Creatures of Habit

The music in the bar was loud, and the air very cold. It was crowded, and the lights strobed in dizzying flashes of red and blue. I’d love to be able to claim these factors disoriented me, clouded my judgment and slow my reflexes. I’d love to be able to say that, because of them, I wasn’t in my right mind, that my faculties had temporarily deserted me.

I’d love to be able to fall back on those excuses for why I didn’t respond more immediately and forcefully when the man who reeked of sweat and stale beer got far too close to me. I’d love to use them to explain why I didn’t say “no”, clearly and unequivocally, when he touched the back of my hand. I’d love to rationalize away all the reasons why it wasn’t until his hand had skimmed past my knee and was disappearing under the hem of my skirt before I finally responded.

And why, even then, my response was soft and quiet and meek, all things I try not to be, so that even after that point he followed me around for another hour, right up to the moment that my friends and I left the bar.

I’d love to be able to say that ths encounter took place long ago, back before I had the training and knowledge I do now. Back before I knew better. But I can’t even say that. In truth, the incident I described was appallingly recently, and I’ve done a lot of thinking since about lessons (re-)learned, and about why I responded the way I did. And why you might respond that way, too, even though you too know better.

So here’s the truth: The cultural conditioning we receive, especially when we’re young, stays with us. Even when we learn new skills, receive all the training in the world, acquire all the tools we need to keep ourselves safe, we still need to be consciously vigilant not to let those cultural messages that were ingrained in us since infancy overpower our newfound skills and training. Otherwise, those fragments of cultural conditioning can and will sneak out when we least expect them.

It pains me to have to admit that I fell into this trap. I’d like to think I know better. In fact, I do know better. But I made the mistake, on vacation in a strange city with friends, enjoying their company and feeling relaxed and comfortable, of letting myself drift into Condition White. This mistake, by the way, is shockingly easy to make. So when he got too close, when that first unwanted touch came, what went through my head was this: Be nice. Don’t make a scene. Don’t embarrass your friends. Don’t embarrass him.

This is a message our culture doles out to women all the time. Be nice, polite, submissive, meek. Don’t be assertive, or vocal, or do anything to embarrass anyone. Especially not a man. And in that moment when you let your attention wander, when you let your guard down, and something happens, that conditioning is what will fill the reactionary void. We leave Condition Yellow’s relaxed awareness at our peril, because when we leave that state, we leave behind the responses and techniques we’ve trained ourselves to use when something unexpected happens. And our culturally conditioned, Condition White, responses swoop right in to fill the void.

In this case, and probably in the vast majority of cases, the harm that comes from this lapse in attention is minor. Having a strange (drunk) man’s hand on my thigh for a few moments was icky and uncomfortable, but no permanent harm was done. The issue, of course, is that this kind of awkward reminder to do better isn’t a guaranteed outcome.

In another bar, in another place, I could have crossed paths with someone else, someone bent on violence, someone for whom the “please stop” I finally delivered would not have made him stop. In that time and place, in that situation, the time it took me to shift out of Condition White and to muster a response, might have been the time it took for something more seriously bad to happen.

I offer my recent experience to you, dear readers, not without some embarrassment. But Ioffer it as a cautionary tale, a chance to learn from my mistake rather than making it yourselves, and as a reminder. It’s a reminder of why relaxed awareness should always be our conscious choice, because making it conscious displaces our unconscious responses.

And it’s a reminder that none of us is perfect, in our skills, training or awareness. We can always learn more, practice more, grow our abilities to be self-reliant and safe. We can always do better. And we should always try to. We should always strive to do just a little better today than we did yesterday.

This is a great safety and self-defense lesson, but it’s a great life lesson, too.

In the spirit of doing better, I’m committing to msyelf to provide new posts here at least twice per week, on Tuesdays and Sundays. I may post other days and may make posts early, depending on my schedule, but I’m making an early New Years’ resolution to post more frequently. You’ll also still see MamaLiberty’s posts when she feels moved to provide them, and I’d still love to hear from readers who would enjoy providing guest posts.

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