Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces

I spent much of the holiday season catching up on sleep and composing projects, and I’m happy to have some new things off the ground and some long-awaited scores nearing their premiere performances. This semester alone, I’ll have works performed in four to five states (which, for an early-career composer, is a Big Deal), and Letters will reach more audiences than ever before thanks to a couple large ensemble performances, a student recital (away from CalArts, even), and my own graduation project, face the mirror, which will have its own page soon but for now lives in my Projects catch-all. I’m super excited for each of these milestones and will devote more column space to each of them over the course of this semester, but I wanted to take a moment this week to talk a little about a piece I’ve just completed and how the concepts at play within it affect my own life on a day-to-day basis.

The work is called walking/I’m sorry, Mom and it was commissioned by my dear friend and fellow musical troublemaker Tanner Pfeiffer for the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble at CalArts. For CVE’s spring concert this year, Tanner is assembling a collection of works that explore, in some way or another, movement, theater, and/or dance within a musical performance context. Much of the art I currently enjoy making incorporates theatrical or dance elements, so I was excited to hop on board to contribute something new. Originally, I’d been aiming for a work that established strong connections between physical aftereffects of assault and their mental repercussions, but as dark works tend to do, the music pulled me in a different direction.

I wrote walking about what is [unfortunately] a quintessential part of the stereotypical gender-marginalized (especially female) experience—a strange man, with unclear intentions, following someone home late at night. “Don’t walk alone in the dark” was one of the sentiments that shaped my own coming-of-age experiences; ASU’s campus is lovely at night, and frequently the only reasonable time to walk around and enjoy the area is after the sun goes down, so eighteen-year-old me admittedly didn’t follow my mom’s advice to the letter. I’m fortunate that I started walking with friends before I could run into cause for concern, but I have friends (both from my time at ASU and other moments) who have dealt with these issues repeatedly.

More than that, though, walking isn’t just about being alone at night. It’s about being approached by a man—in any situation—and having to make that snap judgment of how to react. It’s about Schrödinger’s rapist.

The term was coined by novelist and private investigator Phaedra Starling in 2009. She wrote a fantastic post explaining the concept, “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without getting maced” (archived via the Wayback Machine here), which is worth a read or twenty. I highly recommend you check it out. This paragraph, though, will give you the SparkNotes version:

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

This is one of the big things that guys I was in college with during my time at ASU—hell, guys I’m in college with now—don’t stop to understand. And I’m not just talking about the guys who were potential romantic/sexual/life partners. I do this to every man I interact with, whether he is my teacher or my peer or my close friend or a stranger at a venue or on the street. If you’ve talked to me in person, ever, you’ve been vetted. Firstly: thanks for not assaulting me! And secondly: the lack of an assault is not what will actually make me feel safe. He hasn’t done the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life is not the same thing as he is someone I feel safe around. In fact, I can draw distinct parallels between this juxtaposition and certain periods in my life where I’ve felt or been alienated from a community or a scene. Why? Consider the following:

Chances are, if I’m new somewhere or am getting introduced around, I’m watching you before I formally meet you. If the first thing about you that sticks in my mind is you making demeaning, sexually charged jokes with your friends and promptly turning to me and saying, “My name is ____, and I like sexually harassing my friends,” guess what? It’ll be awhile before I want to talk to you. For any reason. (For those of you going nobody would do that, I wish I could agree, but this is a thing that actually happened.)

Most of the time, though, you will be able to introduce yourself to me without making yourself seem like someone I need to avoid. That does not mean you are safe. If you make tasteless, rapey jokes with your friends while we’re all waiting for class to start, I’ll be avoiding you for a bit. If you ceaselessly flirt with a female friend who has made it clear she is uncomfortable, I’ll be avoiding you for a bit. If you talk about female vocalists behind their backs or brag about your sexual conquests, yep—you guessed it—I’ll be avoiding you for a bit. Even if I’ve known you for years, if you start doing awful or uncomfortable things to the people around you, I will pull away. You will not see me. Will you notice this? Depends on how close we are.

And, again, that’s not because I want you to be my sexual partner but think you’ll be shitty at it. That’s because you’ve made me feel unsafe, and spending quality time around you has skyrocketed above my level of risk tolerance. That’s because the majority of rape victims know their attackers, but that doesn’t mean they’re all dating their attackers. That’s because I have already been assaulted once, and I cannot tell you with any certainty that I would survive a second attack.

If I don’t mention this, I’m sure I’ll have someone pop up in my comments or my DMs asking why we aren’t expecting women to do these things. Here’s your answer—because women, and (in my experience) nonbinary folks, have already learned how to make themselves nonthreatening. We give each other space and small, polite smiles if we’re passing by on the sidewalk. We give compliments to strangers, but we keep them simple and non-invasive—”I love your top!” instead of something about how their boobs look. We still have intersectional work to do—trans women and nonbinary folks will inherently have parameters around their Threats from Strangers category that cis women do not worry about, for one, and there’s any number of insightful, thought-provoking pieces out there about white folks shoving into (or refusing to get out of) the personal space of people of color (here’s a great one by writer Hannah Drake to get you started)—but, if we’re sitting across from a stranger on the subway, we already know not only how (roughly) to wordlessly tell her we aren’t a threat, we know this is something we should do.

When we talk about making spaces safer for women, for people of color, for queer folks and disabled folks and people who are not typically allowed in, we have to start with one question: why do they feel unsafe? People in composing spaces and jazz spaces and classical spaces and experimental spaces deserve to feel as though we aren’t putting ourselves in danger by engaging with our peers and superiors. We should not have to make a choice between engaging in an art we love with people who put our physical safety at risk or leaving that art behind because we know it’s not safe. And we need people who are our peers and people who are our superiors to back us up, to constantly prove that they are safe people, and to make sure we only minimally risk our safety by calling for change in this way.

Friends, I hope that starts with you. If you’re around CalArts on Saturday, April 27th, I hope you’ll join us for the premiere of walking/I’m sorry, Mom. We will be glad to have you with us. ♦

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