The Abstract Rage to Protect
BY AMANDA E. MACHADO
When men ask, I tell them the story of the festival. I tell them of the dozen men, the bright pink powder they smeared across my face, their hands one-by-one sliding up my shirt, my body eventually falling to the ground.
Whenever I tell the story to men, they always assume my ex-boyfriend wasn’t there. They assume I was alone and crying for help, with no other man nearby to save me. Once I tell them the truth — my boyfriend was there, nearby, but lost in the crowd, unsure of where I had gone, a mob of men pushing him in the opposite direction— they instantly become ashamed of him.
“How could he let this happen?” they always ask.
“If I would have been there, it wouldn’t have happened.” they always say. When a group of men surrounded me at a festival and cornered my body against a wall, I never expected him or any other man to save me. But every time I tell the story, the men blame him nonetheless. They resent him almost with the same anger they resent the men who violated me, because he has become the man who failed.
“He was supposed to protect you,” they always say.
In his essay “What is it like to be a man?” writer Phil Christman says:
“When I try to nail down what masculinity is—what imperative gives rise to all this pain seeking and stoicism, this showboating asceticism and loud silence—I come back to this: Masculinity is an abstract rage to protect.”
The most important men in my life defined their masculinity this way. As a child, I grew up hearing so many stories of how my older brother protected my younger brother; fighting against every bully that pushed my younger brother around.
“As his big brother, I had to protect him,” my older brother would say.
The men I loved lived in this web of inevitability: as a man, you have to protect the ones you love. And to protect the ones you love, you had to fight for them.
Throughout my twenties, I often dated men who loved in the same way: with a love language they perceived as protection, but often presented itself as violence. I dated men who bumped chests with other men, or pushed shoulders after an insult; men who stood tall, locking foreheads with the man in front of them and said “We can solve this only two ways…”
A part of me felt safety around men like this. I felt reassured by their instant loyalty in uncertain situations. Even felt attracted to their confidence. As a woman, I was told that this is what I needed: a brave man who wouldn’t flinch at danger. A man who you knew would protect you.
Still, another part of me worried there must be something unhealthy to this kind of behavior, a red-flag of a man so willing to pre-emptively put his body on the line at any moment. “There is a difference between a man’s sense of protection and a man’s sense of violence,” a male friend once reassured me. But I never could tell the difference.
After a few months of being together, I would begin asking the men I dated questions about their relationship to fighting: how many fights had they been in? And under what circumstances?
Maybe sometimes I was really asking “Will you take care of me?” Maybe sometimes I was really asking “How scary are you?” Or maybe I was asking everything at once because even I didn’t know what the answer should be.
When I am 26 and dating L, we live in a city where women are warned constantly about the high rate of sexual assault and harassment. Back home, loved ones worry about me. But the truth is men harass me less with L around. They don’t follow me home. They don’t comment on my body. They don’t grab my arm and say “Hey I’m talking to you” — as they often do when I walk alone.
One afternoon, while grocery shopping, a man approaches me.
“Hey, what’s your name? How are you? Can I have your number?”
“Please leave me alone.”
He does not accept my plea, until he sees L walking towards us. Then, he immediately stops talking. He nods his head at L as if to show respect — to L of course, not to me — and then quickly walks away.
Ultimately, I decide I live a safer life with L around.
Because L knows how unfair that is, he tries to find ways to give me space. He tries not to be the kind of boyfriend who always hovers, overly protects to the point of suffocation.
During a camping trip together with friends, while hiking back to our campsite, a girl friend and I tell the men we want to go off on our own. We want to take the river instead of the trail, and take the long route back to camp by ourselves. We want to take more time to splash along the rocks, swim underneath the waterfalls, and finally enjoy a little freedom. Later, L will tell me the idea made him nervous. Later, L will tell me that as my friend and I giggled and splashed in the river, his friend was scolding him:
“You really going to let her be out there alone? What kind of boyfriend are you? Why aren’t you protecting her?”
He let me swim alone anyway. If something would have happened to me, he surely would have taken the blame.
Only when I begin dating women do I understand how deep this goes. There is a gendered way we internalize the responsibility for protection.
When Z and I end our date, she decides to stay in my taxi until it drops me off at home — even though it’s the complete opposite direction from her place.
“Just to make sure you’re safe,” she says, and it occurs to me then that Z might be trying to act like a man.
I do not tell Z that once I started dating femme women, I worried this was what it meant: becoming some kind of man, re-centering my attention from my own safety to the protection of someone else. I do not tell Z that I often worry I wasn’t cut out for queerness because I have no idea how to protect women the way men protected women, because I have never been in a fight, because I have never put my body on the line for anyone. I do not tell her that my biggest fear of being a queer woman is having to take on what we consider the responsibility of men, adopting their abstract rage to protect.
Sometimes, when Z and I walk hand in hand on an empty street, coming home from the metro after dinner or a bar, I am paranoid:
What will happen when they come for us? Who will protect who? Who will be responsible? Who will they blame afterwards for not doing enough?
I do not tell Z I spent 28 years of my life only dating men because in so many ways, this made my life feel so much more safe. I do not tell her that— for me, to date a woman, to walk hand in hand with her alone on the street, is to become the most vulnerable version of myself I can be.
Christman explains that when he defines masculinity as “the abstract rage to protect,” he doesn’t mean “the actual useful things a man (or anyone else) may do for other people…Rather, I mean precisely the activities that stem from a fear that simple usefulness is not enough; [that] one must train and prepare for eventualities one has no reason to anticipate.”
This was the part of masculine protection I could never understand—the obsession with anticipation, men believing themselves capable of preparing for any potential attack, the measure of love based on that standard.
Living in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, sometimes L’s protection was useful. Other times, there was a desperation to it that concerned me—a compulsion to believe that the world was under his control.
Christman writes: “Love itself commands us to do whatever we can. But there is nothing specifically masculine about this responsibility. It also imposes on men a burden that would drive anyone insane; it ties impossibility to our very identity.”
L—and so many men I have loved—had that impossibility strung along him, the unreasonable expectation to protect himself and the women he loves.
One night, L outright confirms this. He tells me his biggest fear in relationships: “Not being able to protect the other person.”
But this to me seemed inevitable. Of course, he couldn’t protect those he loved from everything. Of course things happen that we have no reason to anticipate. To me, his biggest fear seemed instead like an obvious truth.
Some mornings in the city where L and I lived, I would wake up, make myself breakfast, drink my coffee, and as I’d pack my bag to leave the house for the day, I would think to myself: This may be the day, Amanda. This may be the day it happens to you.
I’d inhale that sentence in before walking out the door.
When I tell men this, they often tell me I am fatalistic. When I tell women, they usually share my passive acceptance. When I tell women about my sexual assaults, they pour me a glass of wine, and nod, as if listening to an old story. They tell me “I’m sorry that happened to you,” before saying “Me too.” Then they assure me I’ll one day be okay.
Unlike men, they never ask “Who failed to protect you?”
Instead, these women tell me what women have always known: “I cannot protect you from what will happen to you. But I can hold you when it happens.”
For centuries, this is how women have learned to protect each other. We create a sanctuary for your story. We vulnerably share our own. We hold each other when the inevitable finally happens to you.
I can’t understate how important this is: the paradoxical power women create together from being disempowered, the strange sense of agency we gain from surrender. It is the difference between working towards achieving invincibility, and accepting vulnerability. It is the difference between telling yourself every morning, before walking out the door “I am not going to let this happen” and telling yourself “This may be the day that it happens to me. And I know, somehow, I will be okay.”
I’m not sure cis men understand this. I’m not sure men can fathom how one can gain power from experiencing powerlessness. I’m not sure men even know how to handle being powerless, at all.
Years later, a man on a date will tell me about a nightmare he once had: two men, holding down his arms. Not hurting him, just harshly holding his body down so that he could not move. No matter how hard he struggled against them, he could not escape. He told me he woke up hyperventilating. Even as a dream, he told me, the powerlessness he felt that night—the complete inability to control his own body—kept him terrified for days.
After I tell a male friend about my sexual assault, he tells me afterwards he keeps having dreams:
“Sometimes I picture myself beating up all those men. Hurting them. Really hurting them. And something about that feels really good,” he tells me. “Is that bad?” I don’t know how to answer. What concerns me most is not the question of when violence is right or wrong, but instead when violence is limiting, when it renders men incapable of imagining how to help in any other way. When I tell the story of the festival, men often can only imagine that the problem was I couldn’t fight back. If only I had known how to fight, this wouldn’t have happened. So many respond to the story only by suggesting that I take self-defense classes.
“Just in case something happens, you know, then you’ll be ready.”
These men invest in the power of their bodies, believing if they just train hard enough, it can solve everything—or at the very least make them feel prepared to fight back. But when I tell the story of the festival, I leave out the part that makes me most ashamed: At first, I never tried to fight back.
When the first group of men approached me, I watched their hands slip up my shirt, felt their palms against my breasts. But I never screamed. I stood there, my throat frozen, my mind circling this thought:
Maybe I should just let them do it. I guess he has a right to do this too.
When men took over my body at a festival, I was the woman who could not even bring herself to cry for help. I was the woman who still couldn’t bring herself to believe she had a right to her own body. I was the woman that watched her body violated — one by one by one by one by one by one by one by one by one — and still somehow believed she deserved it.
How does a man protect me from that.
When men want to talk about sexual assault, I tell the story of the festival, and the intense episode of trauma becomes their fixation. The drama feels necessary, as if my sexual assault must perform a show.
But sexual assault is not a show; it is a culture. Truthfully, that episode did not necessarily feel worse than what I have dealt with every other day of my life: the constant leering and aggression on the street, the multiple dates with romantic partners who never asked for consent, the conditioning to view sex as a service I perform for men, the constant messaging that I have no ownership over my own body, the delegitimizing of women’s stories every morning in the news, the unrelenting support and solidarity among men when one of them is accused of assault.
As Nora Salem writes in an essay about the man who assaulted her “[He] didn’t ruin me. The world that made him did—the place that continues to manufacture replicas of him and continues to create the circumstances in which he and his replicas thrive. What is there to do about that?”
Men keep wishing they had been there to protect me that day at the festival. And meanwhile, they do little to change the culture that keeps traumatizing women every day: on the bus, on the way to work, on a date, while out with their friends. When violence is a man’s automatic method of protection, what other possibilities for protection are lost? When men only know how to respond to crisis through violence, this, in its own way, becomes debilitating.
Years later, a man I love will tell me the story of the night at a party when he heard his roommate joke about having sex with a drunk woman passed out on their couch. Later, he witnessed this roommate pick up her unconscious body and take her to his room. But he said nothing.
If I were there, this wouldn’t have ever happened, men keep telling me.
But they are always there when it happens. And it keeps happening nonetheless. So often I have seen men protect women when it requires a fight, a performance, a show. But when it requires something more complicated, their abstract rage so often disappears. After his arrest for sexually abusing children, the New York Times published an editorial: “Who Protected Jeffrey Epstein?”
This is the kind of protection that matters most.
We teach men to fight their way into controlling the universe. But what happens when fighting no longer works? What do they fight for then?
Three months into our relationship, when L is angry, he tosses his phone against the wall so hard it breaks. He lifts his hamper and tosses it across the room, the clothes sprawling everywhere. Three months later, when L and I are arguing, I make a sarcastic comment and he slams our dishes harshly against the sink, yells “Say that to my face.” Five months later, while we argue in his car as he drives, he begins yelling, and driving faster.
“Slow down the car, please, you’re scaring me,” I tell him, and he yells back: “I’ll drive however the fuck I want.”
He accelerates his car over a speedbump, sends my body levitating above my seat. As it happens, I look forward at the street ahead of us, the yellow halos shining off the streetlamps, the houses bathed in orange light, and for the first time in my life, I think:
This man could kill me. This man might kill me…
A few weeks later, during another argument, he grabs my wrists and shakes my body, yelling “You are going to BREAK. ME.”
Months later, when I finally decide to leave, I fly home and write in my journal:
His biggest fear was not protecting me. And in the end, he became the man I most needed to protect myself from.
A month after I leave, I read this poem by Nayirrah Waheed:
“I want more men
With flowers falling from their skin
More water in their eyes
More tremble in their bodies
More women in their hearts
On their hands.
Christman says this story is an old story:
“Men destroy their households in order to save them.”
The aggression men learn to protect the women they love, becomes exactly how they hurt the women they love.
A man’s sense of protection becomes his sense of violence.
The men taking care of you, end up scaring you.
The abstract rage to protect, in the end, just becomes rage.
Writer and activist Prentis Hemphill wrote: “Most of us do not know protection. Have never felt it, long for it. Some of us don’t know how to do it well for others. I am learning to allow/demand/receive protection late in life.”
Even years later, I still don’t always know what kind of protection I need to receive, what I want to demand. But I don’t think I will learn it all in self-defense classes, or in the aggressive ways men have so often tried to care for me. I think I will learn it from something softer.
The night after I was sexually assaulted at the festival, my boyfriend gave me space to write. I sat for hours on the rooftop of our hotel, staring at the city below, the crowds dispersing from the festival, the men shaking bright-colored powders off their hands. I wrote for hours sitting there, and then my boyfriend and I had dinner.
When people ask what my boyfriend “did”, that was all he did. That was it, and perhaps that was everything. Nothing very heroic. Something a woman might do: pour me a glass of wine, have dinner, just listen, hold me on the night the inevitable finally happened to me.
Last Christmas, my brother told me he still remembers what I said the day we watched my nephew and niece play together on my family’s patio. As they tossed blocks and jumped on trampolines, my brother pointed to my nephew and joked boisterously:
“When he grows up to be a big brother, he’s going to protect his little sister!” And for a second, I saw it all happening again. I shook my head, placed my hand on his knee.
“No,” I told him. “They’ll protect each other.”