Editor’s Note: This cross-post comes from a fellow Goshen College alum, Hillary. I first saw this post on a friend’s facebook page. A repeated “amen!” ran through my head as I ravaged the post with my eyes. It was as if someone finally articulated something so dark and deep within my own daily thoughts, which I myself could never voice. Her words stuck with me so much that when a good male friend and I got into a bit of a hard, emotional discussion about the safety of a woman (in reference to traveling the U.S.), I pulled up Hilary’s post to back up my point. The point was well taken.
That’s when I emailed her and asked if she’d be willing to share it with my blog audience. If you’re a male I can only imagine that these are hard words to read, but there is such honesty and truth within them, which is why I recommend you to read it with an open-mind.
Writer’s Biography: Hillary Kobernick is a part-time dreamer and full-time Master’s of Divinity student at Emory University. As a poet, she has competed at several national poetry slam competitions and has had work published in Rhubarb, The Write Room, and Third Wednesday. She identifies as Mennonite.
I am acutely aware at all times of being woman. About the inherent vulnerability of my being. Because, as I say in my poem “Twilight,”
“most days, it is safer to play dead
than to play woman.
Woman looks too much like wood
and most men still carry lighters
in the back pockets of their tongues.”
On the nights when I play woman, I am terrified. Sometimes I look at my closet and every single item looks like a sign that says “sexually assault me, please.” When I bought the clothes, they said “it’s damn hot in Atlanta all the time and I’m not going to walk around miserable for 8 months of summer.”
I went to an open mic this week, alone. At a venue I knew where I was certain to see familiar faces, where the parking lot is 50 yards from the door of the venue. And still, I debated for 20 minutes whether or not it was safe to play woman: the risks of wearing a skirt, how quickly I could kick of my heels and run for the car, if necessary.
Granted, I am extra-sensitive. Maybe paranoid, even. I am also woman, and I play this game every time I go out. Because women are assaulted, raped, routinely, by men who otherwise present themselves as reasonable, nonviolent people.
Arriving at the venue, within 5 minutes, I was approached by two men I didn’t know. They may have been genuinely good men. But I didn’t know that, and when I’m walking in parking lots alone at 10:30pm, that’s not a risk I will take. Because I looked like woman, I played dead. I pretended it was of upmost importance that my nose remain inches from (ironically) bell hooks’ “communion,” that my ears be closed to all outside noises, that I could not spare more than a monotone half-sentence to the man greeting me.
When unfamiliar, single men approach me while I’m sitting alone, I am the coldest, rudest, meanest women you’ve ever met. I am the worst, most bitter version of myself I can be. That is what it means to play dead. I do not like to do this, to greet so many people with so much disdain, but it is the safest reaction I can think of. I need to communicate my utter disinterest in anything resembling misogyny, and so I practice a kind of reverse sexism with strange men who approach me in public places.
About 15 minutes later, a friend arrived and, mercifully, sat next to me. The night was fine. I enjoyed the open mic. I walked to my car with another (female) poet, and it was fine.
For me, it has always been fine. But for many women, it’s not been fine. And I can’t say it’s fine for me because the world is full of good men. It’s fine because I am good at playing dead. Because usually, I wear shoes I can run in; I avoid skirts; everything down to the way I carry my keys in my fist (keyring around one finger, sharp end of the key sticking out between middle and pointer fingers, a trick I learned from another woman) is constructed for self-defense.
This is what it means to be woman. I am never not thinking about self-defense. To the men who are bothered by this, especially the men who go to poetry open mics, please: realize how dangerous you look when you approach a single woman. Old men, young men, beautiful, ugly—doesn’t matter. You are always a potential threat. You can still approach me, but until you as aware of your body—every gesture, every word, every intonation—as I am of mine, I can’t trust you, much less spare the time of day.
Until you are thinking about composing every element of your being in a non-threatening way, until you learn not to stare, until you can sit a respectful distance across the table, until you lower your tone, speak on a neutral subject, until you let the subject drop for a moment in recognition of how risky it is for me to respond to your approach, you are not acknowledging the depth of the rape culture in which you live. Because it is that serious. Because I think about it every time I leave the house. Know that. Just know that.