I used to go clubbing back in the day with a woman who didn’t know how not to get hit by men.
Sandy resembled Kirstie Alley, then popular on Cheers. Her face bore a sort of friendly fatuity which wasn’t her resting-dimbulb-face. There just wasn’t much going on underneath. We had little in common. But she was fun to go clubbing with.
We were in our mid-twenties; she had three kids and a divorce under her belt. She’d married at seventeen to get out of a bad home life to a man twice her age, her ‘rescuer,’ until the battering forced her to rescue herself and her kids.
She bore little curiosity beyond them, her retail job and her search for a man who wouldn’t hit her. The ex hadn’t been the only one.
“Sandy, what’s your deal?” I’d ask. “I just don’t have these problems.”
I belly danced apart from my day job, performing for men’s birthdays mostly. My roommate, who co-owned the lingerie store where Sandy worked, employed me sometimes to dance outside the store’s entrance on the High Holidays (Christmas, Mother’s Day, Halloween). Men practically came to me in my sleep. None were the sort that set off my Danger Detector.
“I can’t imagine anyone abusing you,” my brother once said. “I think you’d rip his dick off.”
That about summed it up.
I didn’t attract abusers, nor was I attracted to them. I recognized the warning signs at a very early age.
“How do you find these nice guys?” Sandy asked one night when we’d eschewed dancing to check out a new Yuppie sports bar.
“I’m attracted to them,” I said.
“How do you know they’re nice?”
Good question. I scanned the clientele. The guys were largely clean-cut, groomed and nicely-dressed. This wasn’t like the redneck dive where I was greeted with a hand on my ass.
“Let’s try something,” I suggested. “Which guys here do you like?”
We had no plans to chat anyone up that night, but had I been on the prowl, several might have been in my own crosshairs.
Sandy looked around. “That one’s cute.” She tipped her beer in his direction.
Ugh. Yes, he was attractive. I wouldn’t have touched him with a ten-foot Hungarian. He wore a wife-beater. Had a porn-’stache, although we didn’t call them that in the ’80s. Muscular and manspread-y.
“Yeah, that one’s going to hit you,” I said. “Try again.”
She picked out another one. No wife-beater this time, but just as macho and he-man.
“Yeah, he’s going to hit you too,” I said. “Try again.”
She picked out another one. I forget what he looked like. Just another Master of the Universe. The kind of guy whose eye I avoided.
“Then who would you pick?”
“That one,” I said, pointing to a curly-haired cute guy with a coordinated outfit. “Or that one. That one. That one.”
“Boring,” she said after each one. “Boring. Boring. Boring.”
“I don’t think they’ll hit you.” Of course, I had no way of knowing, but I had plenty of faith in my own good judgment. Jerkwads weren’t attracted to me, or if they were they didn’t bother because they could tell I wouldn’t put up with their shit.
I walked around with purpose, like I owned myself. I made myself heard. I was feminist, but not Ripley-vs-the-Alien. Guys understood I wasn’t a victim type.
“Sandy,” I said, “your problem’s clear. You have a thing for abusive men. These macho types are danger boys. The ones you call ‘boring’ are the ones who don’t hit. What you value in men is messed up.”
Fishing for abusers
My roommate saw Sandy eating lunch in the food court. She watched a skanky guy approach and strike up a conversation. Sandy didn’t do what safety-savvy women would, sending disinterest signals like not looking him in the eye, short, polite, but non-friendly non-answers to his questions, and if he didn’t bugger off say, “I have to meet my boyfriend.”
No, Sandy gave him her phone number.
“She just attracts these guys like magnets,” observed my roommate, often annoyed by Sandy’s lack of brains and common sense. She knew a thing or two about abusive men from her own former partner. Except that she learned her lesson. She never allowed an abuser into her life again. She married a lovely man several years later. I belly danced at their wedding.
Making the right choice
My roommate figured out she had the power to decide who to allow into her life. I don’t know how Sandy’s life turned out. We lost touch when we stopped clubbing. I know she died at 45, but from natural causes, with her children at her side. I hope she found a nice guy who wasn’t ‘boring’.
I spend a lot of time pondering why I don’t have the same problems with abusive men other women do. I grew up in a non-abusive household with a mother who drilled into my head early never to allow a man to hit me. The first time should be the last. She taught me it’s a choice.
Not all women understand that, for reasons that aren’t their fault.
A man who batters is always at fault, but we’re ultimately responsible for our own safety, which some women haven’t learned, perhaps due to upbringing, a repressive religion or culture, or buying into toxic societal myths like the appeal of the decisive, always-leading hero.
Not their fault.
First glance isn’t always spot-on, of course.
When Danger Boy is a Nice Guy
I kept an eye on a ditzy-seeming blonde at a medieval re-creation event years ago. Many of us found her kind of annoying because she played at being dumb when in fact she’d majored in Medieval Literature in college. Not quite the ‘doughnut degree’ young women back then often sought when they were more interested in their M.R.S than a B.A. or Ph.D.
Men trailed her wherever she went. I watched her, because I didn’t like the company she kept. That cute dumb blonde routine was catnip for abusers. I particularly didn’t like one of her groupies. Young, a ‘fighter’ (in mock medieval battles), strong, masculine-looking, and from New Jersey.
Education and smarts didn’t necessarily correlate to romantic common sense. I’d known plenty of bright, battered young women.
Danger Boy turned out to be a pretty decent fellow, once I got to know him. The Blonde Ditz, I found later, also had a thing for nice ‘boring’ guys. I stopped keeping an eye on her.
Partner abuse starts with who we allow into our lives.
It’s critical to recognize the early danger signals. Plenty of abusers turn dark only after they’ve hooked you in with that fake good-guy crap. Then they turn controlling. They pitch tantrums when you go out without them, even on a Girl’s Night. They offer cheesy excuses like, “I worry about you.”
Their overblown sense of entitlement already leads them to believe they have a ‘right’ to a woman, once they have her attention. When she sleeps with them, they think they ‘own’ her. Worst idea ever: Having a baby with them. Then they’re chained to this rage-y manchild. Getting out just got more complicated. Lots more.
Sometimes men slip into controlling behavior if they’re allowed.
A guy once tried to order me to do things and I responded, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
He got the message.
I had another, the day he met me, decide he would attend a family wedding with me in a few months. “You’re not going,” I said.
"Because it’ll be too soon.”
“I can meet your family.”
“I’ll decide when you’ll meet my family. If ever.”
I want women to know they have agency over their own lives. Today’s fragile feminism pays lip service to it but often falls short. We need to examine what we want in our relationships. Sandy preferred masculine take-charge men, probably because she had so little control over her own life. Needing a hero offering ‘rescue’ provides a wide avenue for abusers to move in and seize control.
The men she valued were the riskier ones. I wonder if she ever learned from her experiences, recognized the pattern in the men who hit. I wonder if she ever remembered our conversation in the Yuppie bar.
Who do you attract? Who are you attracted to?
It starts with choice.
When I'm not watching TED talks by formerly abused women to figure out how to help women identify the gaps in their knowledge for avoiding abusive men, I help them take back their power on my website Grow Some Labia.