TW: rape, sexual violence, anxiety
First thing you need to know is that I do not know the answer to the question posited above neither. Hence, why I’ve taken on to write this short essay.
Recently, somewhere between mid-April and early May, I became single after ending a four-year relationship. When it first began, I was 21 and now I’ve just turned 26 this past August. For a while it felt like I’ve spent all the time, when one is supposed to be single and get good at it, being in a committed relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets about my relationship, but I did feel ill-equipped at becoming seriously single for the first time in years. Although I have to say that, personally, there has been no better time to go through a breakup than 2020. I’ve been so preoccupied with the pandemic, my grandmother’s stage-four cancer, my graduate thesis, and my uncertain future that the breakup itself became a small, albeit life-changing, decision for me.
But I digress.
The second thing you need to know is that I am also a survivor of sexual violence. Rape by my ex-partner when I was 19. (This is a big coming out for me. If you are reading this and you know me personally, hopefully you’ll be understanding about it.) See, the sexual violence trauma is tricky. It’s tricky because it sticks. There’s no way around it, it’s something you carry only hoping that the weight of it will become easier with years passing until it’s no heavier than a lighter in your pocket. I would say that my trauma right now has the weight of a small backpack. Not very convenient if you are going to the club or other crowded places but comfortable enough to not notice it sitting on your back most of the time.
But with every trauma come triggers. And this is what I found dating has been for me – triggering.
My PTSD mostly includes induced anxiety, constant catastrophic thinking, and, although now rare, panic attacks, all of which usually appear in the presence of (some) men. To put it simply, I am afraid of men. And not in a “all men are trash” way, although that is also true, but more in a “I am afraid that my date could be a violent person and will follow me home” way. Men do not even have to be around for me to be afraid of them. If I’m taking a shower and I hear some weird noise from the living room, while my roommate is not home, my first thought is that it must be a rapist.
So far, I have been lucky and only had one date that I would consider to be a truly bad one. But it was bad enough to give me severe anxiety and make me constantly turn around when I walk down the street for the next week. Every slightly shorter guy with a beard and glasses made me look twice in panic. To be completely honest, I do not think that that guy is a rapist or an abuser. That is a pretty big accusation that I am not trying to make here at all. Rather I want you to understand how bad it is in my head that even an averagely bad date with an average guy can quickly turn into a haunting experience when you live in the fear of men.
So, how do I date men when I am afraid of them? Here, I offer some thoughts on the question in terms of how to protect your mental health from triggers and anxiety rather than physical safety because we all know that anyone can be an abuser and there is nothing I can advise you on that except being alert, sharing your location with a friend, and maybe buying a pepper spray.
Mental health-wise, I try to be as honest as possible on my dating profile about who I am just to purposefully deter men who do not align with me politically and socially and who would be triggering for me in their aggressive way to prove me wrong (did you notice how men often take it oh-so-personally when you say you believe in the revolution and abolition of the patriarchy?). This way I hope to, at the very least, rid myself of being ridiculed for my beliefs on a date. You might think, being ridiculed and assaulted are two entirely different things. And, of course, they are. But when you live in constant fear of another attack happening to you, the most important thing is to ensure your comfort around men and here every small thing counts. Dating becomes an exercise of practicing your discerning-ness and having a good “vibe” with a person is not just a nice thing to have, it is a necessity to ensure you won’t spend the next week with your heart racing every time you see a man coming your way on the street.
Another important thing I found is to truly listen to yourself. Usually, if you are in touch with yourself emotionally, you will notice all the red flags within the first few messages you exchange. What may come off as casual rudeness in a text may become an outright aggression on a date. One sarcastic remark about what you do in a text will become a whole debate that he wants to win on a date. Trusting yourself when someone makes you feel uncomfortable is number one thing for protecting yourself and your mental health. Do not let thoughts like “I haven’t been on a date in so long”, or “there seem to be so few cute guys around here”, or “I guess I have to get out there and do it like everyone else does” talk you into dates that you, if you really listen to yourself, do not feel like going to.
Dating is hard. Dating straight men is harder. Dating straight men when you are a survivor of sexual violence sometimes may seem impossible. It is a constant process filled with ups and downs but it helps to remember that (1) contrary to what society teaches us from a very young age, men are not some valuable and scarce resource that we need to find and keep by pushing ourselves beyond what we are willing to tolerate; (2) there are good dates and good relationships to come and every time you end up having a bad dating encounter it is a blessing that it ended as fast as it did rather than dragging on; and (3) your mental and physical well-being always come first and your value is not defined by the quantity and quality of your dates.
My trauma and I come as a full package. It does not define me, but it does affect who I am in some ways. If I do not want it to grow back into a full-size suitcase of a trauma, I have to take it slow and steady with dating. And I’m okay with that.
- Aizada Arystanbek
Aizada Arystanbek is an intersectional feminist and a young academic specializing in gender-based violence who believes in the decolonization of academia and overthrowing of the patriarchy. She has an MA in Gender Studies and is available on LinkedIn.