The Art of Being a Warrior in a World Unaware of Its Warzone: An Open Letter to Men // Shelby M. Burton

DISCLAIMER: I began writing this piece for the natural audience I had assumed for a blog called FemPop, aka: women. Plot twist: I had an epiphany that the real audience who can benefit from these accounts are men. Although I can explain how the gendered world we live in is also negatively impacting men, I can only have this conversation once we have covered the elephant in the room, the elephant being the massive sexual violence that is happening to women and the world being the country that we live in.  In case you are as logical as I am, here are some data (Breiding et al., 2014):

Any account of sexual violence

Essentially, what I am saying is that these things happen to men, but that it happens at an even greater rate for women, even after taking underreporting into account (Black et al., 2011).  And the faster we start talking about how this influences women, the faster we can start talking about how it also influences men, since men, as a whole, are socialized to avoid discussing their sexual violence experiences.

So, men, I will admit it: we need you. We need you on board. We need you to HEAR US. We need you to understand that harassment does not always look like harassment from your perspective. Although we need you to stop raping, and assaulting, and “locker room” talking, we need you to start by educating yourself. By reading this. By reading similar accounts of women.  We need you to see the wounds from the fire that we burn from each and every day. Only then can we also protect you from the residual smoke that has been slowly infiltrating men, as well. 

A Warrior’s Life
I have three bottles of pepper spray: one in my glove compartment, one in my nightstand, and another that I cling to each night as I walk from my car to my apartment, ready to spray at any attacker. I survey my surroundings, from the protective shelter behind the wheel before I make my way to the door that is seemingly miles away. I ensure that all belongings on me are secured so as to avoid being an easy target for muggings. Every single night, I wonder how much more time will pass before I no longer have to go through this ritual.
For my college graduation, I was gifted a Taser gun for my move across the country, funded by a family who feared their little girl living in a city like a child going to war. I spend the hard-earned money from my graduate student stipend on self-defense classes rather than going out to dinner with my friends. I live in a world where I cannot accept drinks if I did not see the bartender make them, where I am taken advantage of in any situation involving technology or cars, and where I have been treated differently in academic and professional settings based on the gender in which I identify with. 
This year alone, I have been followed in grocery stores and coffee shops (yes, those are both plural), and on one occasion I was briefly stalked by a man who was working on my car. I have been photographed on the street by guys who were catcalling me, have had to break several boys’ hearts because I was the first girl who identified that what they just did (or was about to do) was sexual harassment, and then guilt tripped because they disagreed. Guess what? The harasser does not get to be the one who decides what harassment looks like.

We Are Here
This is my lived experience, but there are other lenses through which women see the world. Thus, in an effort to bring attention to how sexual violence impacts others’ worldviews, some organizations on my campus teamed up with me to launch the We Are Here Movement, inspired by Duke University. As part of this movement, one simple question was posed: What would a world without sexual violence look like? Here are some popular responses:

What would a world look like without sexual violence? Safe. Fearless. Empowering. Stable. Free. Peaceful. Equal. Respectful. Consensual. No rape, assault, or abuse.  Men, I ask you, does your world look like this already? I make no assumptions. I realize that, especially when taking intersectionality into account, your world may not be safe, fearless, empowering, etc. But I wonder how much of this is attributed to sexual violence, as compared to women’s.  And if it is attributed to sexual violence, I am going to make a risky statement: I wonder how often the perpetrator was also a man. According to a study completed by the Centers for Disease and Control, not only are women mainly victimized by other men, men are also often victimized by other men (Black et al., 2011). 
Now, here is another word cloud dictating all of the negative responses we received in relation to the question, reflecting today’s struggles associated with sexual violence.

Again, men, I ask you: is your world dictated by being overpowered by others, victimization, slut-shaming, and fear of the dark? Would you describe it as Hell? If your answer is yes, is it because of sexual violence?  I am not assuming that your answers were “no” to all of these, but I am wondering how women as a whole identify with these statements in comparison to men.

Now What?
Each of these clouds paints a different world.  While one represents “Hope,” the other represents “War.” I cannot help but wonder which world you would rather take part in building.  For suggestions on how to take action, here is a starter list:
1.      Share this article. Get other men on board. Talk about it. If they mock you, be empowered enough to keep fighting for change. Remember, as a woman, I would rather be in a position to be mocked than a position to be fearing for my life each day.
2.      Engage in conversations with other women about their lived experiences. You might be surprised at the privileges you never realized you had, like going to a grocery store without fear of being followed or being able to walk in the dark at night.
3.      Then, do something about it. Get in contact with a local women’s organization, seek therapy for your own possible experiences with sexual violence, and/or talk to your children about how they can be the change.
If you are still reading, I end this piece with gratitude. Whether you are questioning what is in this article or whether you already define yourself as a feminist, thank you. It is by reading this article that you have taken the first step toward hope. I long to live in a world where I can walk home from class at night without grasping the pepper spray in my right hand and my keys in my left, perfectly positioned in between each finger so that it can also serve as a weapon. I long to live in a world where I do not have to wonder why a stranger is taking pictures of me on the street, and where I do not have to be so worried about my surroundings at a coffee shop that I am studying at that I opt to study at home instead. Only when we warriors unite together will we be able to put an end to this horrific War on Sexual Violence.

Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J.,
& Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey
(NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and
Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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