Opinion: ‘Not all men,’ but nearly all women

Julia Dailard, Photo Editor

Art by Katie Lew.

So far, 17, if anything, has been a year of transition for me—a transition to freedom, independence, adulthood, and consequently, womanhood. For most of my life, I knew that my ticket to the freedom I had always longed for was receiving my drivers license, and after 16 had passed and I was still relying on my older sister to drive me everywhere, I was determined to make 17 the year I progressed towards this long-awaited ticket to freedom. 

Now, five months into 17, I am, in all likelihood, only a few months away from becoming a licensed driver. To prepare me for this new stage in my life, my parents decided it was time I received a gift—a gift that, in their words,  would equip me for my fast-approaching independence, just as it did for my older sister when she was gearing up for her driver’s test. 

I was certain I was about to be handed a pair of keys to my very first car, but my excitement washed away when instead, I was handed a can of pepper spray. It was pink. 

My transition to independence, my welcome to womanhood, was not marked by a drivers license and a pair of car keys like I had hoped, but by a can of pink pepper spray and the grim realization that my being a woman came with a target on my back, a target that I had never truly been aware of until that moment. 

 “It’ll be good practice to start carrying it with you now,” my parents told me. “So by the time you do get your license, you won’t even have to think twice about grabbing it before you head out the door.” 

I knew that my parents didn’t say this to scare me and that they only wanted to prepare me for my new reality, but the reality of being a woman in a world where sexual harassment towards women is not only widespread, but normalized, is scary. 

It’s scary when you can’t go to the grocery store alone without being followed through each aisle by a man you’ve never met before. It’s scary when you can’t walk down a street without being objectified by men hollering at you from their car. It’s scary when men approach you at the gas station, the beach, coffee shops, and your job, to ask for your number before threatening you when you politely decline. It’s scary when you have to lie about a boyfriend you don’t have in order to get them to leave you alone. It’s scary when the only means of defending yourself against sexual violence is a can of pink pepper spray. But perhaps the scariest part of it all is that there’s still a large population of men who question the validity of women’s experiences with sexual violence because, of course, not all men are perpetrators. 

In early March of this year, the UN Women National Committee UK published a study showing that 97% of UK women between the ages of 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces at least once over the course of their lifetime. Within days of the study’s release, its findings began circulating across various social media platforms such as Twitter and TikTok, where thousands of men took to comment sections with the rebuttal that “not all men” are a threat.  Many also claimed that the statistic was inaccurate. 

Perhaps even more unsettling to find, was that following the attention the study received on social media, the hashtag #NotAllMen began trending on Twitter, at one point even surpassing #SarahEverard on the trending list—the name of a woman who was kidnapped and murdered while walking home from a friend’s house just days before the study’s release.

I really wish I could say I’m surprised by this response, but I’m not. For far too long whenever women have tried to speak out against sexual harassment and share their own stories of it, men have tried to minimize their experiences because they take it as an attack on themselves. 

Our cry for change is not an attack on men. We are simply trying to be heard. 

Women are well aware that not all men are perpetrators, but nearly all women are victims of some form of sexual abuse and oftentimes we don’t know which men are a threat until it’s too late. 

It’s true that not all men are abusers, but the sentiment behind #NotAllMen isn’t seeking the truth, it’s seeking permission to continue living as we always have. But with the way things are now, women all over the world have to carry around cans of pink pepper spray in order to feel protected. 

With every unwanted advance, touch and catcall, we swallow our discomfort because, after all, this isn’t anything out of the ordinary, this is just the normal female experience. The thing is, sexual harassment shouldn’t be normal, but it’s further normalized every time men try to minimize womens’ experiences—#NotAllMen included. 

If we want to progress towards any meaningful change, then we have to stop treating instances of sexual harassment towards women as isolated occurrences. They’re not. They’re only the tip of an iceberg so large that it is prevalent across all of global society. For far too long women have suppressed their experiences with sexual abuse because of how widespread the issue is. At a certain point, it sadly begins to feel like a normal part of womanhood. It doesn’t have to be. 

I really hope that in the future I’ll be able to retire my can of pink pepper spray and that I won’t have to pass one on to my daughter someday. But that can’t even become a possibility until more men are willing to listen and understand just how deeply ingrained the fear of violence and harassment is in every woman’s consciousness.