The emotional burden of living in fear: a call for women’s stories
The threat of sexual aggression forces women to spend their lives on guard. Rose Hackman is researching emotional labor, and she wants to hear your story
In the car of my family friend, driving me home; in the tunnel between the train platform and the street; on the bus in the middle of the day; a month ago when I was walking through the market.
I wish it wasn’t as banal to say it: me too.
“Have you seen this #metoo thing on Facebook? It’s so fucked up,” a male friend exclaimed to me yesterday, alluding to the two words women have been writing on their social media pages in the last couple of days, pronouncing in the simplest of terms what they carry within: that they too have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment and assault.
“Yeah, it’s fucked up,” I said. But it’s hardly new, I thought to myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the male friends expressing concern, but here’s what I would like them to know too, and here’s what I would like us women to consider.
What’s wrong with this picture is not just that we, women, have to face those acts. It’s that we navigate a world in which we know this is happening, that this has happened, and that it could happen at any time.
We must be on guard, always.
We must carry the emotional burden of it, and regulate our inside worlds to adapt to it. We have to do this so that we continue to be mobile, to grow at work, and to build ourselves up socially and economically.
This is where the notion of “emotional labor” comes in.
Over the last couple of years, a vigorous debate has re-emerged online around this topic. This once purely academic term was originally used to describe the emotion regulation expected of a largely female, underpaid service industry workforce (think of a waitress forced to smile at a rude customer if she wants a tip).
The term has been brought back to life by women pointing out that within private relationships, they are often expected to be the emotional caregivers, supporters and facilitators – in a way that is both exhausting and unequal.
But this emotional load does not stop there.
Having to fear simply for being female, and cater to a society that wants to function as normal while it enables assault and harassment, constitutes a form of emotional labor too.
Where we are prey, we not only have to deal with the actual aggressions, we have to deal with the memories of them, the fear and awareness they could happen again at any time. We must participate in a very deliberate mechanism that means whether we are in the office, on the street or in someone’s home, we must keep a part of our brain uninterruptedly working on ascertaining our levels of safety.
It is a constant effort. We cannot afford to turn that part of our brains off.
Adding insult to injury, because we do not yet live in a society that will take our side, when sexist incidents just short of full-blown assault happen we must participate in a damaging, wearying process of de-escalation: downplaying incidents to protect our physical safety, downplaying incidents to protect our income, downplaying incidents to simply get through another day.
You could call it being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Take this example close to my home: a couple of weeks ago, in my current, beloved city of Detroit, two stories emerged of women who had been abducted and assaulted while riding their bicycles.
I ride a bicycle in Detroit, it is healthy, and, more to the point, it is cheap. Instantly, concerned acquaintances started conversations asking women to avoid using bicycles. But what if a bicycle is the only way we have to get to work? There’s hardly any public transportation in Detroit, and bicycles make economic sense for many people. What are our options here? Plough through the fear and maintain our limited independence? Forfeit the bicycle ride and the opportunities it was taking us toward?
Suspects are now in custody, but this is not just a conundrum for this situation. It is a pattern we women know all too well, in all cities, suburbs and townships in between.
On the back of my writings for the Guardian, where I have started scratching the surface of emotional labor, sexist incident de-escalation, sexual harassment as a side-effect of emotional-labor-heavy tipped work, and a host of other issues related to inequality, I will be spending the next year researching and writing a book that will take a head-on and all-encompassing look at emotional labor.
As I do this, I will also be writing for the Guardian, sharing and reporting on the many ways in which emotional labor keeps women “in place”: at work, at home, in the bedroom, in public spaces.
The topic reaches and affects so many different people, in different ways – across class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and geography. I am doing a call-out to you readers to tell me your own stories of emotional labor, and what shouldering emotional labor has been like for you.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org in all confidentiality.
It is time for change, and it’s time for us to share the load.
Rose Hackman is working on a book on emotional labor for Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins