I’m going to share a story with you. Right here in Bloomington, Indiana, a woman was out taking an evening stroll when she passed a man on the B-Line Trail. She politely smiled at him and continued on her way. The man then turned around and began to follow her, so she walked faster. Finally, he ran at her in a way that made her feel threatened (obviously), so she took off and eventually lost him.
When she got to a safe space, she called the police to report it. The police would surely want to know the description of a man who was going around and attacking women, right? As it turns out, no. Because when she explained to the police she smiled at the guy, they told her, “That was your first mistake; you can’t smile at some people.”
As women, we’re sent so many mixed messages about how to behave. How many times have you been in public and been told by some complete stranger to smile? I have—and every woman I have asked has said she’s been told to as well. Hillary Clinton was raked over the coals on the campaign trail last year because she didn’t smile enough on television. But when it comes to our safety, smiling is a big no-no. Apparently smiling makes us targets of unwanted attention and invites violence.
Don’t Buy It
Let me say something very important: Being friendly never justifies harassment or violence. Heck, even flirting with a stranger doesn’t justify any type of forceful or distressing behavior—but that’s a lesson that seems to be lost on a lot of people.
You should be able to smile or not smile as much or as little as you want, to whomever you want, without worrying it will end in violence, stalking, or harassment. The idea that a smile is somehow an invitation is a product of rape culture and misogyny because it teaches men that women are available for the taking and anything a woman does (or doesn’t do) is somehow an invitation. In a rape culture (our culture), a woman displaying any sign of friendliness, kindness, sexiness, or appreciation has apparently come to mean that she has made some type of promise of her energy, body, continued interest, or time to the man in question.
To that I say, hold the damn phone.
I don’t want to live in a society that teaches women to be so afraid of potential encounters with strangers that we don’t interact or even acknowledge one another. I also don’t want to live in a society where I’m not free to express my genuine emotions—and that’s the whole crux of the problem. Saying that smiling at a stranger means they have some claim to you but then also being expected to smile at perfect strangers when we don’t want to because we’re women and are supposed to be friendly and open just doesn’t jibe.
Society has a Split Personality
So, what’s the answer to this incredibly complicated problem? If we’re all truly going to be invested in fighting oppression, then we have to be invested in the people moving through this crazy world with us. When we don’t recognize each other, we’re less likely to step in and fight for each other. And if that’s the case, then what’s all this social justice fighting really for?
We avoid addressing oppression through repression and avoidance. Smile, don’t smile—it’s all the same in this system. That doesn’t mean you have to drink the Shame Kool-Aid or be a victim, but it does mean that we have to recognize the fact that we live in a culture so deeply rooted in protecting privilege that we blame the oppressed for their oppression.
One of the worst things about rape culture is that it has convinced people that they shouldn’t help a stranger or that people are on their own and must take care of themselves. That’s where victim-blaming comes from—and that’s the culture that silence, disassociation, and fear keep supporting.
If you truly want to be revolutionary, then now is the time to practice courage and educate yourself about what we can do to make a change. If you have the ability to reach out to others as an educator, then do it. This is how we make a community safer—because people can’t be expected to learn if there’s no one willing to teach them.
My advice: Do what your third-grade teacher once told you—be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Reach out of your comfort zone and help to create a better world for everyone. And do it with a smile on your face. Or not.