If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you know I recently went on an intense four day backpacking trip in the Adirondack mountains, and that I am neither into cardio/endurance sports, nor an outdoorsy kind of person… so this was extremely far outside my comfort zone.
The trip was a success, despite plenty of adversity, which began the first night when a bear invaded our campsite.
Yep. A fucking bear.
After a tough seven mile hike the first day, we had gotten into camp a little later than expected, and quickly began setting up and making dinner. Just after we’d eaten, and only a few minutes after darkness had just settled, my brother went to grab something out of the bear canister.
For those of you who don’t know what a “bear canister” is, it’s the “bearproof” container you have to keep all of your food in when hiking in the Adirondacks. The thing is, it’s only bearproof when it’s locked, and ours had accidentally been left open and unattended for a few minutes. Whoops.
So anyway, it was dark, and my brother Jason went to grab something from the bear canister when he realized a huge ass black bear was gleefully pulling out all of our carefully packaged and dehydrated food and eating it.
Here’s the part I find interesting: since I was about 20 feet away at the time and didn’t see it all go down: Jason, who is a seasoned camper and backpacker, made a very weirdsound. It was kind of like a muffled, high pitch whine. It start out pretty weak, and then got a bit louder, like an incoherent “….ehheehhhhehEEEHHHH…”
When he came down to where my mom and I were sitting, his hands were oddly stuck up in the air, he had a weird smile on his face, and he said in a tight sing-songy voice:
“So… there’s a bear…?”
We didn’t believe him at first, because he was kind of smiling and because Jason is always joking around. Eventually it landed, and we ran to watch helplessly as the bear munched his way through half our trip’s worth of food.
The next few hours were spent screaming and banging pots and pans and throwing things at the bear while we scrambled to move all foodstuffs far away from camp. Pepper spray got deployed (covering all our stuff and skin and lungs), we thought we might have to abandon the whole trip, and we went to sleep still able to see the bear’s glinting eyes nearby.
But I’m not here to talk about bear safety. (Pro tip though: Don’t leave food unattended after dark in the Adirondacks.)
I’m here to talk about the way my brother, who had never encountered a bear before, acted completely fucking WEIRD.
My favorite part of the bear story is now the part where I do an impression of the whiney noises my brother made when he first saw the bear. I’ve never in twenty six years seen him behave that way, and in retrospect it was fucking hilarious.
My mom’s husband, a boy scout leader and bear safety enthusiast, was baffled by this behavior. He was like… WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST YELL “BEAR!”??
But Jason couldn’t yell “bear.”
He was a few feet away from a bear for the first time, he froze, and he started wracking his brain to remember the “rules” for this kind of bear situation. (There are different rules for different kinds of bears; some you’re supposed to hold perfectly still, and others you’re supposed to get big and make a lot of noise.)
Once he decided to make noise, he had to overcome the physiological freeze response, and still wasn’t thinking clearly or confidently. So instead of shouting “THERE’S A BEAR IN CAMP!” he just made those strange whining noises.
That said, I guarantee you that having discussed and practiced yelling “bear!” over the next few days– if Jason ever encounters a black bear again he will respond quickly, confidently, and appropriately.
This story struck me as a fascinating analogy (given the current political climate) to what a lot of women experience regarding sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
When a woman is faced with sudden and unexpected danger, she freezes. She racks her brain to figure out what kind of “bear” she’s dealing with, and which rules apply.
Is this a bear who would be scared off if she screamed “no,” or would he try to kill her? Is this a bear who would ruin her career if she pisses him off? If it safer to play dead? To make an excuse and flee? To pretend you’re into it and get it over with quickly?
We make the best decision we can during (and after) harassment and assault, but often our stories come off as… strange.
When another trainer grabbed my ass in the gym once, I laughed. Hours later I was so bothered by my own behavior. Why did I laugh? Why didn’t I tell that creep off, and make a scene?
These moments of strangeness often make us feel too ashamed and embarrassed to report, because we know people will hear our story and ask us “why didn’t you just do such-and-such?”
And we won’t have an answer.
But survival mode makes us do strange things. It overrides logic, and locks up our voices, and plasters frozen smiles on our faces.
We must make room for people to tell their stories of feeling threatened without questioning their behavior. We must recognize that being afraid makes us do strange things, act in ways that are out of character, and make decisions that seem objectively poor from the outside.
Just because we didn’t scream “NO, GET OFF ME!” and immediately report it doesn’t mean we were complicit, lying, or wrong about what we experienced. It just means we were scared, frozen, surprised, and reduced to a gut-level survival mode.
We need the world to recognize what fear does to a person’s brain, and what trauma does to a person’s brain (including totally fucking with their memory in ways that are unfathomable to someone who hasn’t experienced it).
But I won’t hold my breath. Our culture isn’t changing fast enough, and in a world full of bears, women need to learn how to protect themselves.
Think about how many women take self-defense and krav maga classes in order to learn and practice responding to an attack. This has become a common response to living in fear, and an appropriate one.
But it’s also a bit misguided.
After all, the mass majority of sexual harassment and violence is done by someone we know, like, and trust, under non-violent circumstances. Shouldn’t we learn and practice responding to the actual dangers that most (if not all) women will face at some point?
How are we supposed to speak up when we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding conflict and not hurting anyone’s feelings? How are we expected to find our voices when our bodies are frozen? Just like in self-defense classes, we need to have practiced if we expect to stand up for ourselves when the time comes.
And rest assured, the time will come.
Whether it’s speaking up when a co-worker makes an inappropriate sexual comment, or knowing what to do when someone gropes you on the subway, self-assertiveness under pressure is a learnable skill, and it baffles me that it’s not a required part of female education.
We need to have practiced the skills of asserting our boundaries in a safe environment, multiple times, and loudly, just like some women practice responding to attack with a knee to the groin and a palm to the nose. We need these skills to be so well-practiced and in our bones, that when we are afraid, uncomfortable, drunk, or surprised, we can still assert our boundaries with clarity and power.
So let’s start practicing.
Seriously. Grab a partner or a few friends, and role play asserting your boundaries in every scenario you can think of. Speak loudly, clearly, and confidently. Reflect your boundaries in your body language. Make bold eye contact. Say it without smiling. Notice how uncomfortable that is, and then do it again.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Here are a few phrases to try practicing:
Leave me alone.
This is sexual harassment, and you need to stop.
I don’t like this.
I want to stop.
I changed my mind.
That’s not funny to me.
You’re making me uncomfortable.
I’m not interested.
Challenge each other to deal with classic responses from “lighten up, I’m just joking,” to “come on, you know you want it.” Do it until it feels easy, and start practicing every chance you get in everyday life.
We can’t “out-logic” the weirdness of the freeze response. But we can sure as hell prepare for it and minimize it with practice. So let’s do that.
And if you’ve ever acted like a complete weirdo when afraid or surprised, and felt ashamed or embarrassed by your own behavior, please let my brother’s story be the beginning of self-compassion and forgiveness.
It’s not your fault, and your behavior doesn’t make your story less valid.
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