by Ariadne Wolf
I’m standing on the platform at a BART station. The older woman I started talking to a few minutes ago has turned away to take a call. I am left standing awkwardly alongside her husband, who has already expressed his regard for me by patting me, a complete stranger and a young woman besides, several times on the shoulder.
I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’m feeling frustrated and alone. I make up an excuse, and I start to walk away.
The man extends a hand for me to shake. I eye it nervously, then step forward and gingerly take the proferred hand. He slaps his other hand on top of mine and, when I attempt to pull away, he refuses to let me go.
Seconds pass, then minutes. Finally I am able to jerk my hand away. I stumble to a nearby concrete bench, feeling flustered and aggravated. I feel as though somebody just grabbed my ass on the subway. I feel the way I do all too often as a young woman traveling much of this country alone.
There are so many ways to tell this story. There are so many ways this story could end.
I could tell you about the man who moved his things over to the next seat so I could sit down on the BART train. I could tell you about the kind man at the airport Information counter who pointed me on my way. I could tell you about the man who checked me in at Global Entry, who made a point to smile at me, only at me, and to give me a calming look of kindness. I could tell you about the stiff man behind the desk at Global Entry, the man who warmed up to me quickly while I charmed him with my nerves and my vulnerability. The look that man gave me as I strode away was sweet and almost paternal, and I liked that. I liked how taken care of it made me feel, that one instance of feeling like a young girl protected by an authoritative male.
I will tell you, because I feel I ought to, that the man on the platform was white, whereas none of the other men were. I do not believe that this one identity always makes a difference but I believe in many cases, in many encounters I’ve personally had with misogyny, this one identity very often makes a difference.
I could tell you that the first man, like my father, was Joe Biden’s age. I could point out to you that he likely grew up in an era that told white men they could do anything they wished with women’s bodies, anything they could get away with. I could tell you how horrified I am that, yet again, I let a man fitting this demographic get away with treating my body this way.
Instead what I will tell you is this. It is natural, a biological imperative, to notice the people who threaten our survival. It is biological to recognize that our ability to defend the space of our own personal territory, whether that is our body or our room or our house, is vital to our survival. To obsess over any invasion into these things, any threats to our survival, is undoubtedly hardwired into our DNA.
Of the many, many men I encountered during that one day, that one trip to the airport and back, the only man to directly invade my space was also the man I gave the most of my time and energy to, all voluntarily. Most of the men I encountered ignored me, and I repaid the favor. The rest, a handful to be sure, were all sources of deep pleasure and kindness that I will take with me.
I am telling you this because I think it is so important to remember the kindness. I am telling you this because sometimes I live with the overpowering belief that every man I encounter will be a possible source of pain in my life. Not only does this cause me to do harm to the men in my life, it prevents me from keeping myself safe. This belief does not even allow me to do the one thing this belief is supposed to do above all: protect me
If I accept the notion that no man can be trusted, then I take the awful personal assistant jobs that are really only about playing mama to a grown man-child. I put up with the harassing comments from bosses, and even the impromptu and unwanted embraces from them. I allow men like that man on the platform, men like my father, to take up my time and energy, because I have myself convinced that I will never experience better treatment from a man than that.
In the end, the person who loses out as a result of this belief is me.
I know, I know. We’re feminists, we’re supposed to ignore the phrase “not all men” as the rallying cry of the closet misogynist. And yet…I find myself agreeing with this perspective. More and more, as I travel the world, as I encounter men from every corner of the planet and from all walks of life, the main thing I see is not what I expected to. The main thing I see is not misogyny, not patriarchy, not cruelty or the urge to abuse. Actually, what I see is a great deal of kindness, frustrated like mine is behind confused notions of politeness and contradictory ideas of how to be a good human being. What I see in the men around me is, fundamentally, something rather like what I see in myself.
I understand the need to skewer men verbally at certain times in our lives. I understand how doing this unites us women, creates a sisterhood that extends across cultures and even across time. I can think, god, men are awful, and I know somewhere in Medieval England Katherine of Aragon is pumping her fist in the air and cheering me on. I know somewhere my mother’s mother is screaming you go girl. I know that as long as I stay in this emotional place, I can walk into any women’s bathroom in the country and immediately strike up a kinship with the person next to me at the sink.
This all remains true. I’m just no longer sure it’s such a good thing.
What I am sure of is that believing all men are to blame for crimes like rape and sex trafficking is like blaming my teachers for not saving me from my father’s abuse when I was a child. Is this an understandable reaction? Heck yeah. Is it a correct one? A fair one? An adult reaction, even?
No, no, and no again.
I remember how I felt when I realized the only person to blame for my father’s abuse was my father. I felt bereft. I felt the world come crashing down. I felt as though my entire identity was in question, because suddenly my father was not The Father. Not God the Father, not the father of every grown daughter on this planet. Just mine. I was the only one who suffered through his actions. I’m the only one who has to live with what that feels like. Just me.
Similarly, when I accept that the number of men who would hold my hand hostage in public is actually relatively few, what I feel most strongly is my own aloneness. Suddenly I am not the victim of some universal Western experience of feminine suffering. Instead, I’m just me, caught up in a situation I could not control or escape from, suffering all by myself.
This is not an easy thing to feel. It is a terrible place for anyone to ever have to be. Yet this is the reality of pain, of being victimized. The crime is always unique. The act is always its own. And we, in the course of suffering from and coming to terms with it, we are on our own.
I am on my own with my personal pain, just as I am alone with my art. Whether both or either one ever means something profound or useful to another living being, is entirely up to me. This can be devastating, or it can be empowering. The choice is up to only me.
I cannot pretend to be any kind of expert on the men’s rights movement, or on the beginning of the slogan Not All Men. What I do know, however, what I know as deeply as I have ever known anything in my life, is that goodness exists in men as well as it does in women. I know that enforcing the already arbitrary gender divide in language and in communion was the single worst thing feminism has ever done for me. I know that I am no longer on board with it.
I know that feminism, amidst all the tremendous good it has done, has also bizarrely striven to convince very good men that the only thing separating them from being that old man grabbing my body on that platform and not letting go, is constant vigilance and a liberal dose of self-hate.
I know that this is not even close to being true. Not even close.
Ariadne Wolf works cross-genre in Creative Nonfiction, Fantasy, and Experimental Fiction, Screenwriting, and just about everything else you can think of. Wolf has completed her MFA in Creative Writing and she is currently exploring non-coastal America.