Guilty until proven innocent

I remember the first time somebody told me that when I walk down the street at night and there is a woman walking in front of me, I should cross to the other side so she doesn’t feel threatened. I don’t think I understood it at first. Why? What have I done? Have I become a known criminal without realizing it?

I was quite young and had no idea what a woman’s experience might be, what she might be feeling as she hears encroaching footsteps behind her at night. To be quite honest, I spent no time thinking about it at all, since I never considered my own footsteps to be particularly threatening. I mean, sure, I was aware that there are abusers out there who would attack a woman on the street, but I’m not one of them! In fact, it’s the opposite, as I have personal experiences of being mugged on the street by a bunch of thugs, and then also attacked a tram full of people who stood there and did nothing. So if anything, I would see myself as similar to her, not a potential attacker.

The next time I was out at night, I was extremely aware of the other people around me. Soon enough I found myself walking behind some girl. I remember the stress of it — am I walking too fast? Are my footsteps too heavy? I’m a fast walker so I kind of just wanted to overtake her, but what if she feels horrified hearing me getting closer? Did I see her nervously speed up, or am I just imagining it? Oh my gods, what if she thinks I’m going to attack her? With my heart pounding I crossed to the other side feeling panicked and stupid and flustered. I had to stop myself from looking back to check if she was OK, see if she even noticed me, or maybe just to look at the face of the person I could have unwittingly scared by merely going about my own business. I didn’t dare to. What if she sees me looking and thinks I’m a creep? Or thinks I only crossed to get a better look and will run after her any second?

The universe had mercy and I soon had to take a turn. The girl walked on and I never found out if she even noticed I was there. But I was exhausted, and defeated, I felt like a criminal who had just escaped the site of my crime and must quickly scutter through the shadows lest anyone notices my threatening existence.

Then there was the club. I met this girl and we had a great time chatting and dancing. At some point, she needed to go to the bathroom, so without much thought, I offered to keep her drink for her. I remember how she looked at me then. A second ago we were laughing together, but now she was coldly assessing how much of a threat I am. Too much turns out. She took her drink, smiling and saying it was not a problem, but I knew she just looked at my face and saw someone who would spike it and rape her. I couldn’t bear it. I was shaken and didn’t wait for her to come back. I packed and went home. To this day I worry that she probably interpreted my disappearance as a confirmation of my guilt, she thought that I left because I didn’t get a chance to take advantage of her.

I look at my own face in the mirror and want to scream: this is just my face! This is not a face of a rapist, why do you treat me like this?! I am innocent, isn’t that clear? Why do I have to prove it, why can’t you just trust me, why can’t we just be nice to each other?!

I got used to it since. These days when I go on a date, at some point I try to offer some reassurance by subtly hinting that I am not one of ‘those’ guys. You know. The ones who won’t stop messaging you, who don’t really care about you, who will overstep boundaries, who will leave you feeling used and abused. I might make a little joke about dick pics or throw in a reference to the feminist literature I’ve been reading, maybe mention that one of my friends leads those great consent workshops. It’s all evidence that despite what one might infer from my gender, I’m not guilty of heinous crimes. I dance my little dance and I hate every single step.

After that first night when I crossed to the other side of the street, I had some long chats with my ex-partner who was very patient in explaining how it feels from a woman’s perspective. What it’s like to laugh at your date’s jokes while trying to remember if you took the pepper spray with you, just in case. To abandon your drink if you took your eyes off it for a second, because that’s all it takes for you to wake up in a bed you don’t remember getting into. To have the recent violent news play in the back of your head as you’re walking in the dark nervously clutching your hand around your keys.

A few months later she was walking back home from a party and got attacked by a guy who threatened her with a pocket knife. She had enough spirit to punch him and run and call the police who came to take her testimony at 3 am. They never found the guy. Amazing and strong as she is, she couldn’t shake it for years.

So I get it. Women have good reasons to feel afraid and the minor inconvenience of having to cross the street or drop a few reassuring lines on a date is nothing in comparison to the stress they have to endure. I find it insulting, but it is just a reasonable precaution on their part. Of course, I will play along. It’s not even hard and I know how much it means to them.

But it just feels shit to know that in the eyes of every woman, I am a potential rapist just waiting to jump at them with a knife. That they look in my face and see someone who would spike their drinks. That I simply exist, but they see me as a threat. I hate every second of it, it wears me down every single time, it feels humiliating and pathetic, and all I want to do is scream: #NotAllMen!!! But I grind my teeth and play my part because this is the world we live in and it would be deeply insensitive of me to ignore that.

So FUCK YOU ALL, you dickheads who actually do attack women at night! Fuck you, date rapists, club gropers, and drink spikers, fuck you all for harming women and putting constant fear in their hearts.

And then a second, much smaller fuck you for making them fear me and other decent men! For forcing us to prove our innocence all the time, just to assure women that we are not like you! For making us resent them for suspecting and rejecting us.


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