I went on a third date with a man.
Considering our second date was a long hike, I was feeling pretty comfortable by this point and felt it was safe to be more vulnerable and open.
In the course of our conversation, I shared about a time where a man exposed himself to me while I was in a park (the story was relevant to our conversation at the time).
He was shocked, stopped me, and wanted to know how far away the man was. He then wanted more details - a play by play.
This was my first clue that my date was unfamiliar with sexual violence against women or listening to women speak about it.
Men unfamiliar with sexual violence toward women often have difficulty comprehending an event. They want all of the possible details so their mind can understand HOW this could possibly happen.
The harm of this is that it centers the listener, instead of the victim.
An appropriate, safe, and trauma-informed response would be to simply listen to the individual as she speaks and let her share as she feels comfortable.
The other harm is that a man’s shock or disbelief about a situation is invalidating to a woman’s lived experience. This was my 4th time that a man had exposed himself to me in public. This is not some freak incident, and as many women attest, is part of a pattern of sexual violence toward women.
In addition, a man’s disbelief harms the connection between the listener and the speaker. It automatically puts the women on the defensive because she is unsure whether she will have to convince or prove that this event actually happened or that she was not at fault.
The man continued to press me for more details and wanted to know what I did. I said, “Well I wasn’t going to confront him physically, so I yelled to startle him and then ran away.”
My date responded, “Well, if you were trained you could have confronted him.”
His comment was deeply harmful in multiple capacities.
First, his comment revealed that he did not truly understand the reality of physical safety for women. Physical confrontation can frequently escalate a situation - whether the woman is trained or not. The primary concern is that a woman escapes a dangerous situation without further harm. While physical force is sometimes necessary to escape an unsafe situation, it is not something we go out of our way to do when unnecessary (such as approaching a naked man that was 10 feet away from me).
Suggesting that I could have physically confronted this person if I was trained (which he also had no idea of my training level), is a deeply harmful teaching because it is promotes a situation that puts me in more danger. Luckily, I have enough experience to not listen to this advice.
Second, it is harmful because he is implying I could have done more or better if I had been trained. This mirrors an unfortunate common cultural malaise of looking at what the woman could have done better, instead of placing the blame squarely where it lies - the perpetrator of sexual violence.
I did my best to explain why I didn’t confront the man in the park.
My date then added, “I would have punched the guy.”
While he was trying to show his support for me, his desire to use violence to defend or support me was not appreciated. It is a harmful response that does not address the issue at hand.
As I was debating in my mind whether or not to address this with him, he asked another question about the event, “Why was the guy completely naked? Is that allowed there?”
Again, his mind found this event so rare and bizarre that there had to be some other explanation than a man exerting sexual violence.
By this point I was ready to wrap up our conversation. Instead of discussing more details, I explained that this was not a one time event for me. That I have been in this exact scenario four other times, let alone all of the other instances of sexual violence perpetrated against me.
His face was one of doubt. I explained that it is different for a woman to move in the world than a man.
His face showed he was unsure. Then he said, “I’m going to have to ask my sister.”
This comment was harmful because it revealed that he doubted my lived experience and what I shared about other womens’ lived experiences.
Second, randomly asking anyone about lived traumatic experiences can be unsettling and re-traumatizing to the victim - especially if the intention is solely for the listener to check reality or gather more information for himself.
Again, it centers the male, instead of the person who experienced the harm. It is not a context or an environment in which a woman wants to share about some of her most painful, scary, or traumatic moments.
I paused to ask him, “But are you doing that for you or out of genuine concern for your sister?”
He was able to reflect that it was more for himself. While I was relieved for him to admit that, at this point I was ready for our date to be over.
What is truly sad is that I am not sure this man is capable of reviewing and discussing what I have written in this essay. He will likely feel defensive and fall on masculine fragility (similar to white fragility and white women’s tears).
I do not want to have “be nice” and “comfort” him. This is not the work I want to be doing. Acts of sexual violence have had a lasting impact on my life. I’ve gone to therapy for them, I’ve done inner person healing, and I navigate the world differently because of them. I do not want to have to explain myself and gently work someone up to that level of understanding.
And yet, if I don’t, he will continue to unintentionally harm women with his ignorance of sexual violence.
I don’t have the answers here. I don’t owe him anything, but I certainly wish it was different.
He may never see this essay, but I hope a man who can hear the truth of my words does.
Thank you for reading. We all need support as we move through difficult life events and encounter people who do not understand our lived experience. If you need support, you can learn more about my therapy services here.