Monday, February 18, 2013

I got mansplained.

First, a definition, drawn from The Atlantic (because that seemed more authoritative than the Urban Dictionary): "explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman." The subject in question is personal safety.

Last week and weekend, there were several attempted attacks on women in the North Seattle area, including one where a woman was grabbed while she was running around Green Lake in the early morning. Luckily, she was unharmed (physically), when a biker scared the guy away and chased him (although he ultimately escaped).

However, the attacks have been raising a fair amount of conversation amongst my running friends, because we all run at Green Lake at least 2-3 times a week. I think that's a really good thing. There's nothing wrong with having discussions about ways to stay safe while running. It's caused some of the guys in our group to think about the privilege they have not to worry (so much) about being attacked when they go out for runs by themselves. A lot of people, both men and women, have been making themselves more available for being running buddies outside of our usual group runs. I think that's awesome.

But, along the way, there has been some advice that has really rubbed me the wrong way. Some of it took on a very patronizing tone and was aimed exclusively at women (and while I agree that women need to be more aware of their personal safety when running alone than men do, it isn't an exclusively-female problem by a LONG shot). It was very much: "Here's what you have to do to be safe, little ladies, which I know because I used to be in the military: carry pepper spray and maybe even a gun!" I'm not kidding about the gun part, either. (FWIW, he also suggested having a buddy, mixing up your routes, and not running with music, which are great suggestions.) Other men, at one of our running nights, were making comments about how the women shouldn't run by themselves. Another night, I couldn't convince one of the guys that I felt fine running by myself and it ended up being way too fast for me and frustrating for both of us.

I was really put-off by the tone that much of this, admittedly well-meaning, advice was taking. So, finally, after a night of brooding, I posted on our club's facebook wall that I was feeling this way:
I know everyone means well, of course, but, frankly, women think about safey every day of our lives, every time we leave our homes (and, sometimes, IN our homes). We're smart about these things and I really resent being told what I should or shouldn't be doing to keep myself safe, again, like it isn't something I think about every time I go for a run, whether there's been a recent attack or not. Be glad that you're someone who doesn't have to think about these things, certainly, but don't dictate to me like I'm a small child who needs to be told how to stay safe around strangers or a damsel in distress who needs protection. I appreciate the concern and I think this has started a good discussion, but my feminist side is bristling.
Apparently using the "f-word" is the way to really raise heckles. Lots of people chimed in that the men were just being concerned and that the other women weren't feeling patronized. Apparently I was seen as accusing others of having an anti-feminist bias, living in a wonderful utopian world where people are safe, and ignoring the fact that "80%" of attacks are against women. I posted a response:
I think I’m being misinterpreted. I’m glad that I’ve had a heads up about these incidents. I appreciate that people are rethinking their personal safety strategies and what they can do to help others be safer. I think anything that makes us think and talk about privilege (gendered, ethnic, sexual preference, socioeconomic, etc.), particularly our own, is a really good thing.

But, I think that not everyone realizes that these issues about personal safety are constant concerns in many of our lives. I know that I, as a woman, never go for a run (or out, even) without making sure that I’m doing the things that I accept as reasonable trade-offs for promoting my own safety. I know that everyone makes different judgment calls about what they are willing to do or give up (night runs, solo runs, running without pepper spray, etc.) in order to try and be safe. 

I, too, have lived and traveled in dangerous places around the United States and the world and consider myself very lucky never to have been attacked, robbed, or mugged. I’ve never carried a weapon or pepper spray, which is my own choice. Instead, I do my best to remain aware of my surroundings and choose the safest places I can for runs or just when I’m out by myself at night. That works for me. I think it’s helpful to talk about our strategies and to support each other: we’ve all got different experiences and have something different to offer the discussion. 

But, I felt as though some of the tone of the conversation was veering toward condescension: this shouldn’t be a discussion about what WOMEN have to do to stay safe or why women are at heightened risk (as if we didn’t already know that and worry about it constantly), it’s a conversation about what we as a community can do to ensure our collective safety. I think people have made some really thoughtful points and generous offers. I know not everyone will have felt patronized or condescended to the way I have by a few comments (made both here and in other forums): I can only claim to be speaking for myself. My feminist side (and, frankly, my humanist side, too) wants nothing more than an acknowledgement of and respect for our differing life experiences and I hope I’ve spoken in line with those beliefs.
The whole thing was really upsetting to me. I'm a staunch, but quiet feminist. I don't speak up quickly or without a great deal of thought. I wasn't accusing anyone of being anti-feminist, just unaware of the tone of their suggestions. And then I got attacked for it, by members of a group that I've come to rely on and made many friends through. Or, as my friends told me: I got mansplained and then told off for pointing  this out to the culprits. Ugh. But, you know what - I'm still glad I spoke up, because letting it pass wouldn't have done anyone any good.