Before we begin, let's lay out the basic facts.
I am a young, white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, college-educated, employed American woman. I do not consider myself ever to have been physically abused, assaulted or raped. I have a supportive network of family and friends. I do not have severe mental illness or trauma. All these things are pure luck, of course—but, all in all, I have it pretty good.
Yet I still go into full-body anxiety shakes before every single date with a new man.
Yes, every single date.
The world has always felt like a pretty safe place for me. As a teen, I'd climb aboard Amtrak trains and cross state lines without a second thought. It's my job to talk to people I don't know. I've camped alone in grizzly country. I've always gotten the impression that, while I was born a girl and therefore societally "lesser," that it shouldn't be too hard to bust stereotypes and gain respect. Just go to class and eat your Wheaties and you'll be fine. Right? Right.
That way of living worked for 31 years.
And then, Donald Trump was elected president.
It was a sucker-punch. The 2016 election and the ensuing mainstream surge of hate groups and casual bigotry, to a great number of Americans, felt new and terrifying. More privileged people finally learned what marginalized populations have always known: Institutionalized misogyny, deep-seated racism, toxic masculinity and a rabid fear of anyone who presents as anything other than a straight white cis man are woven into the very fabric of our country.
Think pieces on the social repercussions started even before the vote: Relationships ended. Marriages dissolved. Thanksgiving dinners not only got ugly, but maybe stopped happening altogether. Women who previously walked through the world fearlessly were now calculating every step. I was one of them.
"As a society, we're becoming more and more versed in talking about trauma, not just as an individual thing; we're talking about generational trauma," says Alena Schaim, executive director of Resolve (resolvenm.org), a violence prevention organization. "We don't acknowledge quite enough of what it is to be living in this stream, even if you haven't had an individual circumstance that you would call an assault or abuse. … It's the air we breathe, it's the water we drink. Not that I think that there's a conspiracy theory, but it's not an accident. Violence is a form of social control, and it is acting very effectively in that you don't even have to have been assaulted to change your behavior. It's the same with black folks getting shot by the police; you don't have to have known anyone [who's been shot]. It's gonna change how you act."
Contrary to the (arguably misogynistic) stereotype, most of the straight feminists I know are either in healthy, committed relationships with men, or wouldn't be opposed to one. For many people, it's simply an instinct to want to be connected to others, if not coupled. The last few decades have seen numerous studies and survey responses indicating not only emotional distress, but physical illness can be exacerbated by feeling lonely.
And, ideally, a significant other is someone you really enjoy who is with you a lot of the time—and what's so bad about that? Of course it's a desirable thing when done well.
Dating, then, is one way to connect with people—so here I am. Comfortably single for many years, and not often lonely, but pretty much always alone.
Therefore, I date.
All this brought me, through Facebook ad algorithms, to dating guru Julie Ferman of Santa Fe Matchmaking (julieferman.com). It's fitting that her dog is a golden retriever. She's the human embodiment of the breed: blond, bubbly, positive and approachable.
Ferman, who's been a professional matchmaker for 27 years, has recently begun offering her services, from consults and coaching to direct matchmaking, in Santa Fe. All things dating and love are her favorite subjects to talk about, as it were; she believes dating is a culture, that love is the most important thing on earth, and that she can help us navigate it all. She's just the kind of person who makes you feel good to be around her.
When it comes to her business, she charges $295-$495 for a consultation and goes from there. She personally interviews all of her clients, generally operating from a very genteel place. (When I asked about "bad behavior" that her clients may have been accused of on dates she set up, she talked about how men may disappoint women by never walking them to their cars.) She believes in communication, clear boundaries, diplomacy, and a keen sense of our priorities to keep our dating lives uncluttered and productive.
Having crossed into my 30s, I do indeed feel that my romantic world is considerably less overwhelming than it was 10 years ago, but I still get nervous even thinking about dating—even as I actively do it. When meeting new men, I constantly have what Alena Schaim would call the "What If?" bubble.
What if it goes bad?
When my editor originally sent me an email with information about Resolve's 20-hour Women's Basics self-defense class, asking if I thought there could be a story there, immediately I thought: "Oh, wow—I could turn this into a story about dating."
It felt like a pretty natural progression.
But let's step back: What does it mean that, to me, information about fending off attacks feels mostly useful in romantic interactions? What does it mean that I'd feel more comfortable dating when I also know how to break a man's nose? What does it mean that a woman is more likely to be assaulted by someone familiar to her; that the rapist in the dark alley, while certainly real, is much less common than the rapist with whom you shared creme brulee a couple hours earlier?
The class I took with Resolve, described as empowerment self-defense, did not focus entirely on warding off sexual assault. Yes, moves and techniques to thwart would-be rapists are a large part of the curriculum, but the greater mission statement of Resolve is "to prevent violence by building skills and inspiring individuals to be agents of personal, community and cultural change."
The organization, which originated as Impact Personal Safety, was formed by volunteers at the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center (now Solace Crisis Treatment Center) and became Resolve in March 2017. It focuses on "strengths-based" skills, both physical and mental, for cultivating healthy relationships, including anti-bias and anti-bullying curriculums. The class I took focused on finding ways that everyone, regardless of physical strength, size, age or bodily ability, can defend themselves. This also encompasses students' self-confidence, boundary-setting and empowerment to advocate for themselves (everything from saying no to a pushy suitor to telling friends, "No, not fajitas again, I'd like pizza"). It's a tall order.
For lack of a better term, empowerment self-defense is nuanced; it acknowledges that not all strangers in dark alleys are dangerous, that not all people claiming to be our friends actually are, and not all people who treat us disrespectfully are our enemies. It teaches physical skills as well as negotiation and verbal techniques to get out of sketchy situations. It focuses on strengths instead of isolating weaknesses.
Navigating the world with confidence is Resolve's goal; navigating the dating world with confidence is Ferman's. A concept that came up repeatedly in our discussion was the idea of clearly stated priorities; she asks her clients for three or five must-haves in a partner, and says that most problems between couples come from those top needs not being met. From wanting kids to pubic hair preferences, those needs can be just about anything you want them to be, she maintains, as long as you're aware of them.
When I ask her if this political climate has affected her business, she surprises me: "For the vast majority of people, being aligned on politics will not make it to the top three."
That being said, however, she continues, "This is the first time in 27 years of being a personal matchmaker that I have had to—all the time now, when I am interviewing, screening, vetting—ask the question: Are you highly charged and emotional about politics right now, and can you be in a space with somebody who doesn't agree with you, or is it going to turn into an argument?"
Any answer is fine, she says—as long as you put it out there first-thing. But still, she says incredulously, "I've never seen it like this before."
It all comes back to self-awareness. "The mistake that people are making is allowing item number seven or 14 on the list to blow up possibilities with a brand-new person," she says, "and five years later, they're wondering why they're still single. … What I'm really encouraging people to do is get clear about who they are and what they need."
Coupled with that self-awareness comes analysis of your own interactions with others.
Schaim tells me that releasing self-blame while also finding ways we can act on our own behalf is what her colleague Lynne Marie Wanamaker calls "the self-defense paradox; that simultaneously it is always the assailant's fault, but we simultaneously have agency in our lives and can do things about it," she says. "That's really challenging, to hold both—and why self-defense is so often called victim-blaming. It's really hard to hold that it's always that person's fault, and of course we want to believe we can do something and feel agency in those scary moments."
Congruity and civility play into both Resolve's teachings and Ferman's philosophy.
When I ask Ferman about rejecting a man, "there's a fear factor there" for women, she acknowledges, "and the fear can come from 'I don't want to hurt somebody's feelings' or 'I don't want somebody to take revenge on me' or whatever. But I think everyone who's out there who's single needs to have [positive] words" for rejection.
Keeping those positive or neutral terms handy was paramount at Resolve. Whereas I have always asked gawking creepers a snarky, "Can I help you?" Schaim offered a safer alternative: "What's going on?" The simple question was how we opened every scenario.
Similarly, if a student was being a little too nice to an instructor who was playing the role of an aggressor, Schaim often firmly coached: "Drop the smile." "Drop the sir." "Drop the please."
But, we were gently reminded, don't immediately jump to panic and self-defense the second you see a man. If a student quickly raised her hands and yelled, "I need you to leave!" the second she saw the suited instructor, Schaim might suggest they take stock of the situation: "Talk to him," she might say. He's not threatening you yet. Maybe he won't.
It's also okay to be kind.
Schaim says that Resolve has made concentrated efforts over the years to be as intersectional and inclusive as possible, a shift that has shown in the demographics of instructors and students; both are increasingly made up of people of color. The efforts also manifest in the class' rallying cries.
For example, at the end of each role-play scenario, once Schaim's whistle signals a knockout, the classmates yell together: "Go get help!" Schaim told me later that the phrase is, however, a relatively new addition.
Previously, the safety phrase had been "Nine-one-one!" It became more clear in recent years, however, that involving authorities or the police wasn't always the best way for some people to deal with a crisis—and, for some folks, would make them feel pointedly less safe. The phrase "go get help" is far more inclusive. Sure, it could mean to call 911, but the survivor can decide for themselves what to do.
The constant yelling and calling serves a dual purpose in Resolve classes: Schaim told us that former students who have had to use their defense skills after taking a class have said they can actually hear their classmates' voices calling in their head during the attack.
"Anything you learn with adrenaline goes in really deep," Schaim says, repeating a point made often in class. "And one of the things that goes in really deep is the instructors' voices. … That is why we coach from the positive, and we try to do strengths-based approaches."
There is also the simple practical purpose of speaking and yelling: It keeps the student breathing. In scenarios that are scary and stressful, yelling a hearty "no" with each defensive move forced us to take a breath each time. And, though I fancy myself pretty cool-headed, I found that yes, it definitely is necessary.
In one role-play, the instructor, clad in a huge Iron Man-esque helmet and full-body football padding, was "approaching me outside a bar."
I'd previously mentioned to the instructors that I believe I "have a mouth on me" (to use my words), and that while I've always been able to talk myself both into and out of trouble, I fear that someday words will fail me and it will turn physical.
The instructor, from inside the giant foam head, made some shitty comments and tried to get a rise out of me. I kept it pretty cool. But something set him off, and he came at me. I kept in mind the steps I'd been taught—left foot ahead, right foot behind for balance, heel of my palm up under the chin, yelling as I go—and my adrenaline spiked but bam, I hit hard, and there he went. A pretty average scenario. He was on his way out.
I relaxed back into our taught "ready stance" with my hands elevated, protecting my face. I watched him as he backed away. The voice still came from behind the mask. He called me horrible names. I remained cool. He pointed at me. "I'll be watching you," came his slightly muffled, distant voice.
Before I even realized what my face had done, I had raised my eyebrows and tucked my chin in a wordless Oh, really? challenge.
An angry "you fucking bitch" came from behind the mask and he charged me. I laughed at first. I may even have said something like, "Oh, no, I was just kidding"—because I had been. I always am. I always am. Right? This was just a joke.
But he still came at me. So I stepped in and rammed the heels of my palms into his chin, but he didn't stop—and Schaim called from my left, "knee, knee," so I drove my knee into his groin as the line called "no." And again. And again. And again. I shoved him away. And again.
He was doubled over. I gained my balance. He staggered backward. I stepped back into ready stance, hands protecting my face. I had to gasp for air. When I followed Schaim's command to "look, look" to either side, when I said the word aloud, it was more of a gulp. A sob came out. Fuck. I couldn't breathe.
Schaim blew her whistle to signal a knockout. As the line of classmates chanted "go get help" and I ran to the end of the mat, I cried. Hard.
The next weekend, on the last day of Women's Basics, a Sunday, we did more role-play scenarios. Oh, boy. Here goes nothing. I was, again, role-playing outside a bar at night. The instructor approached me. He talked some shit. He talked a lot of shit, actually.
I stood stone-faced, my hands raised in ready stance. I repeated that I'd asked him to leave, that I didn't want any trouble. I told him to go away.
He kept talking. Kept calling me a bitch. Kept egging. Kept pushing.
I stayed still. Then, I felt a palpable vibration in my nose and lips. I wasn't going to raise my eyebrows this time. I was going to remain solid, not give him the inch from which he'd take a mile. He was going to leave without ever having touched me. I'd see to it.
I felt the paradox: I have no control over his actions, but fuck if I wasn't going to make this go my way.
The scenario went on way longer than most others would—at least it seemed that way. I didn't know how much longer I could bite my tongue.
Finally, he gestured one last time. He turned his back and left. I felt like my skin was making noise. Schaim blew the whistle. He was gone—and I had hardly said a word.
A week or two later, lunching at a sunny table at the Anasazi Restaurant, hefty shrimp perched in my salad, the body aches from the Resolve class couldn't feel further away. Ferman and I were wrapping up a long interview when she smiled at me. She does that a lot.
"My prediction is," she said warmly, after rattling off what she sees as my strengths, "your whole life, you will always be able to attract men. Don't worry about it."
The comment took me aback at first. After all this time I'd just spent railing against toxic masculinity, talking about burning the patriarchy to the ground, how strangely traumatized I feel and how difficult I sometimes find dating—what would possess Ferman to say that to me?
And why did it, in no small way, satisfy me to hear it? Am I blind, or boy-crazy, or shallow, or too enamored of dick to think critically about the ways misogyny has destroyed so much?
I paused. I thought about the male friends I hold close, the decent guys I've gone on dates with throughout my life, the ex-boyfriends I still keep in touch with. The men I've yet to meet, the men I've already met and think about often, the full-body anxiety shakes, the fantastic dates I've yet to go on, the shitty dates I've yet to go on. Frustration with patriarchy is not frustration with men. I love men, even as I fear them. I welcome them, even as I question them. And then I nod.
"Well," I replied, perhaps haltingly—"I hope so."
On a chilly night, at a comfortably divey bar with a new acquaintance, we get our drinks and sit at a quiet table. I amicably allow him to buy the first round if he promises I can get the second. As our date progresses and goes better and better with each passing minute, it becomes clear that we're almost entirely politically squared. The deeper we go into the current events rabbit hole, the better it all lines up. He voted for Gary Johnson, but whatever—nobody's perfect.
I pull up the sleeve of my sweater. "And of course I have my rabid feminist 'nevertheless' tattoo right here," I say with a laugh, showing him my right forearm.
He looks at it, then looks at me. "That's … kind of awesome," he says, half to himself. He smiles.
And, despite myself—despite everything—I smile back.