I feel like I’m wading into risky territory here, but I want to talk about the concept of safety, in terms of women’s experiences and relationships with men. There is a big-picture aspect to this conversation: safety from sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence. Those are overt crimes that have been discussed extensively in the last few years. And rightly so. But that’s not what I want to address here.
What I want to address is the myriad ways, particularly the subtle or even hidden ways, women and girls feel unsafe in their everyday experiences, because of men. I’m talking about the way female threat alarms get triggered because of things that men and boys—even the ones they know and like—do or might do (because some men often do these things). That includes everything from the way men look at women and talk to women, and the way older men (even good guys) feel free to (and frankly, want to) hug and touch younger female friends and colleagues. It includes the sorts of things a young woman has on her mind when she’s alone and headed home at night, or when she meets a new guy (even one who is interesting and seems pretty nice). It also includes the pressure most females feel to look good all the time, and then have to constantly assess how they are being looked at by guys, and what those looks means.
I’ve been aware of this stuff for awhile now, thanks in part to fairly regular reminders from my female partner, who has educated me on the many ways girls and young women feel on edge more often than men realize, and constantly feel the need to assess and monitor their safety. Guys sometimes have to think about personal safety, but girls think about it every day, in ways that men are oblivious to. For example, I was shocked to learn of the ugly things men have often shouted from passing cars at my daughter-in-law and her female friends as they walked down the streets of our small city, which to me seems pretty safe. I recall some of my friends yelling such things out of car windows. We saw it as a joke. We gave no possibility to the thought that such behaviour might be experienced as a threat, nor for how our targets felt.
Self-Reg, and specifically, Stephen Porges’ concept of “safe”—that deep, and partly subconscious, sense of safety that your brain/body stress mechanisms feel—offers a new and more complete way to think about women’s safety.
I see Porges’ concept of safety as the foundation of mental health, growth and human potential. And clearly, we do not have gender equity in this kind of safety. For sure, men can feel (and are) unsafe at times for various reasons. But this burden, in a constant everyday sense, is on women so much more than men. And the burden of the solution is on men to understand and act differently, more than it is on women to “keep themselves safe.”
People will say to boys and men, “Don’t tell dirty jokes.” The idea being that you don’t do it because it’s sexist and contributes to rape culture. OK. But a lot of guys are going to say (or more likely, think), “Yeah, right. Like some guy is going to rape a woman because I told a dirty joke.” But what if we asked men to think about how safe, how comfortable, women feel in the atmosphere created by such talk, regardless of whether anyone is actually going to do anything to them?
What if we told guys that the reason a man in a position of power doesn’t make suggestive comments to a junior female colleague is not only because it’s sexual harassment or an abuse of power, but because this kind of interaction makes women feel uncomfortable (i.e. unsafe), even though some men might see it as fun and flirty. “No harm done because I’m not really hitting on her.” Can men assume that women will always understand their supposedly harmless intentions? And then, if the female colleague reacts or calls him out, she risks being called a hostile bitch who can’t take a joke. As my wife points out, navigating these encounters is not only embarrassing and threatening, it’s exhausting and draining. Again, something that guys seldom have to think about.
What if the messages that boys got, both in terms of what they were taught, and how male/female relations were discussed and depicted in our culture, conveyed that one of the most important things a man can do in gender relations is help women feel safe? And if you want to initiate a good relationship (or even have good sex) with a female, start by thinking about how safe she feels around you, rather than how you can reel her in or get her to do what you want.
Ironically of course, the obligation and ability to defend women’s safety has long been part of masculinity. But now good men are trying to respect women as strong and independent agents of their own well-being and destiny, and women are rightly demanding their right to be safe from the violations of men. So we need to rethink male contributions to women’s safety. And I think that the more subtle, and even seemingly (to men) innocent ways men make women feel unsafe is an important part of the conversation we need to have.
Our deepest prosocial goal as humans is to help others feel safe so they can flourish, and, frankly, support us and enrich our own lives. Let’s apply that to how men think of and relate to women. If we can teach our boys (and men) to think about and prioritize the idea of helping women feel safe, I believe that gender equity, enhanced male-female relationships, and possibly even more safety from crime, for women will come a little faster. And the Self-Reg lens on this issue is a good starting point.