You know, a few months ago this dude friend of mine showed up to hang out with me all dejected. Over a couple of drinks he explained his long face — earlier that night, he’d been walking down the street behind this really cute girl, and when she looked back at him over her shoulder, he thought it was in interest and smiled at her. Now, this guy is tall and skinny, can most commonly be found in glasses and t-shirts scrawled across with math jokes, is kind to animals, considers himself a feminist. What he doesn’t consider himself is threatening, so he was surprised, confused, and even hurt by what happened next: the girl in front of him responding to his called greeting of, “Nice skirt,” by taking off down the darkened street in a dead run.
"Yeah," I said, "she probably thought you were going to rape her."
"But that’s not fair,” he said. “I’m a good person; I’d never rape anyone! How could she think that? She doesn’t even know me.”
Out here in the wilds of the internet, I often find myself making arguments about shit like feminism and rape culture unilaterally. For one thing, there’s so much (like, so much) out there arguing unilaterally against this shit that I feel it’s necessary; for another thing, ‘round these parts there’s a lot of people jumping to hostility when it’s painfully clear they don’t have a handle on all the facts. But I’m more lenient with the people in my real life, especially dudes like the one mentioned above. I’m willing to extend to them a patience that I wouldn’t with strangers on the internet, because they matter to me, and it matters to me that they understand. So when my friend sat there that night, whining over his beer and responding to my attempted explanations with, “But I’d love it if a girl smiled at me on the street, or even catcalled at me! Fuck, even if a dude did it, I’d be flattered,” I decided to spend some time thinking about how to clear things up for him. It took awhile, but I finally came up with a metaphor to get the job done:
Consider the bank.
The bank*, of course, is something we’ve all been aware of from a young age; our ideas of it probably differed based on our upbringings, on the way the adults in our lives talked about and interacted with it, but without question we’ve known what it was for a long time. Banks can be seen in media, both in children’s shows and in shows for adults; there are toy banks, and games like Monopoly that feature them; I know that I, at least, was taught about currency in school, what the individual coins and bills were, in lessons structured around the concept of banks. We, as kids, knew about banks, and what we knew about them was that they were the place we put our money to keep it safe. We trusted banks, because that’s what that concept implicitly suggests, and because we weren’t old enough to have been told — or to really process, even if we were told — to do anything else.
So, okay, fast forward a couple of years. Now we’re hitting adolescence, getting old enough to start getting jobs, and the time comes for us to get a bank account of our very own. But all of a sudden, things are very different. All of a sudden, people in our lives are advising us to do our research, to watch ourselves; when we google for more information we find that we have to look out for things like high interest rates and hidden fees. All this time we’ve thought that banks had our best interests at heart, that they were there to keep our money safe — now it turns out that there’s this whole other layer to banking that we never even knew about. Now we’re told we have to protect ourselves, because banks are out to screw us.
Of course, we open bank accounts anyway, because what choice do we have? Banks are everywhere, they’re part of day-to-day life. To completely avoid them you’d probably have to go live alone in a cabin in the woods that’s cut off from the conveniences of modern society, and who wants to do that, right?
So you enter the system, you start banking, and as you get older and older you start hearing more and more horror stories. A friend of a friend who’s drowning in debt because some shark talked her into taking out a line of credit she couldn’t afford; a significant other who’s still trying to fix the credit score he tanked as a kid who didn’t know any better; a coworker whose money was mismanaged, who ended up losing their house. These stories are on the news, too, next to other stories, stories about banks getting government bailouts, and stories that suggest that those who are in debt have done it to themselves, are the ones at fault. Sure, it’s possible to find a good bank, one you trust, but the fact remains that a lot of people aren’t finding good banks. And even if you do find a good bank, and don’t deal with a horror story of your very own, there are always the little things — shit like overdraft fees, or a charge for transferring money between accounts, or even the way other banks’ ATMs will ding you a buck fifty for making a withdrawal. Even if your bank never does anything horrible to you, the system still hits you with the small shit, these little grains of sand that remind you that, in the grand scheme of things, they have the power.
Because they do. They have the power. You could fight back, could try to assert your autonomy over them, and maybe you do that, and maybe you even succeed — but you always know, before you try and while you’re trying, that they’re bigger and stronger than you are. That if they wanted to they could make your life savings vanish or wipe out all your good credit, could fuck with you and your life in ways that would take years to bounce back from, and you probably wouldn’t be able to do shit about it.
(Of course, there are always those privileged few who don’t have to deal with this fear — who work for the bank, who have enough money that the bank works for them, who aren’t yet old enough to know what banks can really be like. Who have been surrounded, all their lives, by others who don’t know what it is to be afraid of the bank. Who are convinced that the fear doesn’t exist, that the fear isn’t rational, simply because they themselves have never experienced it. Those people always exist, and they are always wrong.)
"So," I say to my friend recently, having gone through this entire spiel, this metaphor I’ve been thinking about all this time (I told him it was a thought experiment, wanting him to go in without any biases). "With all that said, I want you to imagine that you buy a house, and one day a car marked with the bank’s logo pulls up in front of it. A man gets out of the car and leans against it; when you walk over to him, he looks your house up and down and smiles. Now, tell me: when he says, ‘Nice house,’ do you hear that sincerely? Or do you hear every bad experience you’ve ever had with the bank?"
"Oh, the bad, for sure," my friend says. "Those dudes are like movie villains, I’d assume he was going to cancel my mortgage or something."
"Are you sure that’s fair?" I say. "What if he really meant it? What if he was being totally sincere, and just wanted to pay you a compliment?"
My friend frowns. “Who does that in a car with the bank logo on it, though? I mean, in different circumstances it’d probably freak me out less.” He pauses, considering it. “He’s a total stranger though, right? It’s not like, my next door neighbor or something?”
"You’ve never met him before."
"Then yeah," my friend says, "it’s weird either way, but definitely freakier if he’s doing it in the bank car."
"So, let’s sum this up. You’re saying unsolicited praise from someone who’s part of a group you have negative associations with, especially in circumstances that highlight that person as a member of that group, can come off as a threat? Even if it’s meant sincerely?”
He shrugs, reaching for his drink. “Yeah, sure, I guess so.”
"Right," I say, "so remember that girl who ran away from you on the street a few months ago?" His straw falls out of his mouth.
I think that a lot of the time when dudes hear about the problems with catcalling, the reasons ladies don’t like it, they can’t process it because they’re framing it wrong. When they turn the concept around in their head what they’re imagining is like, Mean Girls-era Lindsay Lohan yelling, “Nice ass!” at them, or Jessica Alba giving them a wolf-whistle. But that’s not accurate for a lot of reasons, the most important of which is that it doesn’t capture, at all, the parts of this that deal with power imbalance and conditioned fear. Like I said before, there always the privileged folk who think the fear doesn’t exist, or isn’t justified, simply because they haven’t experienced it. They are always around, they are always wrong, and they are almost always assholes.
So here’s the deal: if you find yourself telling people to take it less seriously, or that they’re overreacting, or that they should shut up, try to remember that there is fear here you know not of, and that it’s justified fear, and that there are much better ways to handle it than yelling at folks who are just looking to vent their frustration a little. And if you are a dude who wants to know why he shouldn’t catcall? Who just wants to pay a woman a compliment? Who argues that he’d love it if the shoe were on the other foot? You’re the bank. Kindly get the hell off our lawns.
*A footnoted disclaimer because tumblr: as I really hope is obvious, I am simply using the concept of “the bank” in an allegorical sense for explanatory purposes. I am not in any way trying to belittle either the experience of socioeconomic crises or that of rape/rape culture by using them in the same post; they’re totally and completely different experiences! They’re not at all comparable except in the broad stokes that make them possible to use here — ie, that these things both have widely felt systemic influences on our society, etc. Please do not come at me demanding to know why I don’t think that the totally fuckshit terrible wealth disparity situation going on in the world right now is important or anything of that ilk — I do, I REALLY DO, this post just isn’t about that. Don’t do the thing, tumblr. Thank.