Thursday, May 23, 2024

On Meeting a Bear in the Woods

Social media has been buzzing with the news that for many women, if they were alone in the woods, they would rather encounter a bear than a lone man. And the mens are MAD! Oh, they are in their feelings!

But before I engage further with the bear in the woods thing, I need to know: is the bear carrying a balloon and singing a song about hunny? Or wearing a raincoat, perhaps? Just want to check.

This meme is the exact opposite of mansplaining. Mansplaining is a man explaining something he might (or might not) understand, but definitely assumes the non-men around him do not understand, then this is the exact opposite of mansplaining on every level. We have non-men who understand something pleading with various men either to understand something they don’t understand, or to be a little less precious (perhaps even… man up) and show a little dignity in the face of a truth that makes them uncomfortable. Whatever the words, there's a lot of gninialpsnam going on here.

What are men trying hard not to understand (or acting performatively offended to hear)? At its heart, a simple repackaging of the “all men are rapists,” discussion. If you get that, you can skip to part two of this blog post. You don't have to (maybe you like the way I write or something?) but you can.

There are some added paws, claws, marmalade and occasional ‘wakka wakka’s, but it boils down to the same reality: a lot, maybe most, perhaps even all women feel unsafe around men they don’t know. We’re guilty until proven innocent. 

I probably deeply felt the injustice of being considered guilty until proven innocent at some point in my life, but a lady friend really brought it home for me when she asked me, “how do you prepare for a date with someone you don’t know that well? A blind date or somesuch?”

My checklist was pretty typical for my gender, I think: dress nice, shave, make sure there's cash in the wallet, gas in the car, tickets for the thing and reservations at the place. If things are hopeful, condom in pocket, too. Check the trunk of the car for that duffel bag of clamps, fur handcuffs, leather straps and harnesses, edible body paint, assorted toys, fireman helmet and French maid costume, (all fresh-pressed if wearable and freshly cleaned if applicable [pun intended], of course), battery chargers, consent forms and robe and wizard hat every sensible person has in the trunk of their car. I don’t think anything there counts as unusual for a garden variety man-on-a-date.

“Okay,” my lady friend said. “Here’s what I do…

-(while planning) be sure it’s at a time and place that’s public, well-lit, and busy enough to have witnesses

-get her self-defense device (pepper spray, brass knuckles, taser, etc.)

-make sure it’s full/charged/loaded etc.

-get a purse or handbag small enough she could grab said device out of it immediately

-match it with shoes that were ok for running in a pinch

-tell a trusted friend where she’d go, when she’d be back, and what time to start worrying (changes of plan informed by text updates)

-set up a codeword to text to that friend, which meant “call back and pretend there’s an emergency. I need a quick exit” (this was not, she assured me, as cool as when Trinity does it in the Matrix. It was scary.)

During the date:

-only visit the toilet when her drink was empty

-scan places she entered for the number of exits, and number of women around

This friend wasn’t choosing “risky types” of boys to date - she did all this invisible work on the off-chance, because the most dangerous guys don’t look dangerous.

“On the off chance, you say?” says the Fictional Person Who Argues With Me (FPWAWM), “Sounds kind of… PARANOID!”

That’s a good word, paranoid. Let’s unpack it a bit.

FPWAWM: (Groans dramatically)

A paranoid person takes precautions, but not all precautions are paranoid. Can we agree on that? 

Every day, everybody takes precautions for tons of bad stuff that might, or might not happen. Stuff like seatbelts, bike helmets, smoke detectors, a few tylenol in the backpack, and waiting at crosswalks are all precautions. We don't mind them, might not even think about them, because they don't cost us much time, money or inconvenience. Nobody thinks it's paranoid to wait at a crosswalk, or wear a bike helmet.

Precautions only become paranoid when they are out of proportion with the actual frequency or seriousness of the bad thing that might happen. Movie stunt drivers or race car drivers might wear an airbag suit, because filming stunts is risky. The same action is paranoid if you wear an airbag suit to drive to church. Put simply, deciding what's paranoid depends completely on making a risk assessment. If the risk is high enough, the word paranoid doesn’t attach, no matter how many precautions we take. YES I want the skydiving pack with a triple redundant parachute release mechanism. Unless you have a quadruple redundant one in storage.

So, FPWAWM, we need to measure that "on the off chance" a bit more accurately before bringing the word paranoid into the conversation.

"and will you be having the fish, the chicken,
or our vegetarian option for the meal?"
If I wore a skydiving suit every time I took a commercial flight… would that be paranoid? 

FPWAWM: Airplane crashes are pretty devastating,, and yet I want to say it would be.

And your impulse would be correct. Here's why:  most years, fewer than 1000 people worldwide die in airplane crashes (see below). That’s really low! A skydiving suit is a bit much for a commercial flight. 

However, if we saw 50 000 plane crash deaths per year, or 500 000, the calculation changes. Maybe a parachute isn't such a bad idea.

So what’s the risk of sexual assault, which is the real subject of the bear discourse, then? Is a woman taking all the measures listed above more like the weirdo wearing a skydiving suit on a commercial flight, or more like a soccer mom telling the kids to “buckle up” before she starts the car?

(that airplane crash chart is courtesy of

Let's make a risk assessment.

Even without data, if you were online in 2017, during that October when #MeToo first went viral, you know women's risk of being a SA victim is pretty high, that a lot of women experience that sometime in their lives.

FPWAWM: “…” 

You want data, I guess, FPWAWM? 

FPWAWM: “Yes.” 

Are you sure? 

FPWAWM: “Yes.” 

OK then. RAINN - the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network reports here (RAINN link) that one in six US women will be the victim of an attempted rape or completed rape in her lifetime. Men get raped too (1 in 71, sez Wikipedia, which isn’t nothing, but which is fewer than 1 in 6) Wikipedia link (I know, I know), but even for male rape, the rapists are still overwhelmingly male. How overwhelmingly? Ninety-frikkin' nine percent. (no, that is not a typo). What percentage of rapists or would-be rapists are actual members of the Ursidae family? I think the number there is zero.

Who are we meeting in the woods again?

1 in 6, with 99% of it perpetrated by men… context-free, that’s enough on its own, isn't it? Is that enough risk assessment? Can we say precautions are not paranoid?

FPWAWM: "..."

Fine. Context: here are some risky things humans do. 1.3 million people a year die in car accidents.

What precautions do we take to avoid being part of that 1.3 million? We pay car insurance, wear seatbelts, pay extra for cars with legally required safety features, support such safety laws, obey tons of traffic laws, and basically accept the tickets and fines as part of the game if we break them. We whine, but we pay, and we accept that the law does, and should, exist. 

8 million people a year die of smoking-related diseases. For 8 million, society tolerates or even welcomes huge cigarette taxes, taxpayer-funded anti-smoking advertising and education campaigns, extensive regulations over every aspect of the tobacco industry, and we even let them put horrifying photos on every cigarette package, which go on display where kids might see them. We send smokers off to special designated smoking areas like grade-school kids standing in the corner. IMAGINE how much complaining we'd hear from any other group if we told them they had to leave the building and stand in the winter wind to indulge their habit. That's for 8 million people a year.

Is one in six US women more than eight million a year? I’m not going to torture you with my back-of-the-napkin math here: it’s hard to math this math because:

I’m not sure how that 1 in 6 stacks up with other countries with different cultures, different laws, different definitions of rape and different social conditions. It might go up or down depending on how laws are written and stuff.

A lot of rapes and rape attempts go unreported, for all kinds of reasons, so the real number might be higher than 1 in 6. Maybe even a lot higher. It's hard to say. It's probably not lower, though.

Most of the data I’ve seen about sexual harassment and rape is of the “at some time in her life” or "during her time at university" type, which is hard to translate into a “per year” number that stacks up directly against the 1.3 million car crash deaths and the 8 million smoking deaths per year. It is hard to brain those numbers.

But even without braining them, I can lick my finger, stick it in the air, and say I’m pretty sure that shakes out to WAY more than 8 million assaults a year worldwide. If men were a car, there’d be a recall. 

If anyone knows a link where someone brained the math more mathily, please share it! But for today, it is enough to say we are definitely way above the threshold of “dangerous enough to take precautions,” and what level of precautions? We'd still be far, far from paranoid at the "everybody wears a seatbelt"  level of precaution. If you disagree, Evil Knievel and the cast of Jackass would like a word with you.

1 in 6 is one spin of Russian roulette.

And that 1 in 6 was ONLY for rape and rape attempts. If we add  leering, following, catcalling, obscene texts or phone calls, stalking, groping, or nonconsensual camera stuff, how high does the ratio go? That stuff, which all adds to that constantly on-edge, unsafe feeling women are talking about when they bring up the bear thing, isn’t even counted in the 1 in 6.

If you’re a man reading this, and you’re mad about being compared to a bear, ask a woman who’ll tell you the truth how high above one in six she thinks the ratio would go if we counted all that noise, too. I have a feeling I know what answer I’d get.

One spin of Russian roulette. It’s perfectly reasonable to be nervous about a strange man in the woods.

( says 35% of women have faced sexual harassment), it would be 

FPWAWM: “I’m not convinced.”

Really? Well, let’s keep going, then.

Next question: Why DO bears hang out in the woods? What are they up to? 

Of all the things bears do, it ALL happens in the woods. They eat, sleep, climb stuff, play the pinecone game, and make marmalade, all in the woods. That means, “find and harm a lone woman” is a long ways down on a bear’s to-do list, far far below "find a tree trunk that doubles as a back-scratcher" 

Ask “What is that bear up to, by itself in the woods?” and the answer is, “Where else would it be?”

Then, ask what that MAN in the woods is up to?

Well, of all the things men do, most do not happen in the woods. Towns, buildings, houses,  cars or sports bars all rank higher than woods. Plus, the things men do in the woods are usually group activities, like hiking or camping or enacting calling on dark spirits from the beyond. Of the things men ONLY do in the woods, and ONLY alone… the list is getting short, and while the top few items are still probably harmless (hey look! I found a cool walking stick!), a few things on that list happen in the woods specifically because the woods don't have escape routes, locking doors, CCTVs, law enforcement, or nearby witnesses. What kinds of activities check THOSE boxes? Nothing wholesome. 

“What is that man up to by himself in the woods?” “I don’t know, and I don’t care to find out.”

There’s a very small cost for thinking a man in the woods is up to no good, and being wrong. My punishment for avoiding him: a little lost time, and a lost chance to meet someone who might be cool. 

On the other hand, there’s a very very high cost for thinking a man in the woods is probably safe, and being wrong. Walk up to the wrong man thinking he's safe, and we’re looking at life-altering trauma. 

This is what the saying “better safe than sorry” was invented for.

FPWAWM: “I’m not saying you’ve persuaded me, but…”

At this point, FPWAWM, it’s starting to seem like you just don’t WANT to see it from women’s point of view. Really think about whether that's happening right now, and that would mean.

FPWAWM: “No comment.”

Another thing about bears: the same actions – the stuff in the forest safety pamphlet – will keep you safe from almost every bear. Unless that bear really really wants you to win an Oscar, you’re probably good. 

But men are not so predictable. Backtalking a catcaller can have a range of effects, from an abashed apology to being followed and targeted. You never know what you’re gonna get, from man to man, or even from the same man on different days.

That uncertainty is terrifying when someone is bigger, probably stronger, and might be inclined to violence (and you won’t know in he is until it’s too late). Even more terrifying if you know that if he attacks you, some people won't believe you, even blame you if you report it. Bears usually aren’t inclined to violence. They’re inclined to bear stuff, like catching salmon, the bare necessities of life, and preventing forest fires.

FPWAWM: “But I’m a Good Guy! I’m not One Of Those Guys! Not All Men are like that!”

Sure, but she doesn’t know that yet, does she? And don't forget that most human predators know how to make themselves appear harmless, so rando mando is guilty until proven innocent.

FPWAWM: “Perhaps if I just had a chance to explain that I’m not a predator…”

Good luck with that, but think on this: the things you'd say to try and persuade a woman that you're okay... are the exact things a predator would say to get her alone and… preda her. Saying you're one of the good ones IS a red flag itself, kind of the same way the people who say "Trust me" the most are the biggest liars. 

FPWAWM: Well, ok. I’m not saying those reservations are unreasonable. I’m really not. But… if I’m guilty until proven innocent, isn’t it fair that I get a chance to, you know, prove that I am… innocent?

Fair point… but perhaps alone in the woods is not a time and place where your chance of doing so is very high.

FPWAWM: So what can I do?

Read the fucking room! Instead of alone in the woods, approach women when and where other people are around. Take your shot in places where the answer to the question “what’s he doing by himself HERE” is something totally normal and mundane like "getting a latte, looking for a book to read, or sharing one of his interests with like-minded people.”

FPWAWM: “Okay. I get it. But I’d just like to point out that any persuadable person would have already been persuaded 400 words ago, Rob.”

So you admit you don’t want to be persuaded?

FPWAWM: “I admit no such thing. I just want to know why you are really still going on about this?”

I’m glad you asked.

FPWAWM: “Oh shit. That’s your ‘pontification’ face.”

It is.

FPWAWM: “What have I done?”

Stay tuned for part two!

No comments: