“I’m a strong woman and I don’t need help.”

A common argument against interventions that aim to decrease harassment and violence against women–conference harassment policies, stronger anti-bullying measures on social media, and so on–is made by women and goes something like this: “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need to have my hand held.” Sometimes this is served with a side of “You’re the real sexist if you think that women are weak enough to need this.”

There are a lot of false assumptions layered in these statements. Namely:

1. That not needing certain protective measures makes you “strong” relative to others.

According to the fundamental attribution error, people tend to overemphasize the role of others’ internal characteristics and underemphasize the role of the situation they are in when trying to explain others’ behavior. In this case, many people observe others asking for harassment policies, trigger warnings, and the like, and attribute this to those individuals’ supposed “weakness” rather than to situational factors.

This discourse of “strength” when it comes to harassment and bullying troubles me. What I’ve generally found is that an individual’s ability to “deal with” harassment and abuse has less to do with how “strong” they are and more to do with other factors: social support, personal history of victimization, and feeling otherwise safe in the current environment, for instance.

Further, one’s likelihood of experiencing harassment and abuse in the first place has less to do with how “strong” they actually are, and more to do with how they are perceived by others. While individual factors have some impact on that, so do social categories that people use to think about others. Women with disabilities are extremely likely to be sexually abused because others perceive them as unable to speak up or get help, and because they perceive everyone else as unwilling to believe the testimony of a woman with a disability. Sadly, the latter is often true.

Therefore, feeling able to handle contingencies like sexual assault and harassment on your own, without help, is often more an indicator of privilege than superior personal traits. It certainly is for me. Part of having privilege is having difficulty seeing how other people may not have the same opportunities or experiences as you, for reasons that are not their fault.

2. That recognizing that some people(/women) need protective measures is bigoted(/sexist).

This is the gender version of another of my favorite bad arguments, If You Notice Race Then You’re The Real Racist. No, Real Racists (insofar as there is such a thing) are people who have managed to convince themselves that they “don’t see race” while continuing to judge and discriminate on the basis of it.

In the real world, there is sexual harassment and assault. In the contexts that we’re discussing, such as conferences and college campuses, sexual harassment and assault are most commonly perpetrated by men against women. Although harassment policies, anti-bullying measures on social media, and other initiatives of that sort have the potential to help anyone regardless of gender, most people correctly note that the initiatives are being created with female victims in mind–because that’s the majority, and because the loudest voices in anti-sexual violence advocacy tend to be women.

Noticing reality is not bigoted in and of itself. (But it’s possible to discuss reality in a bigoted way, obviously. For instance: “Women are the majority of sexual assault victims because men are slavering beasts” or “There tends to be more violence in neighborhoods where the residents are predominantly Black because Black people are more violent.”) If it is true that women are the majority of sexual harassment victims–and, according to current research, it seems to be–then it makes sense to be concerned with reducing sexual harassment against women.

But as I mentioned, such protective measures are useful to anyone who experiences harassment or assault, regardless of gender. When you say that such measures are by default sexist against women, you are assuming that all potential victims are female, and ignoring all the ones who are not. Although I do so hate to play “You’re The Real _____,” it is actually quite sexist to assume that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment or assault, and quite cissexist to assume that non-female, non-male people don’t even exist, as victims or otherwise.

3. That “strength,” whatever that is, is a quality that everyone ought to have, regardless of personal circumstance, and having it makes you clearly superior to those who don’t.

This is probably the main reason this response arises. A lot of people feel good about themselves when they position themselves as strong and independent and maybe a little bit better than those who can’t “take care of themselves.” In this way, the “I’m a strong woman” narrative is actually sort of a reasonable response to sexism. When you’ve been told implicitly and explicitly your entire life that you’re weak because of your gender, why not reimagine yourself as strong? Stronger, perhaps, than other women?

But when you say, “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need this,” what does that say about the women who are not “strong,” who do not consider themselves “strong,” who cannot be “strong” in the ways that you are referring to?

I was originally inspired to write this post after a discussion on my Facebook about an article that I posted about interaction badges. This is a measure implemented at some conferences for Autistic people to help them set boundaries around social interaction. Red badges mean, “Do not initiate interaction with me”; yellow badges mean, “Only initiate interaction with me if we know each other”; and green badges mean, “I would like to talk but have trouble initiating; please initiate with me.” The badges are very useful for people who sometimes have trouble reading subtle social cues from others or sending such cues themselves, which describes many people on the autism spectrum.

I posted about this idea and said that it would be a cool thing to implement at the conferences I go to–not just because plenty of ASD folks attend these conferences too, but because it would be helpful for lots of people neurotypical and otherwise. Predictably, someone said that they’re a “strong woman” and they don’t need this and so on. A friend of mine responded that, well, some of us aren’t strong, and some can’t set boundaries, and why do these people deserve to feel uncomfortable or even unsafe just because they don’t have the capability to be “strong” in this way? How is that fair at all?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons someone might temporarily or permanently lack the ability to assertively set boundaries. People with autism sometimes experience selective mutism, which means they cannot speak. People with social anxiety or similar conditions might panic and be unable to relax and find the words they need. In more extreme situations, sexual assault victims often experience a sort of paralysis that prevents them from being able to speak up and say “no.” This is a documented effect.

Setting boundaries is often exhausting, and different people have different amounts of energy (or spoons, if you prefer that metaphor) to do it. If colored badges make a space more accessible, why not? If you personally don’t need it, who cares?

4. That these protective measures are being implemented with the assumption that everyone needs them.

Actually, most people do not get harassed and assaulted at conferences or elsewhere. Some of the people who do get harassed and assaulted at conferences or elsewhere will have ways to cope and deal with that on their own, without using the resources made available to them by that space. When I was assaulted in college, I decided not to report it or utilize any campus resources for survivors because I didn’t feel that I needed them. When I was harassed at conferences, I decided not to let the organizers know, because I preferred to deal with it in other ways. To the best of my recollection, I have never used any formal procedure for dealing with harassment or assault, for my own personal reasons.

So, for various reasons, you may not need to use a protective measure in a given space. That’s great! Nobody implied that you, personally, need this measure. If you don’t end up experiencing harassment or assault, that’s obviously good. If you do, but you’re comfortable handling harassment or assault on your own, then you don’t need to avail yourself of the measures in place to help survivors. But not everyone is, for more reasons than I’m able to list.

This is why “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need this” ultimately falls so flat for me as an argument for or against anything. Claiming that harassment policies are useless because you don’t personally need them is no more sensible than claiming that a restaurant should not have vegan options because you’re not personally a vegan. And claiming that harassment policies somehow imply that all women (yourself included) are weak and need protecting is no more sensible than claiming that the mere presence of an elevator is accusing you of laziness.

There are people who sometimes need harassment policies and there are people who sometimes (or always) need elevators. If you don’t, ignore it and go about your business.

Or, better yet, understand that others may need help that you do not, and support them in their effort to get it.

~~~

I’ve previously written some other stuff related to this argument:

Also of relevance is the fact that the “strong woman” narrative has particular meaning and significance for women of color.

Living With Depression: Strength

[Content note: depression]

Half a year ago I started a series of posts about living with depression in order to help people understand what it’s like to have it beyond just the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. Then I moved to FtB and got super intimidated and didn’t want to write it anymore. But now I have writer’s block and I’m feeling too overwhelmed by everything going on in the world so I’m going to write about myself.

It’s not meant to reflect anyone’s experience but my own, although I’m sure plenty of people will identify with it. If things were completely different for you and you feel comfortable sharing, the comments section’s all yours.

The two previous posts, if you’re curious, were about trust and openness.

For many people, both sufferers and non-, depression is primarily a lack of strength.

Emotional strength, that is. When you hear people call depression a “weakness,” consider the fact that the opposite of “weakness” is “strength,” and you’ll see exactly what they think is lacking in those who suffer from it. Of course, enlightened as depression sufferers supposedly are about their own illness, most of us fall into the same trap at some point.

Because on the surface, depression really can look like a lack of strength. For many years, at the slightest sign of misfortune or difficulty–a bad grade, a rude remark from someone–my entire mental composure would crumple like a dry leaf you crush in your hand. Imagine going to the gym and trying to lift one of the lightest weights they have, but you drop it and collapse in a heap on the floor. That’s approximately the physical equivalent of how it feels, with all the humiliation and self-blame involved.

In reality, of course, it has nothing to do with weakness or strength. It’s an illness. It’s not your fault. (It’s not a “chemical imbalance,” by the way, as someone would usually say right about now, but it’s not a weakness either.)

But, honestly, most days I can’t internalize that knowledge, no matter how many courses I take and articles I read. I feel weak.

Anyway, my solution to this for a while was to try to present a false persona that is strong, competent, and detached. I spent a lot of time furiously pretending not to care about things, because that’s what I thought strength was. It never worked. I’m sure people saw through it, and besides, the thing with depression is that often you can’t fake your way out of it. The pain and emotions it causes are too powerful to hide. It’s like the difference between not letting it show on your face when you’ve stubbed your toe, and not letting it show on your face when you’ve fractured your leg in three places. People are gonna be able to tell. No matter what.

And that inability to hide what I felt was private, shameful, and weak was probably the worst way I’d ever felt like I failed myself. Worse than not liking college, worse than having to drop journalism, worse than not getting (or having to decline) a slew of coveted internships and other opportunities. In the endless parade of personal failures to which I am a constant, unwilling spectator, failing to be “mentally strong” is the absolute worst.

So what about physical strength, then?

It’ll probably come as no surprise (as I’m sure I’m far from the only person who does this) that I use physical strength and competence as a way to distract from and make up for the emotional strength that, despite everything I know about depression, I still feel I do not have.

I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember. I used ballet that way when I used to dance, from when I was 6 years old until I was 15. Then I switched to marching band, which you may think isn’t hard until you’ve done it. During the off-season I’d bike or walk pretty long distances or go to the gym or exercise at home. Of course, all that was irrevocably tainted by the fact that I had massive body image issues and eating habits that at times were very unhealthy, but I do remember the difference between wanting to lose weight and wanting to be strong. I haven’t always wanted to lose weight, but I’ve always, always wanted to be strong.

(Of course, physical strength is a gendered trait, and the gender that we usually associate it with is male. That means that we think of physical strength as being able to lift a whole lot of pounds–with your arms, that is–and it means that my male friends scoff at how pathetically I compare to them in that department. Of course, I just smile and roll my eyes, because I’d love to see them sit calmly in the splits for 15 minutes while reading a book, or twirl on the toes of one foot. Whatever.)

Partially, I like being strong for the same reasons anyone else does–it feels good, it’s useful, it keeps you healthier. But also, it allows me to shape my body in the way I’ve never managed to shape my mind. Getting physically strong requires a lot of effort, sure, but everyone knows exactly how it’s done. I don’t know how to stop being so emotionally nonresilient. I only know that sometimes I go months without any problems, and then suddenly, for no reason, I start crumpling again.

Muscles don’t work that way. You work them out, and they get stronger. You don’t work them out, and they eventually get weaker. You know which exercises work out which muscles. You know that if muscles are sore, you gave them a good workout. (I say this as I can barely walk for the third day in a row because of this thing I did with my calves, so there ya go).

If I were able to afford a therapist who could actually help (as opposed to the ones that I’ve had, who did not), maybe I’d eventually become emotionally strong. But for now I’ve mostly given up. The only thing that works when I feel weak is simple distraction, but the more tired and overwhelmed I am and the more mental effort I’ve already exerted on other things, the harder distraction gets.

But when I feel strong physically, it makes up for not feeling strong emotionally. Just a little bit.