Tag Archives: sexism

Casual Predation

This essay was originally published on LadyBits on Medium. While I unfortunately can’t say that the conclusion of this essay is true for me anymore, I thought it timely to revisit this piece in light of the recent mass-exposure of the predators among us in the media industry, brought forth by so may brave women. May those pathetic creatures who are inclined to abuse find peace with themselves and the world such that they never have to mistreat anyone again.

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To know a predator, you must know what it is to be prey

The other day while riding a Paris train, a man boarded my car and, out of all the empty places to sit, chose the seat directly facing me. He casually sprawled his legs open so that his lower thighs were sandwiching my rigidly-shut knees. My field of vision was filled with the bulge in his pants and gray chest hair draped in gold chains overflowing out of his way-too-unbuttoned shirt. And he just stared at me. When my eyes locked with his, I saw an expression so familiar that the hair on my arms stood up. It was a look that most men wouldn’t recognize, as they haven’t ever seen it and probably never will—the expression of someone looking at you as prey.

When a man picks you as prey, his eyes, which were dully scanning their surroundings, abruptly land on you and light up with intent. They linger abnormally long and intensify, beyond what would be normal if there was something unusual about your outfit or if he found you attractive. Sometimes the face relaxes, the eyebrows twitch or the corner of the mouth pulls upward into a smirk while the eyes remain hard, betraying the internal thought processes.

These thoughts are of pure consumption. They are based on the desire to possess — not your belongings, but one’s physical being. It is a drive to gain control over a person and render her powerless, thereby establishing the predator’s dominance and control in a world where he probably has very little. Women are persistently reminded of their physical vulnerability by male displays of sexual power—from gestures so discreet they make you question your own perception, to the ultimate act of consumption: physical violence. To avoid the latter, you must learn to recognize the former, and understand the intent of someone who is looking at you like that.

I am forced to acknowledge my vulnerability by strangers almost every single day while walking down the street in big cities. Most of the men who look at me like they want to eat me alive can’t do so because of practical considerations: witnesses, physical factors (I’m 5’10 and pack a significant bit of muscle), and the fear of repercussions. So instead, they just stare, gazing at me the way a wolf would eye a squirming bunny in a cage — so utterly tempting, but off-limits for now.

When you catch that gaze, you have some choices about what to do to ensure that you do not, in fact, become prey. They’re choices you shouldn’t have to be burdened with making, but that, in this world, they are impossible to avoid. You can alter your path, like I did when I got up and moved to the next train car. I had to go out of my way, but it took thirty seconds and then it was over. You can avert your eyes and look at the ground, both acknowledging your discomfort while at the same time refusing to participate in it further. But sometimes, this is where the game begins.

He might hold his gaze so intently that when you peek back up to see if he’s still watching you (and shit! he is, look away look away), a thrill shoots up his spine because he caught you checking. Now he knows that your inability to look up and examine your surroundings—your cowering stance—is because of him. He is controlling you, and you just got a bit leveled by a complete stranger. It interrupted your thought process, probably ruined your mood, and wasted your time. You didn’t authorize this; it was a violation, and the feelings these little violations instill in us—fear, frustration, anger, helplessness—accumulate over time to shape the way we live our lives.

If you’ve never experienced what it feels like to be someone’s prey, believe you me, it is fucking exhausting.

If you attempt to ignore the mind games of a predator, this is usually when the comments set in—an attempt to win the game by manipulating the air waves going into your ears. It follows this predictable format:

  1. A greeting: “Hey/hello/yo/hola/bonsoir baby/beautiful/gorgeous/sexy/mami/chica/mademoiselle/sugar tits/sweet lips.”
  2. A “compliment”: Some comment about your overall physical appearance that usually has nothing to do with the effort you put into your presentation. “You’d make great babies” is my recent fave.
  3. A call to action. Some request of what your predator would like you to do. One that scored major points for originality: “Get out of my head and into my van,” yelled out the window with a toot of the horn.
  4. An expression of desire. “I’d like to ___ you all over.”

The catcall that baffles me most is “God bless you” — uttered not the way a nun would say it or how one does after a sneeze, but while giving me the elevator and licking his lips. Once, after a guy told me I was looking sexy and I ignored him, he yelled after me that I was supposed to say “thank you.” I turned around and glared at him in disbelief, and he told me I was a bitch. That compliment I could accept from him. “Thank you,” I finally replied.

Sometimes I don’t have the will to engage in this mental combat while walking to the corner store on a Sunday afternoon, so I muster a fake, tight-lipped smile and nod my head with wide eyes, throwing them acknowledgement like I’d throw a dog a chicken bone if I didn’t want it to follow me. But sometimes a smile is just as risky as a middle finger, as it can be an unintentional invitation to the next level of interaction. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

When you complain about casual predation to guys, they usually laugh. They tell you not to let it get to you, and suggest ignoring the comments if you can’t handle a compliment. But the thing is, you can’t ignore it any more than you could ignore a bear approaching your campsite. You are evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to potential predators because sometimes they don’t stop at mind games and catcalls, as far too many of us know.

In my twenty-seven years on this planet, I’ve been stalked, followed home, threatened, attacked, hit, kicked, and groped by complete strangers. Two people have tried to abduct me, once by attempting to drag me into a dark alley and once by picking me up in a fake car-service car. A high school classmate tried to rape me, a UN peacekeeper tried to buy me, and at my own LadyBits launch party an old man put his hand on my knee, looked at me with that look, and said he might want to invest in me.

In all of those situations, I paid attention to the threats I perceived and I did what I had to do to get away, from screaming to pretending to be limp-noodle drunk, to jumping out of a moving vehicle, to engaging in physical combat. And you know what? I am fine. In fact, I’m better than fine—I am fucking lucky! I have my life, I’ve learned to love this thick skin I wear now, and I’ve learned how to protect it. And yeah, I have sought vengeance here and there.

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So many women aren’t as lucky as me. What tends to happen to a person when she is shown she is vulnerable day after day is she begins to accept it, and this mentality follows her everywhere. When you’re prey, sometimes you stop being able to tell the difference between the life you choose because you want it, and the life that you settle for because the alternatives are too scary.

Personally, I refuse to compromise the way I live my life out of fear. Despite everything that’s happened to me (and almost happened, which I shudder to think about), I regularly walk alone at night. I have been traveling the world alone for the past six months, and I will continue to do so for six more. I’m single, and not really looking unless it really fits with my life. I walk down the street with my head held high and I look people in the eye when I pass them. And whenever I catch that predator eye, I send it back. I know it’s the lack of control in their lives that makes them act out in such desperation, and I refuse to give away an ounce of mine without good reason. Maybe this will get me in trouble some day, but until that day, I will be living my life.

And I’m not afraid.

Thanks to Quinn Norton.

I would like to add as a footnote, my gratitude to Dawn Alden, who was inspired by this piece enough to host a film competition about the predator/prey relationship as perceived by trans women. May beautiful creations continue to emerge from scorched earth.

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University of Michigan College of Engineering Dean David Munson on Cyberstalking on Campus

The Robert H. Lurie tower, University of Michigan College of Engineering campus. Photo via Khürt Williams/Flickr/CC.

Following the publication of my last blog post on Gizmodo yesterday, I received a lot of comments from women and men who said they had experienced cyberstalking situations similar to mine, some not as bad and some far worse.

So I decided to email the Dean of my alma mater’s College of Engineering this FYI:

Dear Dean Munson,

I attended the College of Engineering from 2004-2006 and ended up transferring to LS&A. I thought you may be interested as to why. I recently published this article on Gizmodo about an experience with cyber stalking that I unfortunately had my freshman year, and I thought you may be interested to know this kind of thing is happening on your campus, and how it affects the targets. I strongly feel that incidents like this are one cause of the enormous gender disparity that exists within the engineering school. I hope you find some value to this, and please feel free to contact me if you would like advice on ways the college could do more to stop harassment against women.

http://gizmodo.com/5867785/my-first-cyberstalker

Best,

Arikia Millikan

I was surprised to receive the following response about four hours later:

Erika,
  I am sorry to hear about your experience.  Actually, this is the first such experience I’ve heard of in Engineering at U-M.  Although I think that cyberstalking is a really bad thing, I have to disagree with your conclusion that incidents like yours “cause the enormous gender disparity that exists within the engineering school.”  Our problem regarding gender is that not enough women students from high school apply to study engineering in the first place.  This is true nationwide.  At U-M, our retention rates for women and men students in engineering are nearly the same.  So, once a woman enters CoE, she is very likely to stay and complete an engineering degree.
   Thank you for sharing your story.  I meet with undergraduates often in CoE (including lots of women) and I will be on the alert for the type of misbehavior you endured.
–David Munson

Today I sent my reply:

Dean Munson, thank you for your prompt response.

With all due respect though, sir, why would you have heard about such an experience before? When I went to DPS, I was told nothing could be done and was dismissed. With such an “oh well, deal with it” response to my — and any woman in a similar position’s — first impulse in seeking intervention regarding such a matter, why then would a student take the issue up with the dean? When I was a freshman, I never realized that was an appropriate plan of action or even an option. In fact, I never received any kind of notice of a campus resource for addressing instances of harassment in the College Engineering — information that is readily distributed in LS&A. While you are on the alert for this kind of misconduct in the future, I would urge you to also have conversations with the north campus Department of Public Safety in addition to female students. Perhaps they could provide you with statistics about how much this kind of incident is reported so that, rather than citing a lack of anecdotal evidence as evidence that something isn’t occurring, you could cite hard information.

To clarify, I didn’t say incidents like my specific stalking incident cause the gender disparity. I said that incidents like mine (which if you read or even skimmed the essay to the point where I explain why I dropped out you would understand was a reference to the persistent sexual objectification from male students and even once a professor I endured) are *one* of the many reasons I *believe* contribute to the gender disparity. For you to tell me that it’s not is, frankly, offensive. Furthermore, noting that the retention rates are nearly the same for men and women says nothing about the causes of the dropping out. I would be willing to bet that the breakdown of dropout causes are very different for women than what they are for men.

The problem that you cite as being the reason for gender disparity in the College of Engineering — that female high schoolers do not apply to engineering school — is a problem that is often caused by the same factor I cited in my essay that you dismissed: sexism. Unless you think that women are not inherently as good in science and math as men are, in which case I’d urge you to remember the Larry Summers incident, explore and the volumes of research that indicate the contrary, and revisit this hypothesis.

Thank you again for your response. In addition to my own experience in the University of Michigan College of Engineering, I now understand an additional factor that sustains the gender imbalance on your campus: your denialism. Thank you also for making me the most happy I have ever been that I did not pursue a career in engineering.

Regards,

ARIKIA

(not Erika)

I also sent it to Kelley Adams, my college friend I reference briefly in the story who is now a Project Manager at MIT’s Violence Prevention Response Center. She linked me to the CDC’s recently-released findings from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) which contains statistics on many different forms of violence, including stalking.

From the report’s Executive Summary:

Stalking Victimization by Any Perpetrator

  • One in 6 women (16.2%) and 1 in 19 men (5.2%) in the United States have experienced stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
  • Two-thirds (66.2%) of female victims of stalking were stalked by a current or former intimate partner; men were primarily stalked by an intimate partner or an acquaintance, 41.4% and 40.0%, respectively.
  • Repeatedly receiving unwanted telephone calls, voice, or text messages was the most commonly experienced stalking tactic for both female and male victims of stalking (78.8% for women and 75.9% for men).
  • More than half of female victims and more than one-third of male victims of stalking indicated that they were stalked before the age of 25; about 1 in 5 female victims and 1 in 14 male victims experienced stalking between the ages of 11 and 17.

Thanks for the stats, Kelley. Hopefully when the University’s PR team finds this via Google Alert, they’ll be nice enough to forward this to Dean Munson so he can consider it while he is on the alert.