Fear and Gender

A note to begin with: this post discusses gender issues. I don’t claim to be able to speak for all men, let alone all women, and I’m well aware that people are many and varied (probably in ways I’m not even aware of). So can we agree at the start that we are dealing with the [mythical] “average man/woman”? Right then…

I’m not sure if I have much of a conclusion/point (beyond “peoples is messed up, yo”); this is more expressing some thoughts on a topic that bothers me.

I recently read an article by Caitlin Moran (in The Times Magazine—behind a paywall unfortunately) called “What men need to know about women”. The gist was that women are exhausted (from trying to live up to societal expectations—basically “Women can have it all! You don’t have it all? You slacker!”) and scared.

Scared because ~50% of the population are bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than them. Scared because if attacked there is little they can do to fight back. Scared because—quite frankly—the statistics around violence and sexual assault (male attacking female) are terrifying.

This struck a chord with me. Not because I’m a woman and have experienced this fear. Not because I’d never heard it before (there is a theory that you have to hear something several times before it really sinks in). Probably from the way it was expressed.

You see, I’m a small man. I’m roughly average height, but I have to wear heavy boots if the wind is blowing. I can definitely relate to the sense of being aware that most people in the room are bigger than me. I don’t feel entirely comfortable walking home alone late at night; not generally afraid, just extra alert and cautious. I did spend a while being afraid, following an unpleasant encounter with a boisterous drunk (though that was weirdly location-specific), so I can appreciate that regular verbal harassment and the like would quickly erode one’s sense of safety.

As well as size, though, I suspect the worry is related to the impulse (or lack thereof) to fight back, which seems more of a cultural construct. For boys, there’s a (usually unspoken) encouragement to “hit them back”. It seems to engender an odd perspective in that, ├ápropos of nothing, you occasionally find a thought lurking in the back of your mind to the effect of “yeah, I could totally take them down”. Even though my instinctive reaction is to freeze up when threatened (the lesser-known third option of the fight-or-flight response), I still entertain fantasies of showing an assailant that I was not to be messed with (straightens monocle imperiously), lest I feel myself “less of a man”. Stupid, huh?

I did kung fu for a few years, and one of the significant factors in me stopping was a mental block about hurting others. I was fine with learning moves, practicing falls, hitting a bag, etc. I still consider the board-break from one of my gradings as a particular achievement. But I blanched at doing more contact sparring-type drills, and when it sunk in that I was capable of seriously injuring someone by accident. Plus getting sick of the common bumps and bruises, and the fact that I could be easily knocked around (scrawny, remember? Technique has only limited benefit when your opponent is twice your size. This is why there are weight divisions in boxing/wrestling/etc.).

In contrast, girls are socialised to not cause trouble. I remember seeing it somewhere expressed as women shrinking and men growing (in terms of imposing themselves—or not, as the case may be—on the people/space around them). This doesn’t mean they are never aggressive, but it can often manifest verbally/emotionally rather than physically. Which, strangely enough, can be a most effective avenue for wounding men (again, remember this is about generalities and stereotypes).

I guess the only real option is to try our best to forget about these boxes we’re put in and just treat other people as people. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”