There is a quote going around the internet attributed to Margaret Atwood, which says, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It is an easy enough assertion for the pro-life movement to dismiss, coming as it does from the woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel prominently used to harass those of us who would defend the unborn. Moreover, men, good-hearted men who would never harm anyone, simply cannot believe women could fear them. Being neither the abusers nor the abused, they cannot see what all the fuss is about.
Frankly, women do not want to believe it either, at least not on a day-to-day basis. Those of us in stable, safe relationships do not face the reality of dating violence, that is, not until our daughters or friends’ daughters mention an interest in online dating sites. Then something primal wakes up, and protective questions about safety protocols are asked in an attempt to protect these young women from the statistics—and perhaps from some of our own past experiences.
Nor do women often recognize our own learned fear, even helplessness, until, for example, we are confronted with having to walk alone at night through an unfamiliar part of town, when every step becomes an exercise of self-control over an ingrained fight or flight reflex awakened in these circumstances because we are women. Few of us are willing to travel alone, especially internationally, and those who do still tend to choose their solo destinations based on perceived safety factors. (This has tremendous negative implications for women in leadership roles.)
Let me be clear, I am not talking about women who have been victims of sexual assault. I have no doubt that assault survivors experience these emotions at a more intense level than other women do. (Though it is worth keeping in mind that over a quarter of American women actually have been victims of sexual assault.) I am simply saying that this is what it is like to be a woman in America.
For women, gender-related anxiety is a learned response. We learn from our parents, especially our mothers, that because we are vulnerable, and even to some degree helpless, we cannot trust the world around us. Recently, when I was about to make a short solo trip between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina—a pleasant two-hour drive through the Great Smokey Mountains, in the foothills of which I grew up—I noticed that my rental car’s tires were a little low. Here, I made my mistake; I mentioned the low pressure casually to my mother. It was probably just the change of seasons, but my mother’s first instinct was to tell me that I should stop at a service station before leaving Knoxville and “ask a man to put air in the tires.” My instant response was to tell her that I did not need to ask a man; if need be, I could handle it myself. The difference in generations was doing the talking, but this gendered helplessness, nourished by parents and exploited by the media, is part of the reason women suffer a kind of anxiety men do not.
For some women, gender-related anxiety can also be learned from close experience. Most of my memories of orientation week as a freshman at Grinnell College in the 1990’s—our first week on our own, and in my case a thousand miles from the only home I’d ever known—are colored by the disappearance of a returning senior, Tammy Zywicki, after her car broke down while she was on route to campus. The car was found abandoned the same day. Her body was found, in a different state, a week later. A year later, driving from Grinnell to Des Moines, a couple of friends and I experienced a flat tire on the interstate. Two of us, both female, did not feel safe accepting help from three local farm-boys who stopped and asked about our well-being as we walked in the rain to find a phone. (These were the days when college students did not have cell phones.) However, our male friend, who had stayed alone with the car, was comfortable accepting their help when they came across him further down the road.
For a shocking majority of women, gender-related anxiety is triggered by unwanted sexualized encounters. In 2018, NPR cited a study that found 81 percent of American women had experienced sexual harassment. I expect the number is actually higher, as most of us do not talk about these experiences. More than half of the women in the study reported that the first incident was prior to graduation from high school. (That percentage stunned me, as my own experience, again, leads me to expect that very few American women graduate from high school without being sexually harassed.) Adult men need to understand that this experience can affect any relationship they have with women, whether work related, platonic friendship, or romance.
The Church has a sacred responsibility to nourish and nurture all of its people, the statistical majority of whom are women. Women who have endured sexualized violence, engaged in sexual sin, and been taught gender-based anxiety behaviors, cannot perceive themselves as having full access to sacramental pastoral care if all the caregivers available to them are men. They cannot protect their own unborn if they are not given a safe place to do so, and they cannot repent of their past sins and be restored to the Church unless there is someone they perceive as safe and accessible to guide and shelter them along the way. Good men in the Church need to see what may be happening when they are not watching; women in the Church must speak the truth so that no woman believes herself to be alone.