Last week, a couple of friends shared several articles on a particular kind of “ghost story” that we love to tell in our culture: lurid stories of women being attacked, raped, or kidnapped and how they should have known better, or, how you can make sure it Doesn’t Happen To You. You can read them here, here, and here, but to give you a taste of what I mean, here’s an excerpt from Susan Schorn’s brilliant column, Bitchslap:
I’ve heard the one about the serial killer who lures women out of their homes at night by playing a recording of a crying baby. And the story about a gang of predators in the parking lot at the mall, who hide under their van with a knife, and when a woman is getting into her car they reach out and cut the tendons in her ankles so she can’t run away. Or the one about the serial killer at a shopping center…who gives women perfume samples that have ether in them, to knock them out before abducting them.
The stories often conclude with instructions and admonitions: “You should never take the same route home two days in a row because an attacker can watch you and learn your routine.” “Rapists prefer women with long hairstyles that are easy to grab, so keep your hair cut short.” “I’ve heard you should always take the elevator instead of the stairs.” “My cousin told me you should never fight back, because it only makes the attacker mad.”
Even if you didn’t initially know what I was talking about, you probably got one of those endlessly forwarded chain emails about it back in the early days of the internet, or if you’re of my parents’ generation, you probably continue to get them from well-meaning friends. They all involve tales of women meeting their demise in a horrible and yet almost fascinatingly creative way (They slashed her ankles so she couldn’t run away? Chloroform perfume samples? Why, that almost makes a roofie seem boring!). People don’t think they’re telling them for entertainment, but it’s so easy to get sucked in. Think of all the crime shows on TV and how gruesome they are and yet how inventive at the same time. Think of all the outrageous stories on the news. I agree with Susan Schorn’s statement that people love that little thrilling jolt of fear. But my perception is that all these stories, over time, create a corrosive drip—one little hit after another—that eats away at our ability to recognize actual danger in the world, and undermines people’s sense of belonging in the world. This is what seems to have happened in my case.
Part of the reason that the stories are so insulting and distressing is because they serve to reinforce extreme mental categories; they distort our perception. For example, when I say the word “bird,” what image comes to mind? You probably think of a robin or a sparrow. But a toucan is a bird, and so is a penguin, or an ostrich. We get so used to thinking of violence and rape as necessarily having to look a certain way that it becomes easy to overlook and belittle the forms it actually takes in the real world. What I want to know is, regarding these stories, are we really getting so terrified of the house being haunted that we forget to look for fire hazards and carbon monoxide leaks? I am much more frightened of getting hit by a van than getting dragged into one. (In fact, I can see it happening now. I’m walking home. It’s dark. I hear a twig snap. I turn to look for the inevitable rapist-in-the-bushes with a knife between his teeth. I get distracted and get clipped by the minivan running the stop sign.)
Once I was done reading these posts, I noticed that my jaw was clenched tightly enough to break a pencil. The point of this post is to investigate and resolve that frustration and anger. I took some time to process my own experience and do some reading about about actual incidences of violence, and I discovered that I have been struggling to do two things. One is to reconcile two seemingly contradictory truths: that no victim is ever at fault, and that all people have a high level of personal responsibility for their own safety. The other is to understand how to actually make myself safe, and to feel safe. The ghost stories are well-intended but perverse bits of noise that keep me from doing any of these things. It is true that there are unspeakably terrible things that have happened to people. To deny that would be naïve and disrespectful. But it is equally naïve and disrespectful to engage in this kind of fear-mongering that ultimately serves no one.
If you’ve read this far, chances are you know me at least somewhat well and are probably already of the mind that victim-blaming is not only cruel but dangerous. Leave it to our culture, which loves to generate countless little cures and quick-fixes for all our ills rather than addressing real problems, to spend far too much time teaching women to run and hide rather than actually preventing dangerous situations. As Sid puts it, “Here, ladies, here are the rules you must follow to deserve not to be assaulted. If you don’t CRAWL across your cupholder to get in from the passenger side and you get raped, well… we warned you.” Susan Schorn criticizes the notion that one can somehow always know what to do, and if that if she fails to do so, she had it coming; that assault has little to do with men being unstable and violent and everything to do with women being negligent and stupid: “The stories and their morals hold out the promise that if we do the right thing, if we listen obediently to what we are told—if we are good—we will not be hurt…it’s a woman’s responsibility, these fantastic tales imply, to imagine every possible danger, to seek out and believe ever more preposterous scenarios.” Holly of the Pervocracy blog echoes the same sentiment: “We want to find some way to say ‘the victims were stupid, and because I’m smart, nothing bad will ever happen to me!'”
What I discovered, in the process of reading about what one actually can do to avoid dangerous situations, is that there are two very dangerous approaches that one can take. The first is to place all responsibility on the victim, which serves no one. But it is equally dangerous to accept no responsibility for one’s safety at all. It’s extremely important to acknowledge that taking realistic precautions is not the same thing as seeing one’s self as a victim or condoning the status quo. After getting the link from a friend, I spent quite a bit of time reading Marc and Dianna Young’s website, “No-Nonsense Self-Defense,” which at first read may sound harsh and offensive to your feminist sensibilities, but ultimately is a very pragmatic resource with no intention of putting women down. Their stance is that “ alleviating all women or any victim from any and all responsibility to predict, prevent, or even unconsciously invite abuse, is to reduce them to helpless, incapable creatures, and in fact, re-victimizes them…The only absolute control and power you have is over yourself and what you do.” So how, then, do you go about being responsible without living in a state of constant, absurd fear? (“Who wants to constantly be afraid of half of the human race?” they ask.) Given how important personal responsibility and awareness are, the ghost stories are just that much more irritating. Why would you bother developing good communication skills, or learn how to de-escalate conflict, when you could adhere to a preposterous list of trivialities? “Cute haircut!” “Thanks! I decided to cut it short so I wouldn’t get raped.” “Oh, good thinking.”
There are two ways to ignore reality: one is to live in fear, and the other is to assume that there is nothing to fear at all. Part of me wants to walk brazenly through the city at night, asserting my right to be there, to move through my life unharmed, never touched in any way that I don’t desire. But if I were to do that, I would be ignoring the fact that not everyone in the world recognizes or respects those rights. They should respect them. And they don’t. And that is the reality I have to deal with, whether I like it or not. I have had to remind myself that responding to the way things are does not mean that I approve of the way things are, and that opting not to do something is not the same as denying one’s right to do it. No one has the right to harm me, but there are still reasons why I don’t drink until I black out. Marc and Dianna Young write that “ If you take a more cautious, common sense approach that suggests certain behaviors are foolishly dangerous, you’ll be accused of trying to deny the rights of women. If you take the approach that a young woman has the right to engage in foolish, often illegal behavior and be indemnified against any negative repercussions then you are seriously out of sync with how the world really works.”
That said, there’s a very important point I want to make that gets back to the issue of blaming victims, which is that it’s not always clear how the world is going to work. Even in light of the great responsibility that people have to avoid danger, virtually everyone, at any given time, assumes that they are doing just that. People act out their beliefs, for better or for worse. If someone gets into what looks like a dangerous situation to you, you can bet that they either don’t believe it’s dangerous, or that in spite of the danger, they believe they will be fine. (What looks like a perfectly reasonable walk home to me might look outrageously dangerous to my grandfather; likewise, Grandpa having another drink before getting into the car to drive home looks like a terrible idea to me, but it might seem like a great idea to him after four glasses of wine.) Yes, carelessness exists. So do honest mistakes. Nobody ever “asks for it.” Even when people are taking risks, they do so on the assumption that they will probably be fine, and they make those assumptions based on what they honestly believe and how they sincerely believe the world to work. They know better, and yet, they can’t possibly know better until things fall apart.
There is an absurdly long list of all the things you could do to avoid serial killers at the mall; there are also extremely effective sets of techniques and communication skills that allow one to minimize and escape conflict, whether between strangers or close acquaintances. There are precautions that exist, and there’s no possible way that any person who isn’t an expert can know all of them. At the moment when a person finds herself in a conflict, she cannot possibly know any more than she does. So what is the point of criticizing someone for not knowing something that they could not possibly have known? And even if she does have the whole list, how much control do you really have over your decision making process when you are in a moment of utter horror, panic, or rage? Keep in mind that hindsight is 20-20. What looks like an obvious threat after the fact probably didn’t at the time. (He was a perfectly nice guy until he just wouldn’t stop.)
Having addressed all that, here’s my pepper-spray story.
Last year for Christmas, my grandfather gave me a knit hat with a bill on it and a slit just wide enough for one’s eyes. (I received the same hat the year before, and true to form, I got another one this year.) It is a strange hat, somewhat like a snow burka. The reason he gives me the hats is because he is convinced that I need to keep warm, which is true; I live in a cold place. But not quite cold enough for such an accessory. Grandpa’s perception of how one stays warm in The North is based on extreme accounts. To be fair, Chicago does get its share of 20-below days. But on those days, we stay inside.
Last year for Christmas, I also got a container of pepper spray from Grandpa. The reason he gave me the pepper spray is because he is convinced that I need to be safe, which is true; I live in a big city, and things happen. But is Grandpa’s understanding of how dangerous the city really is also based on extreme accounts? Is that really how one goes about staying safe?
I kept the pepper spray on my desk by the door of my old apartment, next to my keys and wallet, so that I could grab it on my way out. Gradually, I noticed that every time I looked at the pepper spray, a movie would start playing in my head of all the horrible situations I could possibly get into in which I would need it. Where would I be? What would my (inevitably young, Black or Hispanic male attacker) try to do to me? Moreover, would I actually remember the massive list of Things You Must Do To Not Get Raped? Would I actually pull off a Miss Congeniality-style plan of attack? Or would I, like many people under duress, freak the hell out or just try to run the hell away?
Over time I noticed that my imagination would run wild…thinking of all sorts of awful ways to attack me. I was making up my own ghost stories.
I got tired of attacking myself in my mind.
And then I noticed that I began to do something else as well. The fantasies starting getting more and more elaborate. With no healthy way to express it, I began visualizing myself taking out all my anger and frustration on my attacker, renewing my subscription to the idea that might makes right. I would see myself incapacitating him with the mighty can of pepper spray and then, before running to call the police like a good girl, I would start to kick. And yell. How dare you. Kick to the groin. You idiot bastard. Kick to the ribs. What makes you think you can do that to someone. Kick to the face. By now there would be teeth scattered on the ground. I would get away with it of course, pleading self-defense, terror-induced temporary insanity, and everyone would buy it, because I am a petite white woman who Must Be Protected and simply can do no harm.
I quit visualizing myself trying to run away and I started venting my rage at how unfair it feels to not be able to walk around at night, seeking revenge for anyone who has ever been dragged into a van. It would feel so good to give someone a taste of their own medicine. I would feel powerful and justified, because clearly, being like men is what capable, modern women are supposed to do, even when it comes to being vindictive and cruel, right? (Never mind that sticking around to argue or make a point causes conflict to escalate alarmingly fast and provokes even crueler attacks. Besides, isn’t most of The Art of War dedicated to avoiding unnecessary conflict?)
And then I got tired of attacking other people in my mind.
I know that people are supposed to be aware of their surroundings and use both logic and intuition to assess a situation. But I am also tired of demonizing any man I see who looks like he doesn’t have a liberal arts degree. I am as tired of turning them into criminals in my mind as I am tired of turning myself, over and over, into a target, a victim. Susan Schorn writes that “people may like to be scared a little bit now and then, but they don’t like to be afraid, really afraid. After a while, it makes them angry to be so scared all the time. And anger…anger makes us dangerous.” In my case, I did not become dangerous towards other people in the real world, but I created an exceptionally toxic environment for myself. I am really, really tired of feeling angry at myself for being ‘insufficient’ somehow, or fundamentally flawed, not able to defend myself in the urban jungle, or needing an escort, all while overlooking the fact that I am actually an intelligent, capable, and whole being who happens to live in a world where unstable people also happen to live. I am not fundamentally flawed. It is simply true that there are dangerous situations that exist, and like all beings, I have a prerogative to avoid them.
I decided to throw the pepper spray away because it did not make me feel any safer. I was tired of the mental assault I underwent every time I saw it. It dawned on me that if I had the spray with me, it might lure me into a false sense of invincibility, in which it might even be a good thing to be approached (the perfect opportunity for my vengeful fantasy!). I also realized that it just introduced one more dangerous element into the scenario that could be used against me.
So I have adopted a new strategy. Now that I have decided not to carry a weapon of some kind, I am that much more motivated to avoid potentially dangerous situations in the first place. And if something happens to me anyways, in spite of my efforts, then you better believe it could have happened to anybody. While I don’t actually know how I would react to the shock, I certainly hope I would not label myself a Victim, because you know what? Chaos is a law of the universe. Things happen. Anyone who would say, “well she had it coming, she should have known to carry her pepper spray,” probably deserves to get pepper-sprayed.
I know that things happen. Strange events have happened to me that I never would have dreamed possible. People very close to me have been attacked, and you know, I don’t consider them Victims, I consider them human beings who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Last Friday night, as I was trying to go to sleep, I heard screaming coming from directly underneath the window of my apartment building. What I thought was a couple of obnoxious drunks turned out to be a woman being beaten up by a man she knew, presumably a boyfriend. It was terrifying, seeing a person being thrown on the ground, screaming, trying to get away. You know what I didn’t do? I didn’t expect her, in that moment of emotional turmoil, to deliver a perfectly-executed Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style roundhouse kick to the face. You know what else I didn’t do? I didn’t think, “gee, I wonder what she did to make him so angry.” You know what I did do? I called the fucking police. In a moment of terror like that, all bets are off. I stood there shaking until I saw blue lights and heard sirens a minute later.
I admit that there’s a part of me that hopes that guy gets pepper sprayed in the face. At least, a good hard kick to the balls. The “vengeance is justice” side of me hopes that karma will kick in swiftly and painfully. But more than anything I just want there to be less violence in the world, both the physical kind, and the psychological kind we inflict by judging people, jumping to conclusions, belittling their pain, telling lurid ghost stories, and blaming people for not anticipating what they could not possibly have known.