Women Need to Say 'No' More
The other day I sat down with Susan Schorn's forthcoming memoir, Smile at Strangers, the story of a woman who responds to a lifetime of paralyzing fear by taking up karate. This woman had never been personally attacked or molested, but chronic anxiety had put the squeeze on her like a Victorian corset. As I read Schorn's story, I wasn't thinking, How odd to be so afraid all the time! I was thinking, I hear you, sister.
The U.S. ranks 89 of 158 on the Global Peace Index, so anxiety may come with the territory. Last year, the "level of perceived criminality in society" rose sharply. Close behind is "likelihood of violent demonstrations." Massacres at Virginia Tech, the Aurora theater, Sandy Hook, not to mention the spate of shootings since Sandy Hook, share a common denominator. Namely, we're no longer surprised. We may not like it, but we've connected the dots. This could happen to our loved ones. Fear has become a rational response.
Most Christians believe in an external evil entity whose purpose is to steal, kill, and destroy. When I was young, I imagined this entity as a creepy stalker lurking near Christian fences. Fear comes and goes. Oh, we know we can put on the armor of God. We can declaim 2 Timothy 1:7. But it's not as if fear, once ousted, will stay away. It retreats, but it bounces back—Satan in the wilderness, waiting for a more opportune time.
Whether we live in the most or the least peaceful country in the world, we all experience fear. However, it's important to make two qualitative points here. One is that the threat of real violence is worse in the United States than in, say, Canada (No. 4 on the Global Peace Index). The other is that although American men are statistically more likely to be the victims of violent assault, it is women who seem more afraid. Well, of course, we say defensively. It is women who are much more likely to be the victims of rape.
What gender etiology inheres in the experience of fear? The author I was reading recounted an anecdote from a self-defense class. The students paired up. One student would harass her partner with a one-minute stream of yes or no questions. Do you have the time? Do you want a ride? Can I buy you a drink? And so on. The other student, maintaining steady eye contact, would answer every question with the single word "No." This exercise spoke to the state of female anxiety in general, not just to unwelcome overtures. A good solid no makes women profoundly uncomfortable. We tend to offer up a flood of explanatory excuses, a long, nicey-nice backstory about why we cannot accommodate whoever wants a favor, and have we mentioned we're really, really sorry?