“I’m saying, when men put so much expectation and emotional responsibility on women to act a certain way, it’s unfair. Especially in the work place,”

I was in the middle of a heated discussion with a male acquaintance who had said he was going to write a book. The book would be for women in leadership rolls at work. It would teach them, he said, to control their feminine wiles, then use them to entice the men at work to work harder.

His idea was that if women are going be in the work place, they should be inspiring men, not pointing out flaws or correcting their work. If anything, women need to be kinder to the men in a lesser roll and love them into performing better. And wouldn’t it a testament to woman’s wiles, if she “enchanted the man into working so hard that she ended up promoting him to the roll above her?”

To say I aggressively disagreed was an understatement. So I had engaged him in conversation to try and expose the flaws in his argument. I began with the premise, but by the time we got to the issue of “should women be allowed to have other women friends at work”, I couldn’t continue. I ended the conversation by saying I didn’t think he should write the book. Maybe it would have worked in the 50’s, but not now. Also he should update his views on women.

A friend who I’d known for a few years, and who had observed the interaction invited me for coffee a few days later. As we strolled with our cappuccinos in hand, he told me that he thought I had a lot of work to do in my rage against men. I startled at his statement and asked him where he got that thought from.

“From the interaction the other night” He responded. “You really went at him and you guys were in it for a while. It was surprising to see you like that.”

Then I realized, this friend hadn’t seen me since I began feeling safe around men.

“No that was a good thing” I tried to explain. He remained unconvinced, so I unraveled the process.

When you grow up being afraid of something, men, women, dogs, police, bears. Whatever it is, the fear teaches you to be silent. If you are noticed you are beaten, rejected, assaulted, or in the case of bears, mauled. The absolute best thing you can do when you grow up in a terrifying environment, is to go unnoticed.

Growing up in a Christian cult I was taught how to be a “good woman”. This was beaten into me enough times that I learned not to not speak when a man was around. Men were in charge of conversation. And I just wanted to be safe in the room. Men were in charge of my body. I just wanted to be safe in the room. Men were in charge of where I lived, what I ate, how I showed up, how I worked, what I said, how my life would go. I just wanted to be safe in the room.

The disagreement with the hopeful author could only happen because I felt safe in the room.

I had spent a few years up to that point in therapy. Trying change my view of men from predator, to human being. It had been a very big switch. It involved unlearning decades of survival patterns and heightened awareness around men. I had to release lived experiences that confirmed the idea that men exhibit predatory and violent behavior. I had to remind myself constantly that I am no longer in a place where I cannot protect myself. I had to introduce the thought that even if I was helpless, others would help me.

I learned that in a room full of men, even if I was wearing a skirt, I deserved to be safe. Then I learned that I deserve to be heard, and not harmed for it. I learned to separate emotions from topics. I learned what an ad hominem attack was, and I learned civil discourse.

The disagreement moment had been one where I had completely forgotten my conditioning. I had forgotten that I wasn’t supposed to speak. I had forgotten that men were right, I had forgotten that I would be slapped if I “talked back”. I had forgotten that the condition to feeling safe enough to exist, was to not exist.

My friend told me he was glad I had worked through enough to feel safe around strangers, and around him. But he stood by his original statement of the need to work on my rage. I didn’t disagree.
This stuff doesn’t go away overnight. It goes away in moments where I feel safe enough to challenge bigotry. Moments where a man tells me what he feels I need to change, and I still feel safe in his presence. Where I feel no need to change at his pace, and he hasn’t given one.

We continue to stroll and allow the topic to change. At the end of the interaction we exchange goodbyes and thank each other for the time spent. I walk to my car without checking over my shoulder even though I passed a man. I check my heart rate once I get home and its at 65 beats per minute. It’s down from where it used to be, I used to be a 75 resting heart rate in my 20's.

It’s not where I’d like it to be. But it’s trending in the right direction.

I grew up in an apocalyptic cult. I tell those stories.