trigger warning: sexual assault
I frequently play a little game I like to call “being a confident woman”. While walking down the street, I walk confidently in the direction of my destination. The way I learned this game says a lot about the goal of playing. At nineteen, living in Paris for a semester abroad, my older French professor advised us to always act like we know exactly where we are even if we don’t. So as not to draw attention to our vulnerability, I suppose. It was a recommendation that did not in fact prevent me from being sexually assaulted on the metro a few short weeks later.
Today, an ordinary overcast December day, I was playing this game, while walking my dogs to the vet. Upon further consideration, I am often playing the confident woman game when I am in public spaces. I play the game by trying not to draw attention to myself, as my professor suggested, or sometimes I play it by appearing not to notice the attention.
Today, I was playing it subconsciously, acting like I had every right to be walking down the sidewalk.
Something I have observed while playing this particular game, is the response of others to my demeanor. The goal, simply and also alarmingly, is to not be sexually assaulted. Another secondary and related goal is to feel like a human. Like you deserve to be here. Like your body is yours.
A further goal of this game is to be able to walk where you are going. To walk, down the sidewalk or road or path, and be able to continue.
The response that I have observed is that of men (as you may have predicted). With startling frequency, I find myself playing another game with these men while I play the game of being confident in public. It’s a game famously depicted by Kiefer Sutherland in Stand by Me. Chicken.
I walk, with practiced confidence. A man walks towards me, with learned entitlement. I continue walking on the right side of the sidewalk. In Canada, this makes sense. We drive on the right, you move to the right when walking. Except the man doesn’t move.
He may not even be paying attention. That is partly the point. I am here trying not to be sexually assaulted while walking to the vet and he is here not even paying attention.
I find this game offensive to women and chickens, I think to myself, trying to maintain a lighthearted attitude. I smile. I quickly distinguish the smile when I remember another rule of the game. Never smile at a man in public, warned a fellow exchange student. Never make eye contact and never smile were rules two and three of the confident not-at-all-vulnerable woman game.
At this point in the game, the man may suddenly move, looking at bit annoyed, like he was expecting me to move. Like I was supposed to move out of his way, even though he was walking on my side of the sidewalk. Other times, when the man does not make any indication of moving, I will step out of the way, defeated, because I would rather not make physical contact with men unless it’s absolutely necessary.
At this point, on this particular day, while playing this game for the millionth time, there was an electrical pole in the middle of the sidewalk. And so, I walked to the right side of it. However, so did the man.
I tried to step out of the way and even said “Oh, excuse me” because part of the game of being a woman in public is to be confident but not at all threatening to men.
At this point in the game, on this particular overcast December day, the man pushed me out of his way. He put his hands on me and pushed me. Then he kept walking. Like he had every right to be there.
I looked back and saw him keep walking like nothing happened. Like I had no right to be there.
Then I walked on, a little less confidently. Again, I lost the game of trying to be a woman in public.
And so, I gave myself a pep talk, as I often do. Being a woman in this world, for me, requires immense self-support to contradict negative experiences I have like this one, daily.
I deserve to be here. I am worthy of this life.
My life is valuable and unique.
I am powerful. I am a powerful woman.
I have a power within me that no one can ever take.
I have a peace within me that no one can ever touch.
I deserve space on this planet.
I will only use the space I need and I will share my resources with others whenever I can.
May all humans discover their own worth. May all men discover their inherent value, sensitivity, and empathy.
May I remember my own empathy in the face of those who disrespect me. I will stay soft.
I am a confident woman.
I am a confident woman.