Earlier this week, I observed to my partner that a lot of my female friends are excited and aggressively supportive of the work I’m doing, both musically and in these posts, but I don’t get nearly the same feedback from my male friends. (Let’s also take a moment to remember: I am a brass player and a composer and occasionally I think about the word “jazz.” Most of my friends are men.) He considered this for a moment, then replied, “I think most of your guyfriends are too scared they’re the people you’re talking about.”
What a freaking moment, right?
That said, it’s a good point. I don’t have a great grasp on where my peers and colleagues think they fall on my spectrum of Nonthreatening Human to Violent Human Who Should Not Be Approached At This Time. And that’s not a question I should be asking them, because it’s not something they’re obligated to tell me. But I wanted to take a moment this week and offer up a series of points that might help the people who worry they’re maybe in the Mildly Threatening Human category (also: this scale does not actually exist) and who might want to become someone women with assaults in their past are comfortable trusting. Working toward being a better person is a great endeavor! I will support you from a distance that feels comfortable for me! If you’re just getting started with that journey, though (or if you’re on that journey or think you’re done with that journey, because we’re never done with that), here’s a few things I think might help:
- Be aware of how your physical presence and the space you occupy affect other people in the room. We often talk about cornering people as though an aggressor is right up in their face and preventing them from moving a muscle, but in reality, anyone threatening who’s standing between me and the only exit from a room—or just outside the only exit, for that matter—is trapping me where I am. A lot of victims of sexual assault need to know they have a way out of a situation. Do your part to make sure you aren’t in their way.
- Don’t shout. We don’t talk about it very much as a populace, but raising your voice is a great way to make someone feel unsafe. If I’m talking or arguing with someone and they bring things up a dynamic or three, my brain starts down one path: “if I don’t give him what he wants, he’s going to hurt me.” Because where else is there left to go from there? If you’re already shouting at me and I don’t budge, you’re either going to [finally] back down or take it up another notch and put me in real physical danger. I don’t like to bet on the former.
- Consider your environment. Are you playing a gig in a part of the city your bandmate doesn’t know very well? Has one of your friends run into trouble at a certain venue before? If one of your female friends, colleagues, or acquaintances has expressed doubt or uncertainty about the safety of your environment, consider what you might do to help. Could you offer to walk them to their car? Have them text you to make sure they got home okay? Request that your other friends keep their eyes open until you’re able to get someplace safer? We will appreciate the hell out of you for it. (Re: walking folks to their car, it’s not for everyone. If you offer and they say no, don’t take it personally. If anything, it means we feel safe—and that’s a good thing.)
- Learn to read body language. Really this isn’t so much “learn how to do it” as it is “decide to actively pursue it.” You can tell a lot about how someone’s feeling by how they’re holding themselves (for instance, my partner is currently resting on the armrest of a chair, munching on Goldfish with both headphones on. He is worried about absolutely nothing). If someone’s shrinking back away from the group or clenching their jaw, there may be more going on than you’ve realized. Reach out with empathy if appropriate, but if someone is uncomfortable, your first priority is to not make it worse. (This might be a good time to point out that rape jokes and sleeping-with-the-professor jokes and jokes or derogatory comments about your current/former partner(s) will not make victimized women comfortable among you and your friend group. STOP IT.)
- Understand that sometimes we can’t tell you why you scare us or make us uncomfortable—if we’re even able to tell you that you do. We’ve been honing our instincts for decades and listening to our triggers since our assaults. Above all else, we’re good at making sure we’re as safe as possible, but if you’re one of the people who makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand up, we might not always be able to articulate why. Further, it’s not our responsibility to enlighten you about what you do that’s so particularly creepy.
- Stop assigning us all the emotional labor and do some introspection. Bouncing off that last point, it’s important that you don’t look at scared, vulnerable women and respond to their distress and discomfort with “BUT WHY DON’T YOU LIKE ME?” Besides maybe not being able to tell you, if that’s your approach, we definitely won’t want to tell you. If it matters to you (because you spend a lot of time with our friend group, or we’ve been an important part of your life, or whatever), spend some time with yourself trying to figure it out. Making you less predatorial is not our responsibility.
- In predominantly male spaces, stop asking us to “lead the change.” For women who number one or two in a program or community of dozens, asking them to take to the front lines and pursue change on their male peers’ behalf is not only exploitative, it’s potentially dangerous. I’ve gotten this request from teachers before, and it’s gone badly. My peers excoriated me before I had the chance to properly make my point. I was fortunate to escape with my physical safety intact, but that doesn’t always work out for everyone.
- Leverage your privilege. Your voices are given more weight than ours are. Call out your friends for their problematic words and behavior (not in a Let’s Start A Twitter War way, in a “hey, it’s not okay to say that” kind of way). Demand accountability from your friends, peers, and colleagues. Use your position within your social and professional circles to push for a kinder, more inclusive environment. (And if you’re doing this and you get called out for something, do listen instead of doubling down. “Don’t you appreciate everything I’ve been doing for you” is not a good look.)
- Do not touch without permission. Ask people if they’re huggers. Don’t put your hand on a woman’s back as you brush by her. Use your new-and-improved body language skills to understand if someone’s uncomfortable with you looping your arm around their shoulders. And, hey, while we’re on the subject, don’t rape people. Your position of power or your perception of how a potential partner feels or how drunk/high/faded you are does not override your expectation of being a reasonable adult who does not assume everyone wants to sleep with them.
- Understand that you are a threat until proven otherwise (and even this has some wiggle room). I have folks who have been among my best friends in the past who I’m barely on speaking terms with now because of threatening, abusive, or predatory behaviors they’ve exhibited. There are guys I interact with on a regular basis who put my body on alert. If you are a cisgender male, particularly one in a traditionally-male and/or Old-Boys-Clubby space, you need to prove to me and people like me that I don’t need to worry about you. This ties in closely with my Schrödinger’s Rapist post from earlier this year—check it out if this confuses or concerns you.
Please, please, please remember that I am making this list because I want you, my lovely reader, to be able to better understand how your presence in and contributions to a space might affect someone who’s been victimized. As far as “leading the change” is concerned, this is about the length I can stretch. That said, if you’re a friend, peer, or colleague of mine and anything on this list raises questions for you, feel free to drop me a line and I will do my best to clarify for you.
Thanks so much for reading! As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’m blogging weekly about assault and music and how they intersect. Read my first post, about Title IX and mandated reporting, here, and my second post, about the behaviors that create a slippery slope down to assault, here. Learn about my musical work with sexual assault and rape culture here.