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How can I overcome my fear of men?
April 30, 2012 10:42 PM   Subscribe

How can I overcome my fear of men?

I am a female who is set to graduate from college this winter. I am warm, personable, vivacious, bubbly, etc... but only when I am around women.
When I was about 7, I was sexually assaulted by a male teacher for about a year. I feared going to his class every week, but was too young/ignorant to know exactly why I was scared of him. That fear eventually grew into a fear of all men, particularly men who are in authoritative positions (such as teachers and bosses) as well as men who are outspoken, outgoing and exuding confidence.
Specifically, my fear is that if I am nice to a man, he will perceive me as "weak" and "an easy target" and take that as an invitation for him to physically take advantage of me. One thing that happened last summer during an internship only served to cement this belief: one of my managers, a guy in his late 30s who's married with kids, tried to put his arms around me, always "jokingly" asked me on dates, and once even asked me to kiss him (I rebuffed all of his advances with strained politeness). I think the reason he made these advances was because I was too nice to him in the beginning of the internship, always smiling, making small talk when we met each other at the water cooler, and being eager to assist with his projects, that gave him the wrong idea.
I have no close male friends and have trouble getting along with male classmates when we're working on group projects. In peer evaluations, many have remarked that I am "cold" and "speak in a clipped tone" and "refuse to make eye contact".
So I guess my question is... aside from seeing a therapist (which I have tried with very little success), what else can I do to conquer this fear? Any recommendations for support groups or books/articles that would be useful on the subject? Any personal anecdotes that will be helpful?
Insights and advice from both genders would be greatly appreciated.
posted by instantfail to Human Relations (32 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do your female friends have male friends that they are close to? Is it possible to go along to group events and try to spend more time with a 'safe' male? Depending on your level of comfort, you could tell your female friends what you're hoping to achieve, and they could help to set up relatively comfortable situations in which you could spend more time becoming used to interacting with men.

All the best, and I promise that there are thousands of men who would be horrified at the way you've been treated previously.
posted by twirlypen at 10:57 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


How do you feel about gay men?
posted by schroedinger at 11:00 PM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was sexually harassed by older men when I was that age too, and I still have a distinct fear of men who are substantially older than I am. I fear sexual misconduct all the time -- and this makes it hard to work with older men because I automatically fear that any kindness on their part is sexually motivated. This has resulted in some very upsetting self-fulfilling prophecies. I know how hard it is to break free of this kind of thing and I want to hug you because you should not have to keep feeling the way you do.

What's really helped me overcome some of the traumatic experiences in my life is EMDR therapy. It's a means of increasing the communication between the left and right brain so that the clusters where bad memories are stored can be processed more effectively and ultimately overcome. I urge you to see out an EMDR specialist -- the difference only a few months of sessions can do is so validating and rewarding.

And I hope you reported this teacher and that he was jailed for his shittyness.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:05 PM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think the reason he made these advances was because I was too nice to him in the beginning of the internship, always smiling, making small talk when we met each other at the water cooler, and being eager to assist with his projects, that gave him the wrong idea.

No, the reason he made these advances is that he's a predator and thought you smelled like a victim.
posted by benzenedream at 11:12 PM on April 30, 2012 [54 favorites]


What's really helped me overcome some of the traumatic experiences in my life is EMDR therapy.

I'm by no means an expert on any of this stuff, but a close friend of mine suffered through very similar experiences and had to deal with many of the same challenges later in life. She's found EMDR treatment with a good therapist to be, well... profoundly helpful.
posted by verb at 11:17 PM on April 30, 2012


Benzenedream is right -- once I found the right therapist, I stopped seeing myself as a victim... And so did opportunistic predators. I hope that the same can happen for you, whatever route you take to reclaiming your comfort levels around men of any age.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:23 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


As benzene partially points out, if you try to find explanations in your own behavior for why some men are inappropriate/predatory/scary, you'll be chasing your own tail forever. The reality is that bad men will behave badly regardless of what you do. I'm sorry.

That doesn't mean you're without power! There are a variety of responses and defenses available to you. It simply means that it is not your fault when other people cross the line. It was your manager's fault and his alone that he did what he did, and there is no knowing whether your behavior served as the sort of catalyst that you think it did.

A quick check of wikipedia suggests that there's some empirical support for EMDR being an effective therapy for PTSD and similar trauma.

The only other thing I can think of is maybe getting to know specific men well. As schrodinger suggests, gay men might be less threatening? Depending on the man in question anyway. This step is extra tough because I'm not sure how you go about meeting men to be friends with for the specific purpose of reducing your fear of men. Maybe ask friends if they have any really gentle male friends that you can go on group outings with? Especially one man going out with a group of women might be a good place to start?

I am definitely not an expert! That is just the only idea I can think of.

I'm very sorry you have to deal with this. Please remember that it's not your fault and that men control their own behavior.
posted by kavasa at 11:27 PM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I did have one other idea regarding school: in future classes, if you find that there will be a group project, can you go to the professor's office hours and say something like: "due to past experiences I do not wish to disclose, I would prefer to be assigned to a group without any male students." Go with a friend for support if needed. I think almost all professors should be sympathetic to the request.
posted by kavasa at 11:37 PM on April 30, 2012


Do you have any trusted male friends of trusted female friends who you can practice enforcing assertive boundaries with? Maybe to help lay some framework for how to rebuff unnecessary advances from any male without finding yourself playing the polite victim role? Even something like, "how could I respond to unwanted touch from a guy without embarrassing myself?" followed by LOTS of positive reinforcement from good, supportive friends. It might sound silly, but the skills learned from reducing unwanted touch to seconds vs. indefinitely using the old politeness trap would be well worth it.

Bonus is that if you find safe and sensitive friends to practice this with, you can become more confident interacting --at least with men in general-- knowing that "good guys" will not be put off by this new learned behavior of yours, nor will they see any "former victim" signals. Then it could stand to reason what works for men your age should work for older authoritative men too -- and if it's not, that's your signal that they are crossing a serious line.
posted by human ecologist at 11:41 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the reason he made these advances was because I was too nice to him in the beginning of the internship, always smiling, making small talk when we met each other at the water cooler, and being eager to assist with his projects, that gave him the wrong idea.

No, no, no, no, no. Other people's poor behavior is NOT your responsibility. You are responsible for YOU. You are not to blame for this. HE is. You did nothing to cause it - he caused it by doing it.

Here's the thing - you can't stop bad things from happening all the time. Sometimes it just happens and it's not because of anything you do or don't do.

No matter what you do, you cannot stop people from trying it on. This is what we as a species do. The trick is to learn how to undermine them when they are trying it on so that they don't get what they want.

I think you handled your manager fine. You are under no obligation to be nice to anyone for any reason if you do not feel safe doing so. That is not going to stop him (or guys like him) from trying it on. You behave as you have done in response.

many have remarked that I am "cold" and "speak in a clipped tone" and "refuse to make eye contact".

Yeah, well, screw them. You don't exist to make other people happy 24/7.

If you feel less than strong around men, work out at the gym or go to yoga and get in sync with your body and your mind. Practice mindfulness and meditate. Develop a sense of internal calm so that you can spot that mofo in the corner who's potentially going to give you crap, and deal with him if he becomes an issue.
posted by mleigh at 11:53 PM on April 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


You'd probably find the techniques in this book helpful for immediately reducing the fear:

http://www.amazon.com/Heart-Mind-Engaging-Neuro-Linguistic-Programming/dp/0911226311
posted by darth_tedious at 11:56 PM on April 30, 2012


No, the reason he made these advances is that he's a predator and thought you smelled like a victim.
posted by benzenedream at 11:12 PM on April 30 [15 favorites +] [!]


Benzenedream, I'm pretty certain you mean the best, but can we rephrase this?

I don't know if telling someone that they "smelled like a victim" to a perpetrator is helpful, especially if that person is fearful of repeating past trauma.

Whether or not anybody smells or looks or sounds like a victim (whatever that means?) doesn't necessarily lead to someone doing something horrible to them. Or someone can have a non-victim aura (again...what does that mean?) and have somebody do something horrible to them.

I'm probably being overly sensitive, but I could see myself feeling anxious/confused/defeated if someone told me I'm giving off victim vibes, and that's the reason I got hurt.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:13 AM on May 1, 2012 [17 favorites]


You might find this previous question on the same general topic helpful.
posted by quincunx at 1:27 AM on May 1, 2012


Have you heard of Graded Exposure?

It is a way of gradually increasing your exposure to the source of your anxiety. In a way this ties in with twirlypen's comment suggesting that you try to go along to mixed group events with female friends you know and who know about your anxiety.

Good luck and all the best.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:21 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, sorry, I forgot to add: YMMV, IANATherapist. Just someone who has received therapy.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:21 AM on May 1, 2012


I think the reason he made these advances was because I was too nice to him in the beginning of the internship

No. The reason he made those advances was because he is an arsehole.
posted by flabdablet at 3:58 AM on May 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hang in there. I found that hanging out with gay guys really helped me reframe how I thought about men. Plus, my friends are really cool.

Girls and women will always have to be on guard for jerks, just the nature of the species. There are wonderful, caring men out there. It took me 39 years to meet my husband, but we've been married for 10 years now and I'm so glad I waited for him!

I agree, mixed groups are an excellent way to immerse yourself into a situation, also, meeting the same guys over and over again, either through volunteering (Habitat for Humanity is awesome, you get to learn really useful skills, build houses for folks and you meet the best people!), or through church or other social clubs.

One thing that I had to learn was just because someone fancied me, it didn't mean that I had to reciprocate. (And I mean I had to have it POUNDED into me.)

As you start to view men as people, you'll learn that some are great, some are awful, some are jerks, some are sweet, just like cats.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:09 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the reason he made these advances was because I was too nice to him in the beginning of the internship, always smiling, making small talk when we met each other at the water cooler, and being eager to assist with his projects, that gave him the wrong idea.

It's possible that what benzenedream said was right, and that was my first instinct, but I think it's not probably so much that he can smell a victim -- he probably does that kind of shit with lots of people, it's just that you're probably more willing than most to blame yourself for his shitty actions, and you put up with more bullshit than others might, because maybe you don't have as clear a sense of boundaries for what male behavior should be as you should.

I think the answer is to still be nice to people, but work on not putting up with bullshit as much.
posted by empath at 6:45 AM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Another form of therapy to try is Dialectical Behavior Therapy. You might also consider getting in touch with groups designed to help people who have been sexually abused. This is a good place to start. Don't give up on therapy just because it doesn't seem to have helped you in the past, keep trying to find a therapist who can help. Given the horrendous abuse you went through at a very young age you are doing wonderfully- graduating from college is quite an accomplishment, as is the ability to make friends - but your life will be limited until you learn how to deal with men, as you know.

I was abused too and one thing I've found really helpful is building my physical strength and flexibility and also learning some traditionally male skills, mainly, in my case, carpentry. Somehow feeling physically stronger and more competent carries over into my emotional life.

Oddly enough, as someone who had a very hard time dealing with men, I ended up having three sons and raising them helped me get past many of my problems with men. I'm not saying go out and have some sons at all, but if you happen to be a person who likes small children maybe you could volunteer to work with them in some capacity, like as a tutor in an elementary school after-school program, or as a Sunday (or other holy day) school teacher if you're religious.
posted by mareli at 6:54 AM on May 1, 2012


I think the reason he made these advances was because I was too nice to him in the beginning of the internship, always smiling, making small talk when we met each other at the water cooler, and being eager to assist with his projects, that gave him the wrong idea.

You know how when you're putting together a jigsaw puzzle, you can get the corners all worked out and sort of see the whole picture, but you're missing the middle, and that's where the actual content is?

The middle here is a giant-ass jigsaw piece that says "this guy is an asshole." And when you're a woman and nice to a dude who is an asshole, they'll try to take advantage. He's the problem. A well-adjusted human male may take the fact that you're nice to him as an opening for an advance, but once rebuffed will realize that you're just being nice. An asshole will keep trying. The whole while, you're the same person.

If you make it plainly clear to a dude that you are not interested in his advances and he keeps advancing, the guy is an asshole. He was an asshole before he met you. He will continue to be an asshole after. The amount of time of your day he deserves after blatantly contradicting your wishes is zero. Filter these guys out, and you'll find a bunch of men to whom your being nice and polite and friendly is just a person who is being nice and polite and friendly.
posted by griphus at 7:03 AM on May 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


can you go to the professor's office hours and say something like: "due to past experiences I do not wish to disclose, I would prefer to be assigned to a group without any male students."

I really think that hiding and avoiding men entirely is the completely wrong approach -- the world is nearly half male, you're going to have to learn how to deal with these situations. Otherwise you will be framing your entire life and the limitations of your entire world on an incidents that happened to you when you were young, which you had no control over.

(Which is the sort of thing that you really really need to keep trying to find a therapeutic solution for. You are experiencing dysfunction in your life that even you know is directly related to a past trauma. You are not expected to deal with this and get better on your own. Please continue reaching out to therapists until you find one who can help you.)
posted by hermitosis at 7:15 AM on May 1, 2012


Therapy is a great answer, and probably your first priority. You should also consider finding a women-focused (and woman-run) self-defense course in your area. Learning some postural cues and verbal techniques for setting boundaries when stressed is super useful (the physical self-defense stuff is great, too, but much less likely to come in handy on a daily basis.) Feel free to memail me with your location if you need a recommendation - there's a national organization my school belongs to, and my teacher knows someone very nearly everywhere.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:33 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was going to recommend self-defense as well. You don't have to trust them, you just have to not be afraid of them.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:47 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


The manager guy was way out of line. You had no obligation to be polite in response. In general, women are socialized to the point of absurdity to be nice and accommodating, and you're doubly yielding given your past. Maybe it helps to have a stranger advise you: take whatever amount of push-back, force and boundary-setting you think is appropriate, multiply that by a factor of five, and do that. Self defense, assertiveness practice, gaining physical strength through exercise. It's better to be able to defend yourself than be universally approved of.
posted by ead at 7:47 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


In addition to therapy and finding safe male friendships, I second the recommendation for self-defense classes. They have classes that are women-only and that are significantly focused on identifying real threats and dealing with them, while also identifying non-threats and ignoring them. But the best thing they teach you is that it's okay to say "NO" whenever something makes you feel bad or uneasy, and that it's the people who don't respect your wishes who are the ones to worry about. They'll teach you how to say "NO" so that people will listen, and what to do if they don't. It sounds as though a big part of the problem is that every man seems like a threat to you, so getting some tools for separating the real threats from the false alarms might make you feel better. Plus, a good self-defense course will give you appropriate tools for dealing with real threats, including physical force when necessary. Just knowing that you could physically stop someone who tried to hurt you might help to make you less afraid that every man you meet will hurt you.
posted by decathecting at 8:01 AM on May 1, 2012


Thirding self-defense, I've had good experiences with RAD. Also, hanging out with your female friends' male friends--they've presumably vetted these folks and find them trustworthy.

Most of the time, men aren't going to do that to you. Yeah, there's a subset of creepers, but at least 90-something percent of dudes are not actually looking to rape you. Most of them are just minding their own business. And you'll probably get A Bad Feeling About This if you run into the folks that are predatory.

"Specifically, my fear is that if I am nice to a man, he will perceive me as "weak" and "an easy target" and take that as an invitation for him to physically take advantage of me."

Here's the thing about being "nice" to creepers: you're supposed to be nice to everybody, especially at work. This is how most human beings act around everyone of any age, gender, etc. What the hell were you supposed to do, magically intuit that he's a creeper and be utterly rude to him at work from day one? A MANAGER? Then there'd be other problems. Creepers are gonna creep, unfortunately, but it's not your fault that he did it.

I don't know about asking a professor to not group you with guys, though. A lot of professors don't want to hear any more "special snowflake" behavior that would make them have to make special arrangements for you, and they'd probably tell you to suck it up, the world is 50% male and you can't avoid them, the point of stupid group assignments is to learn to get along with EVERYONE, etc.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:40 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really think that hiding and avoiding men entirely is the completely wrong approach
Sure, but group projects in class are not the same as "entirely." They're a particular situation that she needs to get through right now, before she's got a good handle on her fear, so she can graduate from college.
I don't know about asking a professor to not group you with guys, though. A lot of professors don't want to hear any more "special snowflake" behavior that would make them have to make special arrangements for you
Yeah, asshole professors were a worry of mine too. On the other hand, in the worst case, the professor says "no" in a really shitty, demeaning way. And yeah, that sucks, but especially if she had a friend there (or maybe used email?) that risk might be worth the possible gain.

All that said, it's definitely up to the asker and what works for her. I think it's an option/idea, no more.
posted by kavasa at 9:40 AM on May 1, 2012


If you do ask not to be placed with men you can go through the school's disability office which will make the request for you. In that case a note from a therapist might be helpful.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:59 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your feelings are not irrational. The wonder is that more women don't seem to share them.

'Seem' because, as I'm sure you understand better than I could ever hope to, open expression of an awareness of what I think of as the true state of affairs between males and females is not socially acceptable.

But socially acceptable cuts both ways. Men of a predatory disposition are able perform in society as well as they do by conforming almost reflexively to the the pressure exerted by expected norms of behavior.

And such pressure can be a powerful force in allowing women to lead lives relatively insulated from harassment, abuse and rape in some circumstances. The ideal of Southern Womanhood, for example, can be viewed as an at least partially successful attempt to preserve women of status and breeding from the kinds of abuses to which slave women and poor whites were routinely subjected.

If your actions played any role at all in allowing your manager to misbehave as he did-- and they very well may not have-- I'd guess that you might not have reacted with the shock, dismay, and bewildered near-incomprehension some women would have used to deflect his opening gambits, such as stiffening, pulling away, and gazing at him in wide-eyed horror the first time he hugged you, perhaps.

A haughty and cultivated reserve with men you don't know well doesn't sound like your natural style, but you might find it useful to be able to project that.
posted by jamjam at 10:49 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm with jamjam here. As a trauma survivor, you absolutely have the right to avoid triggers of your trauma.

It sounds like you may be suffering from untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think therapy is absolutely a great and important idea, but outside of that:

1) If you can, see the personal counseling section at your college and see if they have anyone on staff that can evaluate you, so you can get accomodation for disability at your local disability office.

2) When requesting these things, state, "I am requesting a reasonable accomodation, due to my disability." You were assaulted by a male teacher. It doesn't matter if half the world is male, it is not unreasonable to ask not to have another one or not to have men in positions of authority around you.

3) Try working for a female-heavy or female-only employer. It may help you to feel that you are not helpless and may ease your day as well.

You may never completely conquer this fear. I say this because I work with a lot of trauma survivors. But you may be able to accomodate, mitigate, or improve how you deal with it.

I would also suggest picking up a cognitive behavioral workbook-it may help you deal with stuck points, like thinking it's your fault when these things happen because of some behavior of yours.
posted by corb at 12:17 PM on May 1, 2012


Thanks everyone. Truly great answers!
posted by instantfail at 2:31 PM on May 1, 2012


Benzenedream, I'm pretty certain you mean the best, but can we rephrase this?

I don't know if telling someone that they "smelled like a victim" to a perpetrator is helpful, especially if that person is fearful of repeating past trauma.

Whether or not anybody smells or looks or sounds like a victim (whatever that means?) doesn't necessarily lead to someone doing something horrible to them. Or someone can have a non-victim aura (again...what does that mean?) and have somebody do something horrible to them.


Apologies for the terse and possibly unclear remark. To clarify, in my experience, there are predatory men who tend to target women who seem like they can be easily coerced into sex. Shyness, apprehensiveness, uncertainty, and a lack of confidence seem to play into it. These are behavioral traits, not physical attributes, and can be modified.

Obviously bad things can happen to anyone. I'm not implying that giving off "victim" cues is anyone's failing or fault -- quite the opposite, since often those behavioral cues are the result of prior assaults or harassment. But if the OP wants to overcome their fear of men, reducing these cues will lead to more positive interactions with non-creeps. Don't let it become a catch-22 of being nervous and thus more fearful of projecting nervousness. A friend who had problems being a creep magnet resolved to initiate male interactions herself, rather than letting predatory men choose her. It seems to have worked and she said it gave her confidence again that most guys are normal.
posted by benzenedream at 6:59 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


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