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  • Isabelle Stillman

I Am Afraid

Yesterday a stranger sent me an unsolicited picture of his penis. I was in my bedroom, my private beautiful space, and I received a message containing a picture of someone’s genitals. Then, he video called me. I was holding my phone, and I saw clearly how thin the distance between me and him really was: a thin sheet of glass. I declined the call. He called again. I ultimately blocked and reported the stranger, but I had to open the original message to do so. I had to welcome his penis into my home in order to get him out of it.


Someone put himself into my most private space without permission. He came into my room, into my house, freely. Because he felt like it. No matter where you are, people can and will violate you.


Today, I’m thinking about walking to the grocery store, and the image that comes to mind is men harassing me on the street. Today, I got a request on a tutoring platform I work with to tutor a male student via Skype and I deleted it immediately, the idea of a male looking at me through a video camera reducing me to full-body shakes. I need to go to the store, but my heart tenses at the idea of getting a male cashier, seeing him touch my food, having to talk to him. I am afraid.


Fear works by reducing people. We’re seeing it now – when you make someone afraid of a virus, they focus with profound intensity on washing their hands and buying their masks, and for the next few weeks, months, whatever, no one will be able to think or talk about much of anything else. Fear blinds us to everything but the threat itself and erases our ability to think our way out of it.


I have been made to be afraid of men so many, many times in my life. Touched, grabbed, yelled at, coerced, harassed online, condescended in person, intimidated on the street or in a bar or in my own bedroom. And in the days following these instances, that fear has lingered. I have been afraid to leave the house, to have a meeting with a man, to be with men I have previously had no reason to distrust.


But, out of necessity, women have learned to conquer fear quickly and frequently. I have faced and overcome it, time and time again. I have re-learned to trust the world with me, with my body, time and time again. To go out into it after it has grabbed me, bruised me, controlled me, silenced me – to go out and love it. To revel in it, to soak in it, to be part of it.


Women overcome fear and rebuild trust constantly. People who are otherwise marginalized overcome fear and rebuild trust constantly. Can you imagine that strength? That’s an insane amount of strength!!! To face and love something that has crushed you to your tiniest self, even ONCE, let alone every single day.


Physical virus versus the virus of white heteronormative patriarchy – there’s not a huge difference, except that the physical one threatens instead of buoys the people in power. We’re all afraid, but for some of us this is the first time we’ve felt like this: Like something is going to get us. That is a real, valid, scary feeling.


And it’s okay to feel it. It’s okay to be afraid, it’s good that we’re washing our hands, it’ll help everyone if we cancel things and stay home and try not to let things get us and our loved ones. But the lesson this pandemic offers, is that this fear is so old, so familiar to so many of us. That millions of people are justifiably afraid that something is going to get us every day. So there may be a silver lining to come out of this pandemic: now you know a little bit how it feels.

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