The Threat Effect
“You shouldn’t leave your purse in the front seat like that,” said a man’s voice just behind me.
My head snapped up, startled, as he walked past me. It took me a moment to register what he said. Why was this man talking to me? Who was he? What had he said? My “purse” was on the tailgate, but my bag was, in fact, in the front seat.
“Oh,” I stuttered. “That’s just got books in it.”
“Still. They broke into a car at my gym just to get a bag with gym clothes,” he warned a complete stranger. A second man walked out of my peripheral vision, a bag of dog food over his shoulder.
I grabbed my purse, carefully shut the tailgate and then the back window. The man was opening the door of a black truck parked beside my little car. The second man headed around the passenger side.
“Oh,” I said again, looking into the back of my car. “Damn.” I tried the latch. It didn’t budge. I tried the door handle. “Damn,” I repeated.
“What’s wrong?” the second guy asked.
“I just locked my keys in the car.”
“Do you have another?” the first one asked.
“No,” I replied, pulling out my cell phone. “I’ll call my boyfriend.”
“Do you need us to wait with you?” dog-food man asked.
“I keep a spare in my wallet,” first man offered.
I was in a busy Petsmart parking lot in broad daylight across the street from a police station. I said no. They left as I dialed the phone and looked through the window of my now locked car. Archer looked bad at me with a calm but curious expression as I explained to Colin that I’d locked my keys in the car. And I’d locked the dog in the car, too. Thankfully, it was a cool day and I’d parked in the shade. And my boyfriend is awesome.
Men can be wonderful. Especially when the come to your rescue on days when you’ve locked yourself out of your car and your dog in. I love a large number of them. I’ve lived with several over the course of my life and count many as family.
But why do some of them think it’s perfectly okay to walk up behind a distracted woman in a parking lot and talk to her out of the blue? Like she hasn’t spent her entire life being warned about rapists and murderers and being alone it parking lots? Like she hasn’t been told since before she could talk not to talk to strangers? As though she hasn’t been warned that daylight doesn’t make her safer and that bad things happen to women even in good neighborhoods? Like she wouldn’t be surprised to hear the voice of a total stranger less than six feet behind her especially when, despite her culturally ingrained vigilance, she didn’t even know he was there? As though she hasn’t already figured out through personal experience that overly-familiar men are trouble? And that two of them would be so much less threatening that she would ask them to wait with her to protect her from other complete strangers on the off chance that they were good and the other strangers were dangerous?
That’s not to say that these guys were bad or dangerous or rude or callous or in any way ill-meaning. They were strangers, so I really couldn’t tell you. It’s just to say that they fundamentally don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman in a world where the most dangerous thing to a woman is a man. And I think that is a shame. I think it’s utterly inexcusable.
Louis CK, a comedian I don’t always appreciate, has a bit about dating. “It takes a great deal of courage to go out on a date,” he explains. Guys are petrified to ask a woman out on a date. She could say no, but it takes a lot of courage for a man to ask. “She might say yes. That’s the woman’s courage. The courage it takes for a woman to go on a date with a man is literally insane and ill-advised and the whole species existence counts on them doing it! And I don’t know, how do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women!” A rare moment of insight from a man who love poop jokes. “We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them! That’s true!”
Nevertheless, when women act distant, cold, unfriendly, or any other of the somewhat nastier words often used to describe cautious female behavior, men frequently demonstrate great offense. At the very least, they often look baffled and feel misunderstood or unappreciated. Very few realize that this is an inevitable consequence of the threat under which all women constantly operate. Protective behavior from women is a direct result of threatening behavior from men. Maybe not of the particular woman or particular man in any given interaction, but of enough women and enough men within our society for these messages to become deeply embedded not only in our culture, but in every culture.
In fact, men have been so dangerous to women over the eons that their behavior has frequently been used to deny women’s rights, privileges, and freedoms. Although I, personally, have never been physically harmed by a man, I have often been on the receiving end of this patriarchal “protection.” My family worries about my inclination to join the Navy, even as an officer and a chaplain, because it exponentially increases the likelihood I’ll be sexually assaulted. Women are discouraged from pursuing largely male professions in part because of threats to their personal safety. Our freedom of movement and career is curtailed. Here’s an idea: rather than saying women can’t leave the house at night because they might be assaulted, let’s say men can’t leave the house at night because they might assault someone? That sucks, right? It’s horribly unfair, right? Yet women have been told and accepted these messages and restrictions on their freedom since early childhood. Inappropriately “protective” behavior, usually by men, is often passed off as well-intentioned, despite its impact on the “protectee.”
This was brought home to me recently in a Petsmart parking lot in broad daylight across from a police station. In this case, perhaps the stranger’s warning had nothing to do with my gender, but my reaction was certainly in response to his. I did not like having a strange man suddenly so close to me and speaking to me out of the blue. I felt threatened. I was startled. I got distracted. And I locked my keys in the car with my dog. Good one, fellas! Way to go, Monica!
To all the guys out there: you don’t have to stop protecting your sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters (if they want you to). However, please realize what you’re protecting them from. As a consequence, strange women will view you as just as threatening as you might view other men to the women in your life. So don’t walk up behind them and start talking to them, anywhere, but especially in parking lots. We don’t like it. It’s not personal. And believe it or not, we don’t like having to live our lives under this constant threat effect. But that’s largely up to you guys to make unnecessary. Talk to each other. Teach your sons, brothers, and friends that violence against women is never okay. Make it stop. Could you work on that? We’d appreciate it. Thanks!