The excitement and anticipation that flooded my mind as my 21st birthday approached gave way to disgust and disappointment as it passed. The unfortunate realities attached to womanhood had sullied the picturesque night I had constructed in my imagination.
To be a woman—used here to mean any individual perceived as such, regardless of gender—is to live in a constant state of anticipatory victimhood. We navigate the world from a place of expected violence. When deciding to avoid, fight or succumb to possible violence, we are acting from a place of understood powerlessness. Women are either helped or hurt by men; it is not a feminist ideal, and it is not what I would like to believe is true, but, at my most fundamental level, it is the principle I use to navigate my interactions with men. There is no such thing as a “neutral” male. There is either a safe man, an unsafe man or a man whom I have not yet categorized.
My 21st birthday party served as conclusive evidence that several uncategorized men in my life were unsafe. I should’ve known this when I was hesitant to dance lest greedy eyeballs fall on me as if I were an animated sex doll, but I suppressed my worries, ignored glaring red flags and extended the benefit of the doubt like women are too often taught to do.
A bottle came around in honor of my legality. My participation waned as my intoxication, and the overstepping of boundaries, increased. Hands tried to lure my seated figure onto the dance floor, despite my visibly annoyed resistance, reminding me of all the times men have either refused my no or refused to give me the option of one. What should have been an amazing night was marred by unwanted sexual attention, roaming hands, intense stares and looming presences.
But that is the reality of womanhood. We are confronted with the possibility of violence at every moment, whether throughout the course of a career or on a simple stroll down the street. We are expected to look ladylike and act meek to deter unwanted sexual attention. We are forced to navigate the fine line between “innocent” acts and acts of aggression, forced to assess what level of danger is acceptable. It is a tiring job that is often purported to be our duty.
With adulthood comes a new set of challenges for women, but with increased agency, we can learn to navigate the world in new ways. We could always choose to follow the rulebook, be ladylike and dress with the question “What was she wearing?” in mind in order to be found innocent of incitement. But why would we? That rulebook has never protected us, and it never will. Instead, we can fight the expected violence with more vigor and with greater effectiveness. We can band together with other women and safe men to create spaces where we can escape expected victimhood. We can protect each other using the same steadfast inflexibility used by our attackers.
I am saying goodbye to 21 years of harassment, to instead welcome a lifetime of solidarity in womanhood and the protection of women.
Suzy Iyosayi Aghedo is a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in biology.