By JamalEdeen Barghouti
I had a very upsetting experience on campus this semester that has changed the way I see women. It began as an average school night spent doing homework, so nothing out of the ordinary. I left the library at about 9 o’clock at night. It was dark as I headed south through campus. As I navigated my way through the dark, I ended up behind a young woman. She was walking by herself with her water bottle in one hand and her cellphone in the other. She had her headphones in and we were walking in the same direction.
I didn’t pay much attention to her as I thought about the long day I had had and how I couldn’t wait to get home. Then I coughed and the atmosphere seemed to change immediately. I noticed her body language instantly changed. Her pace quickened and she tightened her grip on her cellphone. Still not thinking anything of it, I continued on my path, which happened to follow hers.
As she continued through the dark campus with me unintentionally following, I noticed that she began to look back toward me every few feet, quickening her pace after every glance. I began to think about the situation from her point of view, and that is when my heart broke.
She was small-framed and probably 5-foot-4. I am a full foot taller than her and arguably 100 pounds heavier. She was frightened for her safety.
I began to wonder whether or not I was overthinking things due to the amount of research I have recently been doing on sexual assault on campus for a class project. The project is a campaign called YES! Always and was developed by students to teach other students on campus about the importance of consent. Through our research for the campaign, my classmates and I discovered some shocking statistics about sexual assault, including that one in five college-aged women experience sexual assault every year. Battling sexual assault has completely consumed my semester.
The young woman continued forward beyond a curve in the walkway that blocked her from my sight. Up until this point, her glances had seemed frequent but casual. She seemed to be looking to her right or her left, perhaps seeing me in her peripheral vision. When I rounded the corner, she had her head turned directly at me. Her pace quickened.
At this point, I began to debate with myself. “Do I say something? What should I even say? ‘I’m not going to hurt you’ doesn’t exactly seem non-threatening.” She was visibly uncomfortable as she walked as fast as possible without beginning to run. After slowing my pace considerably in an attempt to put her mind at ease, I decided to turn and take a different path to my house.
I continued to think about how she must be feeling as she clutched her phone and her water bottle tightly while speeding through campus. I called my friend Manila as I continued my walk home. Manila explained to me that she often feels that way walking through campus and reassured me that it was not about me. I knew it wasn’t about me, and that was more hurtful than any assumption she may or may not have made.
As a male, I am privileged. I am awarded certain benefits socially, politically and economically within our society because of my gender expression. Due to this male privilege, I have never worried about my personal safety on campus or anywhere else, for that matter. I didn’t think twice about walking home at 9 o’clock at night. Not once have I questioned a decision to walk somewhere, go to a party or anything else I’ve wanted to do. She was frightened simply by my presence. That devastated me.
No, not all men are violent sexual offenders or rapists. Nor have all men actively contributed to the patriarchal culture that excuses rape and continues to proliferate the rate of sexual assault and violence against women. All men, however, have the responsibility to understand and recognize their privilege and how to use it proactively. All men can help to fight against violence and sexual assault against women. All men can help women to feel safer by being aware of the problem. All men can help end rape culture, and ultimately sexual assault and rape, by educating themselves and becoming a proactive part of the solution.
To the young woman that I frightened that night, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I frightened you. I’m sorry that you were raised in a society that taught you to fear for your personal safety in the most benign of situations. I’m sorry that our society has objectified you and has made you feel unimportant. You are worthy of safety. It’s not that you just deserve it; it’s a right of every human being to feel safe where they live.
Men, it is not enough to be outraged by the current climate where women often live in constant fear of sexual assault or violent acts. We must take action. Be aware of how your presence can make others feel. Listen to women when they express their opinions, fears or concerns. Speak up when someone jokes about sexual assault. Understand your privilege. We may not feel that we contribute to the problem, but that doesn’t mean we are contributing to the solution.
Jamaledeen Barghouti studies strategic communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.