by Ben Cohen
As a 6ft tall male who weighs roughly 185lbs and has spent over 30 years practicing various combat arts, there aren’t too many men I’m physically afraid of. This isn’t to say I’m an invincible superhero, but I can go out at night and walk through a sketchy neighborhood knowing that if anything happens, I’m capable of defending myself. With decades of training under my belt, I’ve learned how to punch and kick with concussive power and can submit someone on the ground with a good amount of proficiency. I’ve felt physically confident in myself from the age of about 17, and can’t really conceive of what it would be like to feel vulnerable and unable to do anything in a dangerous situation.
This changed for me a couple of years ago when someone began harassing my wife (then my girlfriend), who is 5ft 2 and 112lbs. James (not his real name) went to graduate school with my wife and had shown romantic interest in her, and after being told she was seeing someone (me), he became angry and began calling, texting and emailing her at all hours of the day. At first, I didn’t really understand why my wife had become so afraid. “He’s just a sad creep,” I told her. “There’s nothing to worry about, he won’t do anything. Just ignore him and he’ll go away.”
In my head there was no threat. I wasn’t afraid, so why should my wife be? But James didn’t go away, and the non-stop communication attempts continued for another two days. At that point, I decided to intervene. I texted James telling him to stop contacting my wife. He texted back claiming I was threatening him and that my wife should just respond to him. I told him that wasn’t going to happen and informed him that we would report him to the police if he continued. The texts, calls and emails stopped for 12 hours before James began emailing her again. At this point, my wife became quite frightened and it dawned on me that we were dealing with a potentially dangerous situation. Going through legal channels to stop harassment can often be time consuming and ineffective, and we needed a more immediate solution to make him stop.
I called James expecting him to block my attempt to speak with him, but to my surprise he picked up. In no uncertain terms that if he continued trying to contact my wife I would come and find him. “Are you threatening me?” he asked indignantly. “She could just respond to my emails and all of this would be fine.”
“Yes, I’m threatening you,” I replied angrily. “She’s not going to respond to you so you can forget about that. I know where you work and I will come straight to you if you make any more attempts to contact her. And trust me, you don’t want that to happen.”
“In fact, I might just come and find you right now,” I added.
The tone of conversation had now changed dramatically and I could sense the fear in his voice. James shakily agreed not to contact her any more and we ended the conversation. We never heard from him again.
I can’t say I felt good about how I dealt with James, but having been around enough violence in my life I understood that sometimes force, or at least the threat of force was necessary to end a conflict. I’ve encountered many bullies in life and in Martial Arts gyms over the years, and unfortunately sometimes the only language they understand is that of physical force. Bullies need to be stood up to and those who use their size and strength to intimidate others must be shown that there are forces equal to their own. James wasn’t necessarily trying to bully my wife or physically attack her, but he didn’t seem to understand that just by being a large male who would’t take no for an answer, he was really scaring her. There would have been nothing my wife could have done against him and the thought of this was causing her serious distress. I wanted to make James understand how he was making her feel by making him feel that way. There would have been nothing he could have done against me, and as powerless as my wife would have been with him, he would have been equally helpless had I actually decided to physically confront him.
I got no pleasure in making James feel this way, and did it only to protect my wife. More than anything, the horrible episode underlined to me just how vulnerable women are and how real the threat of violence can seem to them. Men live in a completely different reality where violence or the threat of it can be neutralized with an equal force.
The outpouring of female anger and grief during the #MeToo movement has again highlighted for me the terror women live with on a daily basis. The number of women I know who have gone public with tales of sexual harassment, assault or rape has been truly shocking. While the male in me wants to go on a violent rampage to find the abusers and give them a dose of their own medicine, I know that this is not the answer. I dealt with my wife’s harasser the best way I could for immediate effect, but I know the threats I made won’t stop him doing the same thing to someone else. He won’t come after my wife again, but he could come after someone else who doesn’t have a husband/brother/father/friend to intervene.
We are facing a turning point in Western society as we are being forced to reconcile with the vile way women are and have been treated by men. The stories of high profile celebrities, politicians and media figures guilty of sexually attacking women are not abating, and we will have to endure many more of them in order to truly come to terms with the scale of the abuse. Women are finding strength in numbers and enough male allies to help them see this through, and as horrible as it might be to witness, it is something our culture needs to do to heal its wounds. Our story of harassment and my wife’s experiences of male sexual aggression over the years is not the exception — it is the norm. I am not sure exactly what role I can play in helping in the healing process, but I do understand that more violence is not the answer — at least not in the long term. It seems to me that men would do well to listen to women and ask them what they think we should do in order to stop the culture of rape and violence against them, no matter how painful or humiliating it may be. Because as Margaret Atwood once said, “men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
That’s not a fair trade, and it’s time to come to terms with this once and for all.