Toxic masculinity doesn’t respect boundaries; legal or emotional, physical or intangible. Men don’t know what it feels like to venture out into the world every day scared because those around them will scale walls to prey on them. They don’t know what it’s like to modify their existence so as to create the safest environment to exist in, day in and day out.
I grew up in a suburb close to New York City. Weekends were spent venturing in and out of the strictly codified blocks of architectural wonders and seas of people.
The first time I took the train to the city without any adults or male friends, I was eighteen. It was December and my best friend, also a female and also my age, had come from college for the first time. We decided to explore the extravagant holiday window displays one can only really witness in NYC.
We stayed close to one another, held hands, avoided eye contact. This is what we were taught to do. This is how we were socialized.
Hours passed, the sun went down, the holiday lights were turned on, holiday music filled the air, and the city became cinematic.
Our hands were still clasped onto one another’s. Our eyes only venturing from each other’s faces to the buildings and crafted displays presented to us.
But our behavior, modified, wasn’t enough to keep us safe.
The boundaries and walls we constructed around ourselves weren’t strong enough. The rules and practices we were taught to keep ourselves safe proved to be nothing but failed myths passed from generation to generation of women to create a false sense of security.
It got darker. We began to make our way to the train station.
Men started catcalling. Started getting closer, as if they thought the night sky would serve as a cloak, making their behavior excusable, making them invisible, invincible.
We held each other’s hands tighter. Walked faster. Stopped speaking, so as to be able to hear the actions of those around us easier.
A group of six men surrounded us, unafraid that their actions were seen by others, undeterred by the walls that my friend and I had painstakingly built around us.
One man took my hand, another took my friend’s. They began to whisper in our ears, and tried to pull us away from one another, but we wouldn’t let each other go. The grip my friend and I had on one another became painful, but it was our last link to safety.
We continued walking, as did they, now connected to us.
Petrified, my friend stayed silent. We passed a church, decorated in flashing lights. A plastic manger, cracked and faded with years of wear, quickly became the backdrop for our assault.
I heard my voice, unaware that I’d spoken, high and piercing, shatter the tense air around us.
“We’re only 15.”
I lied. They laughed. They continued on in their hunting of us. A fabricated age could not protect us. These men knew no boundary.
I realized that everything I had been socialized and taught to do to deter men from preying on me did not matter. It was constantly hunting season and I was constantly depicted as prey.
Violently, I freed my right hand from the prison it had been isolated in, shocking the man who had previously had possession of it. Still gripping my friend’s hand, I pulled her as hard as I could, releasing her from the other man’s grasp on her left hand, and began sprinting and screaming.
The men followed us for a block.
We ran all the way to the train station.
The only noises I heard, in a city full of sound, while running, were the pounding of my feet on the cement laden sidewalks and my friend’s choked sobs.
Toxic masculinity doesn’t respect boundaries. It doesn’t see women as autonomous human beings, but as objects to conquer.
It doesn’t care about age and it doesn’t care about the regimen you’ve crafted to keep yourself safe. It will knock your expertly crafted walls down, rendering your safety system obsolete.
Assault is never a victim’s fault. Assault is the fault of toxic masculinity and imbalanced power relationships.
I’ve experienced a lot since this incident. I moved to the city, I became a constant target. I’ve been scared, I’ve been preyed upon, but I will not shut myself out from the outside world to keep myself “safe.” I’ve become stronger, I’ve learned to look men in their eyes and say, “No,” but the tactics I’ve acquired since I was 18 are not impenetrable. These tactics just help me to construct new walls, walls that aren’t always respected.
Toxic masculinity’s inability to see women as autonomous beings who deserve peace and safety won’t drive me to live behind closed doors. I understand why some women subject themselves to isolation. And I respect that. But I cannot. And I may pay a price for my defiance, but freedom always comes with violent blowback.