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After San Bernardino, Examining The Terror of Male Violence

Last week in San Bernardino, a man with a gun walked into a school for students with intellectual disabilities. He murdered a teacher, Elaine Smith, and a student, eight-year-old Jonathan Martinez. He then killed himself.

The shooter was Elaine Smith’s estranged husband. He was described by others as a decent-seeming guy. He was let into the school because he was, after all, her spouse—and husbands, we assume, must be safe. 

But like so many other men who kill their current or former partners, and like many of the perpetrators of mass shootings, he had a record of domestic violence.

Margaret Atwood once said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” After incidents like this, we are reminded of this truth again. We are reminded of the fact that for most women—as Feministing alum Chloe Angyal writes at The Huffington Post—fear is a way of life.

Fifty women a month in the United States are murdered by partners, married or unmarried. Fifty four percent of mass shooters are targeting family members or intimate partners. And while a gun in the home makes it five times more likely that domestic violence will end in death, it’s still disturbingly easy for people convicted of domestic violence to get guns.

And women aren’t the only targets of masculinist violence: From the mass gun violence of the Orlando shootings (where most of the victims were queer men of color) to the daily experience of hate crimes, LGBT people of all genders are also vulnerable. This reality is particularly brutal for women of color, especially Black women like Elaine Smith. And it’s worse for trans women—and especially trans women of color and Black trans women.

When male violence is a form of terror, is it any wonder that women learn to be terrified of men? Is it any wonder that at some level, somewhere inside us, many women feel constant fear, like so much radio static? 

The masculinity our society glorifies is characterized by aggression and dominance. It’s a political ideology, a set of beliefs about the way men should behave which shape our notions of “man” and “women.” These ideas, known as “toxic masculinity,” are bad for anyone who isn’t male or who isn’t male and masculine in the “right” way: Women, queer men, and trans, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming people. And it’s bad for heterosexual men, who must grapple with a set of societal expectations which deny them the capacity for gentleness, sensitivity, and other traits seen as too “feminine.”

This fear is built right into the structure of our most intimate lives—not necessarily in the reality of violence (being male doesn’t necessarily mean committing masculinist violence) but in the constant possibility of it. We never know when an admirer will become a harasser, when a date will become a stalker, when a lover will become an abuser, when a sexual partner will become a rapist, and when a husband will become a murderer.

Women feel fear differently, and some of us may not feel it at all. But the idea that we should fear men, that fear is natural and necessary, comes at us from all sides.

The training begins from childhood. We are molested, harassed, taunted, or raped; or merely trained to value men and overlook male violence. When we hit puberty, we receive a flurry of overwhelming attention: Positive, negative, abusive, regulatory. We may be prevented suddenly from wearing certain things, going out at certain times. We are taught to feel shame, fear, and embarrassment. We learn not to stand alone in rooms with men.

We may remember the first time a man hooted at us on the street, the hot emotions that washed over us like a scalding bath—part intrigue, part fear, part burning shame. The first time a man surveyed us with a combination of hunger and ownership. The first time we were scared at a man’s raised fist, or raised voice. Or there was never a first time, and violence was and is simply the quilt of life—woven into the daily, into our homes and public spaces, seemingly without beginning or end.

Even as grown women, fear is a religion. We are told we should be careful leaving the house at night. Not to travel alone. Or we are followed by men hissing violent words in our ears: Let me touch that cunt, sweetheart. Let me touch that ass. 

We may not talk about it because we fear that if we do, we will be blamed for the freedom we have fought to have. We may tolerate it because our freedom is too hard won to sacrifice. We may fight if we can, not always be able to, survive if we can and work to make our daughters luckier.

We are told to be fearful, not to be too free, yet we are blamed for our fear, too.

Have you ever been called uptight, too harsh, too militant, been told by men you don’t want to entertain, date, talk to, love, marry, give me a chance.

Not all men are the same.

Don’t judge me without knowing me.

Have you ever been told that the armor you’ve developed, the shell that deposits from years of fear is too grating, too rough, too unpretty?

Women don’t want to be afraid of men. We don’t want to have to remember the reality of harassment, rape, abuse, murder. Our fear is not a fashion statement or fad. The terror that women are trained to carry with us is debilitating for all genders; it prevents us from having open, egalitarian relationships. It prevents us from being open to human kindness. It distorts our relationships with ourselves.

We can work to eliminate this terror through the strength of our movements, but we can’t do it alone: Freedom requires a fundamental shift not in women’s and queer people’s behavior, but in men’s.

So to any man out there who has ever accused a woman of being too militant, too angry, too standoffish, of not giving you a chance—or conversely, of being too slutty, too easy, too available—ask yourself: What are you going to do so that we can be unconditionally free from fear?

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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