Often, straight men become frustrated when they meet a woman who doesn’t trust them immediately.
They’re frustrated that women impose a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality on all men, based on one or two bad experiences that they may have had in the past.
Because clearly, most men are not bad people and would never harm a woman.
And so this frustration is understandable.
But there are reasons why women may feel this way. And the violence – whether outright or subtle – that women experience in their day-to-day lives needs to take precedence over the hurt feelings that men may have as a result.
But if we can work to understand those reasons, it can go a long way toward understanding where women are coming from and why they may impose the guilt assumption on other men, as well as why that’s okay and how to work with a woman in a supportive role, if that’s what she wants.
It is important, first and foremost, to keep in mind that every woman – regardless of what’s happened in her past – has the right to be cautious when engaging with men. No woman ever owes you her time or attention.
If she is not interested in engaging with you, then you should respect that and not push the issue.
But should she decide to engage with you, here are some strategies that will not only help you to understand her, but also help you to cultivate a healthier version of masculinity (including respect, empathy, and nonviolence) than the version that society has imposed upon men.
1. Consider the Messages She’s Been Given
From birth, women are taught to protect themselves from others (namely, men): Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t accept rides from people you don’t know. Don’t walk alone after dark. Don’t travel by yourself. Have someone walk you to your car at night. Keep your drink with you at all times. Carry mace in your purse. Learn self-defense.
And the list goes on.
So naturally, we internalize this advice and begin to learn to protect ourselves from the threat of the potentially aggressive man lurking in the shadows, or the acquaintance that we kind of know (but not really) from class or a job, or even from our boyfriends or husbands (since, after all, 1-in-4 women in the U.S. have been stalked, abused, or assaulted by an intimate partner).
Of course, most men are not violent criminals.
But due to the fact that we live in a society in which violent offenders (the majority of them male) do prey on the less physically powerful (often women) and typically, we can’t distinguish them from decent, nonviolent men, then women have reason to be wary.
And I would love to live in a perfect, utopian world where we don’t need to worry about being harassed or attacked, but until that happens, I will keep my guard up.
So guys, try to understand that if a woman you’ve just met doesn’t trust you immediately, she’s been conditioned to respond that way.
It’s nothing personal. It’s just self-preservation.
2. Cultivate Empathy
Oftentimes, women have experienced things in our lives that may cause us to distrust men.
Maybe the woman you just met just got out of an abusive relationship – or has been in more than one abusive relationship.
Or maybe she was just in a relationship that wasn’t necessarily abusive, but it wasn’t healthy, either.
When I was 18, my first real boyfriend cheated on me and then lied about it. When I found out about it, I was a mess. For a long time.
And I didn’t trust men. For a long time.
Was it fair of me to distrust all men, based on one bad relationship? No.
But it’s human nature to find an outlet for our hurt and our anger.
And sometimes after unhealthy relationships, we blame the entire gender or gender expression because it’s easy to blame someone rather than to dissect the relationship and the reasons why it failed.
I have known men who have been hurt by women in relationships, and after they end, they find it hard to trust women for a while. You may even have experienced it yourselves and remember how it felt. The same thing applies here.
So if the woman you just met, or have known superficially for a while but want to get to know better, doesn’t open up to you right away, she may still be healing from a previous relationship.
The best thing to do in this case is to tell her that you understand — and if she is open to it, be her friend.
And if she is not open to it, respect her right to feel that way and move on.
3. Actions Speak Louder Than Words
If she’s still open to engaging with you at this point, then it may be helpful to show her that she can trust you.
You’re right that you shouldn’t be considered “guilty until proven innocent,” but the truth of the matter is that in any relationship – one that involves healing from trauma or not – trust needs to be built.
We’re not saying that you’re guilty. You weren’t the one who committed the disrespectful/sneaky/violent acts toward the woman who distrusts you.
But we live in a patriarchal culture that values men’s dominance over women, and these values affect everyone who lives in that culture, regardless of whether they acknowledge it.
In addition, if she’s still recovering from an incident or incidents, it may be necessary to show her that you will not treat her the same way.
Here are a few tips on how to do that.
When she talks about her past and what caused her to be suspicious of men, listen to what she says.
Work Toward Understanding
After you’ve listened, work to understand where she’s coming from.
For example, if she was in an abusive relationship, do some research on abusive relationships and some common feelings and reactions of those who were abused.
Try Not to Get Defensive
When she tells you that she doesn’t trust men or is wary of their intentions, tell yourself that she has a reason for feeling the way she does and that it’s nothing personal against you.
Call Out Other Men Who Behave Inappropriately
If you see other men acting inappropriately — whether it’s telling sexist or racist jokes, lashing out verbally or physically, or engaging in other abusive behavior — call them out on it.
Just being your kind, funny, empathetic, nonviolent self will go a long way.
So guys, understand that as women, we know that you might be frustrated when other women lump you in with the bad guys out there.
But by taking the actions outlined above, you can help ensure that you come across authentically and that you’re here to support the women in your life.
Shannon Ridgway is a Contributing Writer to Everyday Feminism from the great flyover state of South Dakota (the one with the monument of presidential heads). In her free time, Shannon enjoys reading, writing, jamming out to ’80s music and Zumba, and she will go to great lengths to find the perfect enchilada. Follow her on Twitter @sridgway1980. Read her articles here.