Trigger Warning: Sexual violence, stalking, victim-blaming.
The supposition that just about everything on earth bears a gendered aspect seems, to many, wildly disproportionate. Hypersensitive. Paranoid, even. Yet beyond the standard “blue is for boys/pink is for girls” dichotomy, there appears to be no shortage of situations, places, items or even sentiments which are, by definition, gendered.
Maybe it was from a youthful fixation into Phoebe's skills of premonition in Charmed, maybe it was the way a seemingly endless stream of aunts patted my mother’s pregnant belly when I was seven years old and cooed, “It’s a girl. A woman knows.” Whatever the source, I learned from a young age that intuition was a woman’s work. After all, they needed some yin to counterbalance masculine yang. And as it was understood, men had all the wisdom.
It is hard to explain to my male friends just how diligently women analyse their place in the world around them. How we do not just vibrate with alertness walking urban streets at night, but even in seemingly “safe” places – we scout the back seats of our cars as we unlock them, scan crowds perpetually to discern if any one person is acting erratically or paying excessive attention. Most adult women have clocked the guy who has crossed the busy public space (park, common room, airport departure gate) to “coincidentally” take the seat by their sides long before the man has given any indication that he will, ultimately, try to strike up a conversation. We live and breathe our negative space, ever mindful of the risk that some other would sooner consume that in which we stand.
We do not do this from a conflated sense of self-importance. No, this is merely the tax paid for passing as femme in a world that does not permit us to be passive in our own self-protection. And even when we are on high alert, we may still find ourselves trapped at an awkward impasse in which we are ensnared in an unwanted conversation due to the societal expectation that women be “nice”. Despite our cautiousness, we may still find ourselves zig-zagging down side streets to give the slip to the guy at your heels whose footfalls have begun to pick up pace – because fifty-fifty odds mean nothing if the choices you have are "unwelcome conversation" or something more malevolent. Sometimes our bodies are held by hands which slip past both our physical and social defences, to encroach upon the chalk-line etching of space which is labelled mine, an abrupt reminder that to assume is to ascribe the intentions you have to those who might not. And when such a violation occurs, the secondary violation begins: questions as to why we permitted ourselves to be trespassed upon. Like we had a choice. As if all the defensive measures in the world can ever truly keep us secure if someone is determined to take us at all costs. Those who posit such judgemental devil's advocacy don’t seem to hear themselves. When they instruct women and girls on the ways in which they can be “safe”, what they're really saying is: make sure he hurts some other girl, instead. One who isn't you.
This is why intuition is a feminine duty. It is the first line of protection against danger, a subtle alert to its presence before our consciousness has mapped the source of threat. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is a book collated through several decades of investigation into the predictive techniques which allow us to pre-emptively recognise these so-called “non-anticipatable” capacity of humans to violence. It should, in my opinion, become mandatory reading for people of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of gender. de Becker maps articulately and logically the array manipulative techniques deployed by those with malicious intent to ensnare victims – usually women – in situations beyond their safety. Moreover, it also details methods with which one could predict disgruntled a colleague's capacity to commit workplace violence, or determine which threats of assassination against celebrities are credible, as well as techniques to dissuade and deter stalkers. It is a lengthy and confronting read, but one that has vindicated so many of the unconscious methods of self-preservation I deploy in my day-to-day.
I am fortunate to have been raised by parents who always encouraged me to verbalise my feelings, even if they did not agree with my conclusion. When I was twelve years old, my family were visiting some family friends at their home. The family had many children, all of whom I had known for much of my life. However, as my age reached double digits, I began to sense an increasing discomfort whenever our families spent time together. I could not understand where this feeling had come from, or why, but it would not be shaken even as I tried to suppress it. One day, I was passing the oldest son in an otherwise deserted hallway, and he, several years older and substantially bigger than me, reached out to squeezed my backside. We children had been coquettish, sometimes whispering rumours of the adult universe we were still so far from in blanket forts. But this was not holding hands or playing house with apron and frying pan (cringe). This was new, and aggressive, and adult in a way I did not totally understand.
I reeled on the teenager, clamouring for any pithy burn I could recall from any 90's era Hollywood movie, and spat, “You can look, but don’t touch.”
Why did I say that?, I wondered as the words left my mouth, I don't even want him to look. In this unfamiliar context, I could not shake that peculiar, naïve feeling that children so often experience that even though I had been the one to regurgitate the line, I did not quite know what look really meant. All I knew was that I didn't want it.
Less than an hour later, I (truthfully) told my parents that I felt nauseous and wanted to go home. The father of the boy who had groped me, well into his sixth beer of the day, laughed as if I had told the greatest joke on earth.
“She’s delicate, isn’t she?” he said, eyes agleam, “And throwing out five dollar words, too. Where did you learn to say nawwwww-zee-yusssss, sweetheart?”
There was something in his tone that was malevolent. Dark. The slow drag of the adjective smacked of a derision that I didn't understand, the kind with a festering, corroded edge. Deep within me, something flared. It sparked in my stomach the way I had felt whenevere I moved to cross the street without looking both ways, and was pulled away from an oncoming car by a friend or loved one. It was the sense of danger, and despite the lack of substantive justification to support the sentiment, I felt afraid.
When the night ended and our family returned home, I told my parents what the son had done, and explained that I did not feel comfortable spending time with that family anymore. It seems that in most stories of children coming to parents to state some ineloquent discomfort, the parents in question tend to disregard, deny, or devalue the child’s emotional response. Fortunately, my parents had instilled an awareness in me from a young age that my personhood came above the tribe when personal security was involved. They heeded my concerns, reassured me that my feelings of discomfort - not just around the boy, but the man as well - were reasonable. I was granted permission to stay home whenever they went visiting that family, or actively make plans spend time with friends and family to my own choosing.
Perhaps that minor experience seems uneventful. It's no harrowing origin story, that's for sure. But perhaps my pervasive discomfort from that day forwards in the context of that family was all I needed to sidestep some greater future misfortune. I did not know at the age of twelve that something as innocuous as a fleeting grope could be the first step down a path of sinister escalation over time, but as I aged up, I certainly learned. In that house, some mysteriously toxic stormcloud of masculine aggression had rendered me headstrong enough to refuse to ever return to that house, with those people.
In the grand scheme of stories, stories we hear from women so often who have been harmed by others, this account comprises only a small slice of potential violations I could have endured. In the years to follow, I had suffered a great number of even greater severity. But when 1 in 6 Western women is likely to be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, we cannot afford place enough stock in every preventative measure that is available to us, when failure to adhere to these "preventative measures" leads to victim-blaming. If the lengths of our skirts and the routes we walk home and then men we entrust with platonic friendship are all considered self-inflicted causes for which we can be faulted for our own victimhood, then it is only fair that we give credit to the hyper-attuned instinct of intuition which is so often denigrated as a hallmark of histrionic femininity. If we learn how to identify mechanically the oftentimes subtle signs of danger, or what de Becker refers to as "Pre-Incident Indicators" (PINS), we can come to understand intuition... not as a hokey pseudoscientific theory, but a legitimate and credible means of assessing threat.
Girls become experts in self-preservation long before pubescence. This awareness grows with each incident of catcalling, of unwanted male attention, of strangers brushing up against you on an otherwise empty public transit – all of that starts young, younger than you'd think. The neighbour boy's breach of my bubble, whereupon he squeezed me so hard that it left a bruise, was not the first time I had been subjected to such a trespass had happened. It was just the most memorable at the time of writing. On average, even twelve years of age is far later than the average female's experience of sexual harassment or violation. No surprise, then, that we evolve into suspicious adults.
I am of the not-so-quiet opinion that it should be mandatory to educate young people on how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships, as well as providing them the skills to identify and disengage at the first whiff a potentially abusive dynamic; to recognise lovebombing, or crazymaking comparisons to former partners, and encouraged helplessness. Intellectual understanding of such dysfunction does not come easily to most - even I, well read on the subjects of emotional abuse, briefly entertained a partner who attempted to dissuade me from the medication I was prescribed to treat a chronic condition on some hokey rationale of concern, despite the absence of any side effects from it.
He's trying to influence your health choices, a voice in the back of my mind whispered, Be careful.
I stood my ground on the subject, and on a number of other subjects that arose during our brief (but too long) time together. Within a few days of that debate, he was gone. Though intellectually I felt sad at the loss of a companion, a wave of relief - the source of which I could not comprehend without both time and distance - washed over me from the very moment the door closed behind him. I had sailed close to some submerged cliff face, but my intuition had helped me critically decode the siren song and remain on course.
Friends of mine can be incredulous when discussing my sense of intuition, concerned that I may be using it as a shorthand to overreact to otherwise inoffensive stimuli. I accept the possibility that this could be true, but ask this in kind: if i feel safe and secure from avoiding a person or situation which has struck me as viscerally unsafe, would I have gained much by denying my own feelings? Sure, I may inadvertently push away, for example, the man who could be a great love of my young adult life... but ultimately, if my first instinct whilst meeting that man is deep discomfort, how great a love story are we really likely to have?
And though the bulk of this piece has spruiked intuition as the great barometer for threat, it serves a similarly beneficial purpose: to guide people in making educated decisions in moments which, across a the greater context, might be perceived as reckless. I have driven twelve hours down the West Coast of the United States in the car of Craigslist strangers, hauling in the back of my mind an innate certainty that I would be perfectly safe, and it was so. I've altered travel plans after crossing paths with people on the road who appeared to be of like mind, only for those same people to enrich my life utterly as we shared an array of experiences in some unexpected, new terrain. I've had good feelings about certain places, or people, or moments which more or less have panned out to be deserving of my faith. For this, too, I can be grateful for intuition: not fear, but a heightened awareness of opportunity.
Intuition is what helps us all gauge our safest path through the sprawling jungle of life. And it is what women like myself unconsciously calibrate on a daily basis to discern and ameliorate personal threat. So when a woman – be it a friend, partner, child, or even yourself - verbalises discomfort with regard to something or someone in a way that she cannot express clearly, but for which she is clearly distressed, be mindful of the manner with which the cogs in her mind turn. Believe her. We are so socialised to be pliable and polite that a desire not to be should be examined closely for clues. Intuition is a largely unconscious process, but more often than not, what it tells us is worth consciously heeding.
It is better to be impolite than in danger, and as de Becker says: "A man's greatest fear is that a woman will laugh at him. A woman's greatest fear is that a man will kill her."
Excerpt from the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.