My husband and I will be celebrating our fifth anniversary in just a few months, but I’ve been “married” much longer. When I was 20, I purchased a $99 wedding band and an engagement ring from a costume jewelry store. While ringing me up, the salesperson asked who the lucky guy was. “There isn’t one,” I told her. She chuckled, handed me the bag with the rings and thanked me for my purchase. I was glad she didn’t pry further because I had no intentions of explaining that I had bought the set for myself.
Had I had the energy or interest in revealing that I’d bought the rings to wear as a deterrent to men who couldn’t accept my polite refusal to their advances, the 20-something White woman who sold it to me would probably have understood. Of all the unique experiences my Black womanhood brings, I’ve found that strategizing ways to shield ourselves from the hostile and even violent reactions of men who feel entitled to a woman’s time, attention and person is an experience shared across virtually all racial, age and class boundaries. Simply put: Male fragility has perilous repercussions for all women.
The most common display of male fragility, “street harassment” (or “hollerin’ as Black people have been calling it since forever), has been a hot topic in the media for the past few years. It’s trending at least two decades late, though, because I was 13 the first time a man approached me on the street and demanded I entertain his inquiries. And just a year later, as I walked to the corner store in my neighborhood with a friend, a grown man walked up behind me and groped me. When I turned around to protest, he chuckled and said, “I’m sorry, shawty. That joint was too fat. I couldn’t help myself,” as his friends, all grown men, laughed with him. Years later, when I was a sophomore in college, a friend and I went to a club and while outside waiting to enter, a guy asked for my number. When I turned him down, he started cursing us both out as the other men in line watched and laughed.
Those are but a few of the instances when men, who were total strangers, demonstrated their conditioning to believe that they are entitled to all a woman has to offer both tangibly and intangibly. I could list twenty more. Even after buying the rings to legitimize my claims of being married (because too often men only back off once a woman has declared herself “taken” and thus the property of another man), I’ve had men threaten me for refusing to give them my number.
Most telling though, is that I feel fortunate to never have been seriously injured by a man whose advances I rebuffed. Yes, despite the fact that I know I don’t owe a man anything—a polite rejection, a smile, an ego stroke— I still believe I am lucky to have not been run over by a moped for ignoring a random man’s cat-calls. I guess I’m blessed that in the many times I’ve rejected men and their vulgar “compliments” while with my child, their male fragility didn’t boil over and result in them attempting to kill my child, like a Memphis woman experienced. I suppose I should be grateful that while wearing my fake wedding ring, a man wasn’t so enraged by my rejection that he shot and killed me. Certainly, I should be grateful that a man didn’t knock me out and bash my head into the ground.
These kinds of brutal and irrational attacks on women who dare not eagerly and freely give men they don’t know their attention and affection is terrifying. But perhaps more frightening is how male fragility manifests in intimate relationships when men sense that their control over women is not total, complete and unchallenged. This is the kind of blinding rage that would cause a man to disembowel his girlfriend for saying her ex-husband’s name during sex. It is the kind of obsessive entitlement that would prompt a man to kidnap and murder his wife. And it is most definitely the kind of inexplicable possessiveness that would drive a man to kidnap his child’s mother and torture her for days.
Even more revealing is that the wrath of men is not reserved only for women who decline their romantic or sexual advances. Many have attributed the “honor killings” all too common in the Arabic culture to the teachings of Islam, but these heinous attacks are almost exclusively carried out by male relatives. It’s peculiar that for all the stark differences in freedoms and culture touted by racist Islamaphobes, men across both cultures all gulp from the chalice of violent misogyny that incites murderous rage. Clearly the conditioning that equates masculinity with female subservience, voluntary or forced, is one engrained globally.
Any perceived deviation from the paths of deference and subservience are unforgivable, punishable by whatever vicious exhibition a man can stomach. In this sense, manhood has become synonymous with fragility. The male fixation on performing and proving their strength, particularly as that strength relates to anything feminine, has ironically caused their perceptions of their own manhood to be fragile, easily disrupted and destroyed by women who fail to recognize and massage their delicate egos.
So women are left as prisoners in own bodies, constantly mulling what we need to do to soothe the easily woken beast. Our autonomy is held captive in every way in every space where we coexist with this toxic male fragility. We police our bodies and fight instinct to survive. We smile when we are sad. We feign interest when we are disgusted. We swallow our degradation and violation. We shrink ourselves, not because of an unshakable devotion to upholding masculinity, but literally to save our lives. Then in exchange for playing the perpetual peacemaker, we are rewarded with more aggression and new strands of the fragility that proves at least damaging and at most fatal to us.
When women across all lines can attest to being harassed, abused and tortured by their male counterparts, there’s no denying that male fragility is a threat. When all women can attest to men being threatened by their disinterest, independence or apathy, so much so that they see the only redemption as making the offending woman’s body the object of their rage, it’s time to have serious conversation about what it means to be a man. When women are being gunned down, run over, stabbed and beaten for saying “no,” or giving a less than enthusiastic “yes,” or saying nothing, or simply existing, we have to concede that male fragility is an imminent threat.