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The danger women encounter, but can’t control

People are not weather.

Let me explain.

One of the constant frustrations of being a live human is that you cannot actually control how other people behave toward you. You can try, of course. You can lean in. You can dress up or down as the occasion demands. You can wear all the things they tell you to wear and avoid all the places they tell you to avoid and — nope, still nothing. You cannot control how other people behave. Unless you are, say, those people’s mother. And even then, it’s a struggle.

Still, people fall into this fallacy when giving advice: assuming that you can control the way the world responds to you. If you just follow a certain array of simple rules, nothing bad will happen.

Well, maybe. Sometimes. This would almost work if the only dangers you ever encountered came in the form of ominous, faceless natural forces. If what you’re dealing with is UV rays or pouring rain, there are certain steps you can take — preventative measures, if you like, that will keep your skin safe and your hair dry. You can’t stop the rain, but with an umbrella you can stop the rain from hitting you. If you are playing with fire or volatile chemical elements, there is protective gear for you to wear.

Unfortunately, some dangers have faces. And dealing with those is much less simple, no matter how prepared you are. You can wear all the gear and sunscreen in the world and still not escape unscathed, because the behavior of other people — and this, it seems, is the tricky part — is something they, not you, are responsible for.

This is difficult for some people to believe. Most of these people are men. To hear them talk about it, every action they take is the result of a choice a woman made earlier, and, really, they are powerless to help themselves. Walk away from a fight? Not whistle at a stranger walking down the street? Give a drunk friend some water and listen when she tells you to back off? It’s like we thought they were human beings capable of reason and judgment.

When something particularly awful happens, these people shake their heads. He “just snapped,” they say. “What,” they wonder, “did she think would happen?”

After all, it was up to her.

If you look at a lot of the advice women receive, you would be stunned at what power we have. When I decide whether to put on a sweater, I am deciding what response the men around me are going to have. I have the power, simply by donning a skirt, to force total strangers to catcall at me. They have no agency in this. It is all up to me. Sometimes even sweatpants will do the job.

Not only must we be responsible for our own behavior but also for the behavior of those around us. This is far from a healthy way of thinking about these things — especially something like domestic violence.

And we’re starting to see how bonkers this is now.

At least, I hope we’re beginning to. It’s not that complicated. ESPN host Stephen A. Smith was suspended after he made comments — in light of the suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice — about how women needed to take “preventative” steps to make certain nobody hit them. Avoid “provocation,” he said.

Nope. People are not weather. They are not rabid opossums or rock slides or speeding cars that can’t slow down in time. They don’t “just snap” and veer out of control like poorly secured train cars. They have the capacity to make decisions. But reading much of the advice that gets put out there, especially for women, you might be forgiven for thinking that they couldn’t.

I think finally, slowly, painfully, we’re starting to realize just what a fallacy this is.

I know Women Against Feminism is a hashtag and a Facebook group and perilously close to an actual movement. Who needs feminism, anyway? they ask. But I think as long as people keep saying it’s on us to make sure that nobody hits us, we still need it.

It doesn’t make women into victims. There is a difference between saying you’re a victim and saying that it is ridiculous to act as though you could control other people’s behavior and should be held responsible for what they do.

People are not forces of nature. Not even Ray Rice or Stephen A. Smith.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day, for The Washington Post.

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