I can't remember the first time I was aware of the set of rules that govern a woman's life. I don't remember explicitly being taught them. I do remember, at much too young an age, that men looked at me in a way that made me uncomfortable. I don't mean men in my life like family members or friends of the family. I mean strangers on the street, in the store, at a football game. All of my young life I was told I looked too grown (usually accompanied by leering), I looked like a woman at age 14. Not that it should matter but I can assure you my clothing choices at age 14 were typical teenage attire of the time and involved mostly t-shirts. Yet now as an actual adult (I'll be 27 next month) I am constantly being confused for a college student. As a Freshman in college people thought I was a Freshmen in high school. On my first day of being employed at a University I was mistaken for an incoming freshman. So did I ever really look like a grown woman? Or was that image being projected onto me. This brings me back to the rules.
Don't allow yourself to be alone with a man. He could overpower you.
Don't go anywhere alone. You might not make it back.
Don't pull over unless it is a well-lit populated area. It might not be a real police officer.
Don't leave your drink unattended. I'm not talking about alcohol here, it could be any drink, anywhere.
Don't answer the door if your home alone. Nothing is more important than your safety.
Always tell someone where you are. Just in case you don't make it back home.
Never, ever, leave your friend alone. She could be the next victim.
Do these sound paranoid to you? These are the tame ones. These are the everyday guidelines of our lives because 1 out of 6 women in the U.S. have been the victim or intended victim of a physical sexual assault. This doesn't take into account sexual harassment.
How did I form these rules? I'm not 100% sure. It is just something we all instinctively know. Our culture is so saturated with everyday sexual harassment that it has become common place. If you're a woman you have a list, it may be different than mine, but if compared it will likely be eerily similar. No one gave it to us. No one sat us down and told us to learn these rules before you grow up. We formed them from necessity. From experience.
I was 15 years old when Natalee Holloway disappeared. It rocked me to my core. No, I didn't know her, but she only lived about an hour away from me. Seeing her story unfold is how my last rule came into place, and why I stick to it with the most conviction. Never leave your friend alone, even if she's having a good time. You stay together at all costs. This rule has a clear connection to an event, not all of them do. But they all have the same intended outcome-protection.
I remember the night I knew I could not walk back to my dorm alone. This may seem obvious to some but I attended a small, private, Christian university. One I felt safe at. One I had already spent a whole year at without an inkling of fear. But one night as a Sophomore walking back to my dorm I received "catcalls" from the second floor of the boy’s dorm. When I didn't respond I was scoffed at for "not knowing how to take a compliment." No, I wasn't physically harmed but I did feel threatened. They were two stories up, what if they had not been? I wasn't the only one to experience this, complaints were made and the university addressed the issue. I personally never had another experience like that on my campus, but I also never walked alone at night again. I don't know who the young men were that catcalled me that night but I hope they learned that type of behavior wasn't a "compliment" but harassment. At a previous job I had a male co-worker lash out at me for reporting his behavior to our superiors. His personality was overbearing and he used his position to try and intimidate me on more than one occasion. One afternoon he refused to let me leave the office even though I was clearly uncomfortable being alone with him and it was past time for me to clock out. I was in tears before he finally gave in (this is notable because I do not cry in front of people who are not my close friends or family). I once had a complete stranger come up to me in public to compliment me on my "perfect boobs." I was so shocked I couldn't even respond, luckily I wasn't alone and a friend of mine shooed him away. I have no doubt he would have made more advances had I been alone. I have had strangers "compliment" my hair while touching it without my consent. I have friends whose stories are much worse than mine and they involve more than just inappropriate statements.
My experiences are all minuscule occurrences compared to others but they are still unacceptable. It was only recently I came to the realization of how I not only expect this type of behavior but have become completely oblivious to it. I don't remember where we were exactly but one day my husband made a statement to the effect of "did you see the way that guy was looking at you?" I hadn't. Whatever look he was giving was enough to make my husband uncomfortable while I had barely even noticed the man. There have been several instances where my husband would observe that a stranger at a store might make a comment to me he found strange. It is strange but it happens all the time. It happens so much we don't even bat an eye until it is something truly heinous. Maybe being married I have let me guard down. I generally am not alone and tend to be less observant about who is around me in a store because I'm with my husband and I feel safe.
But many people don't feel safe, even with their set of rules. Rules we have had to create for ourselves that our male counterparts generally do not have to live by. Most of the rules that have governed my life my husband never had to think about before we were married. You may be a husband the first time you see the need for the rules, or maybe a father. In my experience men are surprised to learn about the number of things women have to think about before going on a simple errand. "Will my appearance draw unwanted attention?" "Is someone available to go with me?" "Can I make it in and out of the store quick enough if I'm alone?" "Is it too dark outside?" "Can I fend off an attacker with my keys?"
Do you know more than six women? Chances are you know someone who has been assaulted. You may see your social media feeds filling up with the "Me too" statements. You should also know that these are only the ones willing to tell their story. 63% of assaults go unreported. So that 1 in 6 number could in fact be much higher since it is based on the number of reported crimes. For every "Me too" statement you see there may be two more women still hiding in the shadows of fear, doubt & anxiety.
The truth is simply being alone makes us vulnerable. Nearly every "rule" comes down to needing a trusted companion. True or not we are all under the assumption that if we aren't alone we won't become the victim. I haven't seen one Me Too post that has surprised me. Maybe the details shocked me if I didn't already know the whole story, but I wasn't surprised it happened. I am glad it has made headlines. I am glad people are talking about it. Because there are people out there who are surprised, but it's generally not women. Girls 16-19 are 4 times more likely to experience sexual violence than the general population and women aged 18-24 are 3 times more likely. We aren't surprised because chances are we have experienced it on some level and we never know if the leering look we get or the catcall made is from the safe person without manners, or from the one who is going to follow us home. I hope the Me Too movement breaks the silence around every day sexual harassment. I hope it makes people stand up for themselves and stand up for others. I hope it makes people think about what they say to women and what they ask of them. If you wouldn't want it said to your mother, or sister, or friend then it probably shouldn't be said at all.
It doesn't just happen at night. It doesn't just happen in big cities. It doesn't just happen by strangers. It's everywhere. It's every day. It's our life.
This post is in no way meant to vilify one gender over another. It is simply meant to bring light to an issue that we as women experience and understand in a different way than men do. There are many upstanding men in the world, I know lots of them, and this is not meant to belittle anyone. It is simply meant to bring awareness because truthfully women have not spoken out about it, on a large scale, until recently. We have accepted it in silence and shared it with our girlfriends but rarely have we told the men in our lives. We cannot expect other people to understand if we don't talk about it.
Have the conversation. Ask you mother, ask you sister, ask your friend. Have you experienced this? They may not be ready to talk about it if it was traumatic and if so don't push, but offer your ear to listen and your hand to help.
Contributing Editor: Autumn Bailey
Autumn Bailey lives in the southern U.S. with her husband and their two beloved cats. She spends her
spare time volunteering with her local Junior League and writing her blog “Always Autumn.” You can
find her on twitter @adh9012