s look at biology.
The male genitals face outward: a protrusion. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a man’s body? Being cut off. Being struck down. Men learn to peacock and posture, to never take no for an answer, to push hard for advantage, to perform strength and hide any appearance of vulnerability.
The female genitals face inward: a receptacle. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman’s body? Being intruded upon. Being invaded by the enemy. Women learn to quiet down and guard secrets, to shutter the windows, to strategize behind closed doors and defend the fortress.
What a hot mess. We are immersed in a culture of distorted relating; stuck in vicious cycles of manipulation and aggression; caught in a web of age-old power games.
We say we want equality between men and women. We want to be seen as equally valuable. We want to be equally loved. We want to feel equally free. But the reality is, while men and women can aspire to be equals, biology dictates that our experience of life will never be equivalent. To heal trauma and foster healthier ways of relating, we need to cultivate empathy for each other’s distinct experiences. Without empathy, we cannot pass “go”.
With #metoo, we have now opened a cultural dialogue, calling into question conditioning that we may not have fully examined before. Seeing women go public with their pain is novel — and provocative. It can also be polarizing. There is a lot of healing power in the feminine voice rising. Yet we risk deepening the grooves of tired, old roles: “men are perpetrators” and “women are victims.” If we allow #metoo stories to fade into echoes of this outdated duality, then we misuse their potential power. That empowers no one.
Instead pointing the finger at whoever is responsible, I’d prefer that we collectively become more response-able.
Most modern-day definitions of the word “responsible” mention having control over something, or being to blame for something. But this is a relatively recent distortion. Centuries ago, the word simply meant “being answerable (to another, for something).” The Latin root is responsus — at the core it is about being able to respond.
We can take initiative without being guilty. And we can be angry without identifying as victims. We must take shared response-ability for changing the narrative and changing the culture. How do we do that? We make shift happen by bringing empathy into our response.
Translation: yes means yes
Empathy — Know that women are conditioned to put others’ needs ahead of their own. They learn to accommodate — by being sweet or taking care or staying silent — to win attention, approval and protection. And a long legacy of objectification of female bodies makes it even more challenging for women to connect with their own needs.
Response — Men: Invite and listen for a “hell yes” and take anything less as a no. No means no. I guess so means no. Not sure means no. Maybe means no. Silence means no. If in doubt, ask for clarity. Communicating about consent is cool. Speaking your desires is attractive. Directly asking for permission to connect deeper is sexy. This goes against everything we have been taught about the romantic chase, or playing the seduction game. But there’s nothing romantic or sexy about boundary violation. By refusing to guess unspoken desires or mind read unexpressed needs, you create space for men and women to evolve into a more authentic, empowered way of relating.
The big freeze
Empathy — Remember that stress responses include not only Fight and Flight, but also Freeze. When women are feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, they are more likely to fall back on the Freeze response. In a body where you’re unlikely to win a physical contest or outrun your aggressor, it’s a smart strategy to “play dead” and wait until the threat goes away.
Response — Men: It is still okay to passionately pursue women. Women love to be desired and wooed. Women also love it when you open your heart to them, and vulnerably share your feelings, fears, uncertainties and insecurities. So feel free to take action and then take a breath, instead of being singularly focused winning the mission. You’re not playing a video game, where virtual lives are infinitely renewable without consequence. You’re in a dialogue with a real live, dynamic, changeable, complex human being. So do your “man thing”. And every once in a while, check in. Pause, listen, and move from there. Stay present and keep communicating.
Come on, be a real man
Trigger alert: Women, if you have been the victim of sexual assault and have not fully healed from that trauma, then you may not be ready to read this. But if you feel ready to step into your power, read on.
Empathy — Know that men are culturally conditioned to display aggression. We reward dominant and bold men with respect and status. And we shame vulnerable or peaceful men for not being tough enough. Many of our mainstream movies show male bodies in warfare, conquering and achieving, so we subconsciously equate aggression with being a masculine man — a ‘real’ man. Men are taught they can have anything they want if they fight hard enough. “Don’t take no for an answer,” is a common man-tra.
Response — Women: be explicit in expressing your boundaries. For every truly predatory violation out there, there are dozens of instances of bad behavior rooted in ignorance. So, make yourself and your wishes clear. Do not rely on men to read your mind, or interpret your nonverbal signals. Speak your truth — loudly, firmly and unapologetically. Repeat if necessary. Reinforce your message with your eyes, your tone, your posture, and your gestures. Keep increasing the volume of your ‘no’ until it is heard.
After the revelation, the revolution
In the existing gender paradigm, women are often shamed as sluts for voicing sexual desires; or judged as bitches for expressing their opinions. Men are often deemed impotent if they do not pursue women with passion and persistence; or seen as weak if they show emotion.
We have shared wounds that perpetuate the masculine-feminine shadow dynamic. Our culture is marked with a collective feminine victim wound: learned helplessness from being objectified for centuries. We also collectively share the burden of a masculine guilt wound: pervasive shame from lifetimes of patriarchal transgressions.
We are all complicit in creating the culture. For every man who has harassed or assaulted a woman, there is a woman who has used her sexuality to manipulate a man, wielding it as a carrot or a stick.
None of this is freedom. As we grow in consciousness, it means becoming more aware of our biological and social conditioning. This awareness brings the power of choice — choosing when we engage with these programs, embrace them, allow them, or step beyond them, instead of letting them run in the background unconscious and unchecked. Being in choice means becoming more free.
This conditioning is in the water in which we swim. Asking men and women to see how they participate in distorted relating is like asking a fish to report the temperature of the water. How would she know? Yet, we can learn how to both be the fish, and see the water. To make a real shift, we need to focus on changing the water in which we swim in rather than pointing at the fish.
Men and women suffer different traumas and learn different rules of engagement based on the body we are born in. We need to honor these histories, embodying empathy for each other’s experiences. And to write a new narrative, we must step into shared response-ability for bringing forth the gifts of the healthy masculine and the healthy feminine.
After the revelation, comes the revolution.