I remember sitting with my son in the stands at a Major League Baseball game. A few rows in front of us, two men started heckling the leftfielder. The men were drunk and yelling all kinds of profanity at the player. Regretting that my son and I had to hear the insults—and knowing I couldn’t do anything about it without risking retribution, I rolled my eyes and muttered in total disgust, “Men are so stupid.” My son (who was not yet ten at that time) looked at me and said, “Mom, when you say that, you’re talking about me too.”
He was right, of course, and from that day forward, I’ve tried to refrain from making generalizations about men. I mean, I know not all men are bad. Not all men are rude and gross. Not all men are abusers, assaulters, or perverts. Not all men view women (or children) as property to be passed around and treated as objects. I know this.
I also know that when I lump my negative feelings for some men together in a big nasty pile of all men, my son gets included just because he has a penis. I’m working on my tendency to see every male in the world as one giant testosterone monster. And, if I’m honest, it’s not that I hate men—they just scare the hell out of me.
It might have started when I was 14 and a tennis coach told me my hair smelled nice as he wrapped his arms around me from behind and pressed himself against me to show me the proper form for a backhand.
Awkwardness might have turned to anxiety when I was a high school senior sitting in study hall, and a male classmate walked up to me in front of everyone and jammed a rolled-up poster between my legs to see if I’d pass “the virgin test.” I failed miserably and all the boys laughed.
Embarrassment might have turned to confusion when I was a freshman in college and a teammate groped me at a party after I had already made it clear to him that I wasn’t interested.
As a college junior, I started carrying pepper spray in my bag so I could feel “safe” while walking across campus in the dark. I use quotation marks because I never felt truly safe. I had heard too many stories, and my pulse pounded nonstop unless I was home behind a locked door. I knew better than to walk alone after midnight, but the sun went down by 7 p.m. and I still had to get from the cafeteria to my dorm after dinner. Pepper spray seemed better than a knife or gun. Would I know how to use a knife? Where would I buy a gun? Would both get taken away and used against me?
Flat-out fear set in during Bible school (yes, Bible school, which taught me that no place is safe for females), when a male student started stalking me, leaving messages on my answering machine: Why are you ignoring my calls? Pick up the phone. I know you’re home. I can see you through your blinds. Anger joined the fear when the dean of the school (who was also male) didn’t believe my report because there hadn’t been any other reports and I didn’t have any “real evidence.”
These are just a few examples from a long list of experiences and people I try not to remember. Uninvited faces and feelings come flooding back every time I walk past a man…and I pick up the pace. My feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger root deeper inside me every time a stranger yells at me when I walk by on the street or sidewalk, minding my own business, trying to get to work or the mall. What do I do to deserve catcalls and lurid invitations? Nothing. What’s more—I dress modestly. I don’t smile or make eye contact. I sure as hell don’t say anything. I palm my pepper spray in my pocket and walk with a purpose.
So when exactly did I start being afraid of men? When did my fear turn into anger and disgust and full-on rage? Maybe it was two years ago when I had to report receiving emails from an anonymous sender who described his sick fantasies to me, changed his email address with every note, and was never apprehended by the authorities. Maybe it was two weeks ago when my boss sent me home from work because a former male colleague had threatened female employees, wanting to “enslave all the bitches” and return to a time when “women were the property of men.” Maybe it was two days ago when my son’s male principal was arrested for possession and distribution of child porn, after being caught having sex with a 14-year-old boy.
Maybe it was when I discovered that males are physically bigger and stronger than females. Maybe it was when I learned that men are capable of unimaginable evil (name a female tyrant or serial killer or school shooter or mass murderer. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you Google). Maybe it was when I born with a vagina.
So when the old man sits down beside me today in a doctor’s office (even though there are plenty of other chairs available) and asks me (even though I am busy reading a book) why my toenails are red and my fingernails are a different color, it takes all the strength I can muster to convince myself that he’s just curious, to regulate my breathing, and to answer his question without fury.
I try to teach my son what it’s like for women so that he will grow in empathy, respect, and kindness. But he still has no idea what it’s like for me to take him down the street to shoot hoops and be filled with fear because the basketball courts are full of men.
He asks, Why can’t you stay, Mom?
I tell him, Because I’m the only girl here.
I don’t say, And I’m terrified.
Elizabeth Cary has starred in many roles over the years—daughter, sister, cousin, aunt, wife, mother, woman, writer, teacher, friend—but, these days, she’s happy to have a small part on the world’s stage playing a survivor. #metoo