As a white cisgender male, I’m not someone who is too familiar with catcalling or unwarranted sexual attention. I don’t get predatory stares on a regular basis, I haven’t ever felt compelled to tell a guy I have a boyfriend to make him back off, and I almost never think twice about whether or not the neighborhood I’m walking through is a safe place for me to be. I am, for the most part, safe from all the things that women deal with on a daily basis; I am protected by my identity, and it wasn’t until recently that I could even fathom what it feels like to be put in the position women deal with regularly.

Now to provide some necessary context, I have experienced name calling and unwarranted sexual attention, although it’s come in different forms. People have shouted “Fag” at me from their car and I’ve had to push away men at gay clubs who couldn’t comprehend how touching someone without asking constituted as sexual assault. I’ve had my sexuality scrutinized and heavily judged, and I know firsthand what it’s like to feel slutshamed for things straight men always get away with, but it wasn’t until recently that I really  really got what women go through.

So this past semester I worked in the Copley building in Boston, which is essentially an upscale mall. Every day on my way home from work I would cut through the mall because it was shorter and more efficient than walking around the building, and for the most part, it was an easy walk. I could just plug in my headphones, turn on some Alanis Morissette, and trudge back home to Netflix and my freezer full of Ben & Jerry’s. But occasionally my walk home wasn’t fine. Occasionally I would bump into an INCREDIBLY CREEPY gentleman, a gentleman who would then proceed to slow down his pace and walk directly beside me, smiling at me without ever breaking eye contact like some kind of serial killer with a preference for tiny, feminine men. Most of the time I would just smile politely at him and then pick up my pace to get some distance between us, but every time I turned back I couldn’t help but notice that he was still staring at me, and it wasn’t a gentle or confused stare- it was the type of stare that suggested that I was only getting away because he was letting me do so. The kind of stare that implied that I was only free because he gave me the privilege to be, so basically a stare 90% of white cisgender men have never experienced.

One day I passed by him and he smiled at me more widely than ever before. Thankfully we were going different directions so I shrugged my shoulders and continued walking, but when I turned around I realized he wasn’t actually staring at me- he was following me. He followed closely behind me as I sprinted down the hallway and he had the freakiest smile stretched across his Gary Busey looking face, and in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel terrified. He wasn’t just staring at me this time or being creepy, he was making the proactive choice to harass me and follow me around, and I hated how he could make me feel so scared in a room full of so many people. The situation freaked me out so much that I actually returned to work to wait him out; I figured that the security desk between the mall and my office would be enough to keep him at bay. It wasn’t until I was with my coworker, a female friend, that I felt safe enough to go back downstairs.

The saddest thing is that I don’t think most men can fully empathize with the women who deal on this on a regular basis because they don’t have any similar life experience to link it to. I can honestly admit that I didn’t truly get it until it happened to me. Now I know that it’s possible I’m being overdramatic or reading into the situation, but if I’ve learned anything from the great women in my life, it’s that how we feel we can never be undervalued. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t hurt me or assault me, he still made me feel unsafe and targeted. The fact that he was able to do this without laying a finger on me or even saying a single word is what is most disturbing to me.

At the same time this situation made me so angry. It made me angry at all the guys who are so quick to invalidate women and their worries by blaming their outfits or how they carry themselves. It made me angry because I knew that if a guy ever experienced that type of terror that they would finally get how fucking wrong they were; they’d finally understand how unjust it is that people get anxiety from something as simple and everyday as traveling home, and perhaps then they’d have more sympathy for victims and try harder to change the culture of sexual violence we’ve adopted in our society. They’d finally get that perhaps the slight twinge they feel whenever someone makes a “don’t drop the soap joke”signifies the terrifying culture of rape and overblown masculinity standards we allow to exist.

I can say that I don’t fully understand the mentality behind rape or sexual assault; I understand that it is about power, but I’ve never been able to put myself in the headspace of someone perpetrating that sort of a crime. And what that has made me realize is that our society is doing that intentionally; our society is actively keeping us in the dark about the factors that drive someone to doing such a heinous thing and they are doing so to protect the bubble of masculinity and sexism that has been constructed around us. Our society would rather say that perpetrators of rape are crazy or unable of controlling their emotions than admit that we have a society that still views women as being inferior to men- a society where objectification and sexualization of other human beings is completely accepted. We’re so obsessed with both maintaining that culture and denying that it exists that we’re even willing to blame our victims.We’d rather tell women to wear pants, or say that men have no control of their emotions when they go ahead and rape said women in pants than face the reality that we have created a society that values violence and sexual aggression. We’ve created a society so fucked up that men are almost funneled into positions of violence and sexual aggression, and we continue to ignore the reality that many men are also subject of sexual aggression and violence, which has resulted in men rarely reporting assault. For some reason or another we are so desperate to cling onto our terribly awful gender roles  that we’re willing to let sexual assault and sexism run rampant.

It shouldn’t take experiencing something like what I did to be able to empathize and feel incentivized to make change. We shouldn’t have to imagine our mother, sister, daughter, or friend in the place of a victim in order to feel like this is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. We desperately need to look at our society and reevaluate our priorities; we need to actively combat the hideous gender norms we’ve constructed, and we need to empower and give voice to the people who we’ve allowed to be hurt and let them tell their stories so that we can know how and where to make changes.