“Americans like to boast that we’re ‘the freest country on earth,’ and yet half the population doesn’t even feel free enough to go for a walk at night.”
-Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help
When I recently learned about the open position of Community Educator at Baton Rouge’s Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR) Center, I knew I had to apply. As a former Women’s and Gender Studies undergraduate minor and graduate student of Education Policy, I have always been passionately opposed to gender inequity and gender violence. My experience as an elementary school teacher led me to witness the unhealthy manifestations of both in my classroom, in addition to disturbing (and disturbingly common) news reports within my community, country, and the world at large.
I have never been a victim of sexual assault. I am not a survivor of sexual assault. So when I accepted the position with STAR, I approached sexual assault as an important issue and one that I care about, but one that has only indirectly affected me. However, as I immersed myself in essays, articles, and books on the topic, I began recognizing myself within the pages much more than I expected to, for instance when faced with the continuum of gender violence.
The more I read, the more I saw my daily habits and feelings reflected: feeling vulnerable or fearful, looking over my shoulder when exercising outside during the daytime, feeling frustrated that my status as a renter limits my ability to own a dog for protection, constantly hearing my mother tell me what not to do: don’t get gas at night, don’t exercise alone, don’t forget to lock your doors, etc.
The more I read, the more I saw my personal experiences reflected. Certain memories flooded to the forefront of my mind, such as:
- One afternoon, while I was studying abroad in Italy, a strange man followed me from the call center where I had just made my weekly calls to my parents, down the street to the bus stop and onto the bus. He asked me my name, where I was from, where I was going, well then he would come with me, did I want to go out with him, no, why not? He persisted to the point that I changed my plans so he would stop following me. Instead of going to the grocery store, I went home.
- During my first year of teaching, a colleague sexually harassed me for months under the guise of sexual flattery.
- One day while shopping, a male acquaintance called me on my cell phone while he was masturbating.
- One weekend morning, on a walking trail in a park in the middle of my neighborhood, I noticed a man standing off the trail, not wearing exercise clothes and staring intently at me. I immediately turned around and ran back home.
All of these and similar personal experiences leave me feeling frustrated and powerless. And I know of enough similar and worse experiences from friends, family members, and acquaintances to know it’s not just me. When I shared a draft of this post with my colleagues at STAR, they also shared experiences of feeling vulnerable in public, being told to take precautions that our brothers are not told to take, witnessing male exhibitionism and lewd acts in public spaces, and experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Processing these lived experiences as shared experiences allows me to recognize that they are not simply private pains or annoyances. They are public issues. Assault and other forms of gender violence and inequity are not simply the manifestation of individual actions. Individual perpetrators are socialized within a culture that too often grants collective, tacit approval and perpetuation of unhealthy, intimidating, and abusive behaviors. Individual victims and bystanders are socialized within a culture that fails to teach us how to safely and constructively stand up and speak out against this kind of behavior.
All of us with experiences along the gender violence continuum are left feeling vulnerable and somewhat suspicious of the men we meet, to the point that men who do not engage in such behavior themselves can themselves experience the negative consequences of gender violence committed by others. To prevent sexual assault and all forms of gender violence, all of us, women and men, must take responsibility for counteracting prevalent, unhealthy attitudes about violence, power, gender, and sexuality. We must embody and enact positive change. This is not just a women’s issue. It is a public issue. It is a community issue. As STAR’s Community Educator, that means much learning, listening, engaging, sharing, and facilitating lies ahead. I look forward to it, not only because this problem directly affects me, but because it directly affects every single one of us.