By Lindsay Gullingsrud
Yesterday I had a conversation with someone I did not know. True to the “Minnesotan” way, we were standing outside and I commented about the weather. We started talking about the weather and then the conversation shifted to the environment of the hotel where we work, and our sense of vulnerability at various times while we work. Whether it is daytime or at night, we both agreed that there have been times we did not feel safe. This woman said it best, “Because as women, we don’t know what (drunk) men are going to do, and we have to be aware—we don’t know what they are thinking. If they are thinking of rape or going to get belligerent, we have to be ready.”
At the time, I had only a moment to think about this statement because the conversation soon shifted to her sense of vulnerability as a mother. She shared a story about when her friend was shopping in Walmart and an unknown man attempted to walk away with her 2-year-old daughter. The advocate in me asked whether her friend had notified the police. The woman did notify police, but our conversation focused on what this man said to the mother – as she grabbed her daughter, she asked what he thought he was doing? The man replied, “She is beautiful. I want her.” We briefly talked about what that statement means to us as women and mothers, but unfortunately we both had to go back to work and cut our conversation short.
I am still trying to unpack this brief conversation. We talked for maybe 15 minutes, yet we connected on such deep levels about two things: vulnerability and fear. We found a shared experience as women who know our vulnerability to rape. As mothers, we also shared a similar fear in knowing our daughters’ vulnerability to rape. How is it that we were able to connect so easily with these shared experiences? Why? What does this say about the culture we live in?
Within this conversation, we talked about our sense of vulnerability to people we don’t know. Yet, we have a greater chance of experiencing sexual violence from our intimate partner or someone we know versus a stranger. What does it mean that we focused on stranger danger? I wonder whether we would have talked about our increased vulnerability to sexual violence with people we know if we would have had more time. Would you?
As I continue to revisit this conversation, I cannot help but think about gender-based violence. It is because sexual violence is part of gender-based violence that this conversation happened. This woman did not know what I do for a living. We did not know anything about each other, yet we talked about this as a shared experience, a shared reality. Because we were both women, we were able to have an authentic conversation about our fear of being raped. People tend to shy away from talking about sexual violence as a form of gender-based violence because there is a misunderstanding that if we say this, it excludes male victims. But it doesn’t. Speaking about sexual violence as a form of gender-based violence allows us to talk about all victims because it provides a frame for speaking about gender identity, the continuum of who is vulnerable (oppression), and gives voice to the fact that this fear of experiencing sexual violence is not shared equally across the gender continuum.
I wish I had the chance to talk to this woman about solutions before we ended our conversation. That seems to be quite common – addressing or naming problems is easy, but figuring out solutions is much tougher. We have to do a better job of steering the conversation toward prevention, even when we’re not completely sure how to navigate it.
Will you join me in continuing this conversation?