Reflection in metal (brass)

Trust your discomfort

It is wrong to lecture women who feel awkward or unsafe

Artillery Row

Twenty-six years ago, Gavin de Becker published The Gift of Fear, exploring the relationship between violence, social etiquette and survival instincts. One of his key arguments is that women in particular are encouraged to dismiss or trivialise their fear of strangers in order to “be nice”.

“No animal in the wild suddenly overcome by fear,” he writes, “would spend any of its mental energy thinking ‘it’s probably nothing’”:

A woman could offer no greater cooperation to her soon-to-be attacker than to spend her time telling herself, “But he seems like such a nice man”. But that is exactly what many people do.

Fear, argues Becker, is “nature’s strongest survival signal” — yet all too often, we feel we should suppress it. This is especially true when we have been socialised to prioritise the feelings of others. Showing wariness or mistrust can seem rude or mean, so we tell ourselves our fears are petty, judgemental, over-dramatic. Perhaps they’re not even fears at all, but irrational phobias.

If anything, the comfort of bigoted men is accommodated more than ever

I thought of this when reading Police Scotland’s LGBT Allies Toolkit. This includes an “Allies’ Pledge” in which the first “expectation of an LGBT Ally” is not, say, to be willing to speak up against homophobia, or defend the rights of lesbians to live free from harassment. It’s to be “comfortable with the uncomfortable”. This struck me as in itself somewhat discomforting, if not especially surprising. There’s a strain of social justice activism, particularly focussed on sex and gender, which goes directly against the teaching of books such as The Gift of Fear. Feeling discomfort? Good. Show you’re a true ally and learn not to make a fuss.

These days it seems that part of good allyship involves seeing “discomfort” as a sign, not that you may be unsafe, but that you are privileged and potentially bigoted. That’s fine, though — as long as you acknowledge this original sin, you may yet pass through the gates of Social Justice Heaven. Oxfam’s “Inclusive Language Guide” even features a “Note on Discomfort”. “Social change,” we are told, “is by its very nature disruptive”:

The comfort of the status quo must be disrupted in order to dismantle oppressive structures and create pathways to equality [ … ] There is a distinction between being uncomfortable and being unsafe; inequality in power is at the heart of this difference.

In case you’re thinking, “Well, that sounds okay, as long as we’re acknowledging that (as far as women and girls are concerned) the sex class with the superior upper body strength who commit 99 per cent of sexual assaults are the ones with the power” — no, that’s not what is meant. It’s those who have “cis privilege” who are meant to think they’re powerful. Hence when “cis women” experience discomfort, they’re just upset about losing privileges in the exact same way that “cis men” are.

The thing is, I — similar to, I suspect, most people who would rather like to be “good allies” — don’t see why I should feel “uncomfortable” around gay, lesbian, bi or trans people in the first place. I do, however, think I have good reason to feel uncomfortable around men I don’t know in environments where I am vulnerable, or where men are not supposed to be. This is not the same as the irrational “discomfort” of a man who feels his masculinity is in some way threatened by gay or feminine presenting men.

The “be comfortable with the uncomfortable” messaging doesn’t distinguish between irrational discomfort and valid fear. Not only does it conflate the two, but it then allows all of the work of suppressing discomfort to be offloaded onto the group — women and girls — whose discomfort is valid, whilst homophobic men have to do nothing. There are no signs in men’s toilets saying “please don’t beat the crap out of someone because he makes you feel insecure in your manhood”. If anything, the comfort of bigoted men is accommodated more than ever, now that anyone who makes them feel a bit funny can be categorised as a non-man and sent off to the ladies.

Meanwhile, women are expected to work even harder at convincing themselves their own feelings are not just untrustworthy, but indicative of moral inferiority. It’s not as if we weren’t doing this already. In my mid-twenties, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger. In the moments before it happened, I’d been berating myself for feeling wary about the car pulling up in front of me. Yeah, right, it’s a sex offender. Get over yourself. As if something so clichéd would actually happen to me! Didn’t I know that most attacks took place in the home, not in darkened alleyways?

It sounds ridiculous now, but I felt my fear was somehow arrogant, as though I had ideas above my station (who’d want to attack you? You’re just not Crimewatch material). Now, when I look at how women and girls are encouraged to trivialise their own fears of assault, in the name of allyship, I recall how I felt that night, how I belittled myself, how I felt ashamed for thinking what did happen might in fact happen. I managed to make myself feel like a whinging Karen before the concept existed, just because I feared — correctly — that the man approaching me was not at all “nice”.

No one is working to remove the cause of female discomfort

Signs in public toilets tell women that if they spot a male person, they must “not purposely make them uncomfortable” but should “protect them from harm”. These messages deliberately disorient by reversing the power dynamic. Who exactly is making whom uncomfortable? Who is a threat to whom? They are prodding the same female socialisation that made me feel judgmental for knowing I was in danger. No one is working to remove the cause of female discomfort, but they are working very hard to make women carry the blame.

In The Gift of Fear, Becker describes the way in which abusive men exploit women’s wariness by making them ashamed of it:

A man labels a woman in some slightly critical way, hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove that his opinion is not accurate. “You’re probably too snobbish to talk to the likes of me,” a man might say, and the woman will cast off the mantle of “snob” by talking to him.

If your employer or gym or Police Force have taken it upon themselves to inform you that any discomfort around male people marks you out as a bad, exclusionary person, then you will feel a compulsion to override it, if only to show you are good and inclusive. It is a way of controlling female behaviour, ensuring that women are not just passively compliant, but extra-compliant in response to feelings of unease (“if you let someone talk you out of the word ‘no’,” writes Becker, “you might as well wear a sign that reads, ‘you are in charge’”).

There has sometimes been a tendency in feminism to dismiss all discussions of female fear in public spaces as victim-blaming. The Gift of Fear isn’t worth reading because it tells women they might as well never leave the house, but because it encourages them to trust their instincts and put their own needs before any pressure to be nice. At one point, Becker writes he has “a message for women who feel forced to defend their safety concerns”:

… tell Mister I-Know-Everything-About-Danger that he has nothing to contribute to the topic of your personal security. Tell him that your survival instinct is a gift from nature that knows a lot more about your safety than he does. And tell him that nature does not require his approval.

Well, nature might not, but what about the allyship experts?

I would say they, too, need to know that trivialising “discomfort” — telling women to get over it, or simply to lean into it — is not acceptable. If, as is the case with the Police Scotland LGBT Allies Toolkit, you end up advising people to be “comfortable with the uncomfortable”, then really you have nothing to add to the topic of safety, but a lot to learn about not making others feel bad.

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