"I'm a strong woman and I don't need help."

A common argument against interventions that aim to decrease harassment and violence against women–conference harassment policies, stronger anti-bullying measures on social media, and so on–is made by women and goes something like this: “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need to have my hand held.” Sometimes this is served with a side of “You’re the real sexist if you think that women are weak enough to need this.”

There are a lot of false assumptions layered in these statements. Namely:

1. That not needing certain protective measures makes you “strong” relative to others.

According to the fundamental attribution error, people tend to overemphasize the role of others’ internal characteristics and underemphasize the role of the situation they are in when trying to explain others’ behavior. In this case, many people observe others asking for harassment policies, trigger warnings, and the like, and attribute this to those individuals’ supposed “weakness” rather than to situational factors.

This discourse of “strength” when it comes to harassment and bullying troubles me. What I’ve generally found is that an individual’s ability to “deal with” harassment and abuse has less to do with how “strong” they are and more to do with other factors: social support, personal history of victimization, and feeling otherwise safe in the current environment, for instance.

Further, one’s likelihood of experiencing harassment and abuse in the first place has less to do with how “strong” they actually are, and more to do with how they are perceived by others. While individual factors have some impact on that, so do social categories that people use to think about others. Women with disabilities are extremely likely to be sexually abused because others perceive them as unable to speak up or get help, and because they perceive everyone else as unwilling to believe the testimony of a woman with a disability. Sadly, the latter is often true.

Therefore, feeling able to handle contingencies like sexual assault and harassment on your own, without help, is often more an indicator of privilege than superior personal traits. It certainly is for me. Part of having privilege is having difficulty seeing how other people may not have the same opportunities or experiences as you, for reasons that are not their fault.

2. That recognizing that some people(/women) need protective measures is bigoted(/sexist).

This is the gender version of another of my favorite bad arguments, If You Notice Race Then You’re The Real Racist. No, Real Racists (insofar as there is such a thing) are people who have managed to convince themselves that they “don’t see race” while continuing to judge and discriminate on the basis of it.

In the real world, there is sexual harassment and assault. In the contexts that we’re discussing, such as conferences and college campuses, sexual harassment and assault are most commonly perpetrated by men against women. Although harassment policies, anti-bullying measures on social media, and other initiatives of that sort have the potential to help anyone regardless of gender, most people correctly note that the initiatives are being created with female victims in mind–because that’s the majority, and because the loudest voices in anti-sexual violence advocacy tend to be women.

Noticing reality is not bigoted in and of itself. (But it’s possible to discuss reality in a bigoted way, obviously. For instance: “Women are the majority of sexual assault victims because men are slavering beasts” or “There tends to be more violence in neighborhoods where the residents are predominantly Black because Black people are more violent.”) If it is true that women are the majority of sexual harassment victims–and, according to current research, it seems to be–then it makes sense to be concerned with reducing sexual harassment against women.

But as I mentioned, such protective measures are useful to anyone who experiences harassment or assault, regardless of gender. When you say that such measures are by default sexist against women, you are assuming that all potential victims are female, and ignoring all the ones who are not. Although I do so hate to play “You’re The Real _____,” it is actually quite sexist to assume that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment or assault, and quite cissexist to assume that non-female, non-male people don’t even exist, as victims or otherwise.

3. That “strength,” whatever that is, is a quality that everyone ought to have, regardless of personal circumstance, and having it makes you clearly superior to those who don’t.

This is probably the main reason this response arises. A lot of people feel good about themselves when they position themselves as strong and independent and maybe a little bit better than those who can’t “take care of themselves.” In this way, the “I’m a strong woman” narrative is actually sort of a reasonable response to sexism. When you’ve been told implicitly and explicitly your entire life that you’re weak because of your gender, why not reimagine yourself as strong? Stronger, perhaps, than other women?

But when you say, “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need this,” what does that say about the women who are not “strong,” who do not consider themselves “strong,” who cannot be “strong” in the ways that you are referring to?

I was originally inspired to write this post after a discussion on my Facebook about an article that I posted about interaction badges. This is a measure implemented at some conferences for Autistic people to help them set boundaries around social interaction. Red badges mean, “Do not initiate interaction with me”; yellow badges mean, “Only initiate interaction with me if we know each other”; and green badges mean, “I would like to talk but have trouble initiating; please initiate with me.” The badges are very useful for people who sometimes have trouble reading subtle social cues from others or sending such cues themselves, which describes many people on the autism spectrum.

I posted about this idea and said that it would be a cool thing to implement at the conferences I go to–not just because plenty of ASD folks attend these conferences too, but because it would be helpful for lots of people neurotypical and otherwise. Predictably, someone said that they’re a “strong woman” and they don’t need this and so on. A friend of mine responded that, well, some of us aren’t strong, and some can’t set boundaries, and why do these people deserve to feel uncomfortable or even unsafe just because they don’t have the capability to be “strong” in this way? How is that fair at all?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons someone might temporarily or permanently lack the ability to assertively set boundaries. People with autism sometimes experience selective mutism, which means they cannot speak. People with social anxiety or similar conditions might panic and be unable to relax and find the words they need. In more extreme situations, sexual assault victims often experience a sort of paralysis that prevents them from being able to speak up and say “no.” This is a documented effect.

Setting boundaries is often exhausting, and different people have different amounts of energy (or spoons, if you prefer that metaphor) to do it. If colored badges make a space more accessible, why not? If you personally don’t need it, who cares?

4. That these protective measures are being implemented with the assumption that everyone needs them.

Actually, most people do not get harassed and assaulted at conferences or elsewhere. Some of the people who do get harassed and assaulted at conferences or elsewhere will have ways to cope and deal with that on their own, without using the resources made available to them by that space. When I was assaulted in college, I decided not to report it or utilize any campus resources for survivors because I didn’t feel that I needed them. When I was harassed at conferences, I decided not to let the organizers know, because I preferred to deal with it in other ways. To the best of my recollection, I have never used any formal procedure for dealing with harassment or assault, for my own personal reasons.

So, for various reasons, you may not need to use a protective measure in a given space. That’s great! Nobody implied that you, personally, need this measure. If you don’t end up experiencing harassment or assault, that’s obviously good. If you do, but you’re comfortable handling harassment or assault on your own, then you don’t need to avail yourself of the measures in place to help survivors. But not everyone is, for more reasons than I’m able to list.

This is why “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need this” ultimately falls so flat for me as an argument for or against anything. Claiming that harassment policies are useless because you don’t personally need them is no more sensible than claiming that a restaurant should not have vegan options because you’re not personally a vegan. And claiming that harassment policies somehow imply that all women (yourself included) are weak and need protecting is no more sensible than claiming that the mere presence of an elevator is accusing you of laziness.

There are people who sometimes need harassment policies and there are people who sometimes (or always) need elevators. If you don’t, ignore it and go about your business.

Or, better yet, understand that others may need help that you do not, and support them in their effort to get it.


I’ve previously written some other stuff related to this argument:

Also of relevance is the fact that the “strong woman” narrative has particular meaning and significance for women of color.

"I'm a strong woman and I don't need help."

17 thoughts on “"I'm a strong woman and I don't need help."

  1. 2

    I’ve never understood the attitude of being willing to put up with whatever others want to dish out translates into strength.

    A few years ago the wife of a coworker of mine, Jorge, brought their son, Julian and another boy into our workplace near the end of the day. The boys brought in bags with toys they’d gotten that day to show Jorge. As they were standing by the back door waiting for Jorge to be ready to go, the other boy was swinging his bag back and forth and hitting Julian with it. Julian told him to stop and Jorge’s response? To tell Julian not to be such a wimp. Wat?

  2. 3

    Wow, you’ve done such a great job articulating all this!

    (I’ve always been a huge sucker for the “but you’re strong. You wouldn’t want to ask for special treatment, would you?” and its close cousin, “but you’re smart! You don’t need any accommodations, and you should be ashamed of the fact that you have an IEP.” So it’s cool to see someone explain so clearly why those things are wrong. It’s like you are talking directly to my younger self.)

  3. 4

    But as I mentioned, such protective measures are useful to anyone who experiences harassment or assault, regardless of gender.

    Excepting, of course, the cases where gender is explicitly written into them, as it was at my elementary school, which specifically and solely defined “sexual harassment” as behavior of male students toward female students. >.>

  4. Pen

    I can particularly relate to this as my teenage daughter will be attending her first convention in a few weeks – and hopefully spending some time pursuing her own interests, since i have professional motivations for being there. I’m a ‘strong woman’ and I pity the fool who attempts any funny business with me, but I really don’t expect her to be a ‘strong woman’ yet. I doubt this is something that should be expected of older girls and younger women. It’s intrinsic that they tend to be inexperienced, accustomed to subordinate status and often, particularly dependent on people in positions of authority for the advancement of their own goals. And yet they are the prime targets for sexual harassment and assault. It’s not just that the abusers consider them particularly desirable, they’re also consciously or unconsciously seeking out the most vulnerable. It’s a form of sexualised ‘hazing’ on a level relatively few young men have to experience. The abusers have got more sense than to come after the strong. That’s why we definitely need to defend our spaces from their anti-social behaviour.

  5. 6

    Several of my friends have moved in the past few months. I offered them help moving their stuff. Some said yes. Some said they’d prefer not to take up my time, since I work about 60 hours a week. Some said no; they were fine, and didn’t need or want any help, but they were grateful I offered. At no point was I told “I’m a strong [person] and I don’t need my hand held,” or “You … think that [I am] weak enough to need this.” Turns out, it’s nice to have help with chores, be it dealing with harassment (often worse than a mere chore) or moving.

    1. 6.1

      That’s an interesting analogy. I am always on-hand to help people move because I work out and I’m quite strong, but I also asked for help moving! Why do it all myself when it’s still hard even for me, and plenty of people are happy to help.

  6. 7

    It hadn’t occurred to me that this was a case of fundamental attribution error, but now that you’ve stated it it makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering if other aspects of attribution theory, like just-world and assumptive-world, also come into play?

  7. 8

    Thank you… just… thank you…

    I read this through tears in my eyes quite often… I had to stop reading and come back because it cut so deep… thank you.

    “But as I mentioned, such protective measures are useful to anyone who experiences harassment or assault, regardless of gender. When you say that such measures are by default sexist against women, you are assuming that all potential victims are female, and ignoring all the ones who are not. Although I do so hate to play “You’re The Real _____,” it is actually quite sexist to assume that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment or assault, and quite cissexist to assume that non-female, non-male people don’t even exist, as victims or otherwise.”

    All of it hit me, if removing the gendered speak but that just blew me away and sent the tears streaming… The idea of strength… and who can and cannot be a victim is so very tied to that… being seen as a “man” or when younger a “boy”… and the amount of times being told my experience could not have happened because I was strong… because I was a “man”… and how much it caused me to see how all survivors need things… I… I can’t make this make sense at the moment… I am still too emotionally overcome…

    So I shall stop and again say, thank you.

    As a survivor I am beyond grateful to have you out there speaking.

  8. 9

    I get so tired of the ‘see how superior I am to you! I do not need help and you do!’ There is (in my mind) the possibility that some don’t get harassed as much, or encounter lighter harassment, and as a result have a distorted image of the issue. I have had other women be shocked at accounts of my own harassment; I guess they had missed out on some of it.

    The other problem is that some of these ‘strong people’ are really just either socialized not to complain and to resent people who complain. I don’t really get that, but I figure that is the explanation in many cases.

    At the heart of the matter is the idea that harassment should be viewed as normal behavior.

  9. 10

    When used as a rhetorical cudgel against those who, for whatever reason, can not or will not be “strong”, in the sense given in the OP, the self-narrative of strength strikes me as verging on gaslighting.

  10. 11

    That “strength,” whatever that is, is a quality that everyone ought to have, regardless of personal circumstance, and having it makes you clearly superior to those who don’t.

    I think this is probably the main thing- at least amongst good-faith dissenters as opposed to trolls- and it’s just a derivation of bootstraps and the american dream and all that fallacious debunked crap. As the ur-narrative goes, we are all dropped into the same Earth with the same opportunities, and we are thus are fully responsible for creating our own success and happiness through hard work and a can-do attitude and true grit; as a corollary to this, our competence can be objectively measured in terms of our position relative to others. Therefore, any talk of “special needs”- from welfare to harassment policies to antidepressants to helping kids who have been bullied- messes with this just-world fantasy, and is seen as essentially rewarding incompetence.

    It’s all predicated on a bizarre notion of fairness, which would only make sense if we were all indistinguishable clones carefully raised in exactly the same circumstances. That is not the case.

  11. 12

    This is just the same old slut shaming and victim blaming. It’s your fault. If you were stronger, better, more worthy, you would not be abused. How many victims of sexual assault had people tell us what “they” would have done to prevent or stop it? Because we are just inferior beings.

    Wny the hell should a woman be expected to just put up with abuse or assault? Does anyone tell a man, well, at any rate a straight white Christian cis man, to just put up with it?

  12. 13

    I loved this piece. I am judged sometimes for living at home with my parents at the age of 30. “But shouldn’t you be living on your own?” I feel like I have to explain myself, even though it’s no one’s business, and yet I end up saying something like “My health sucks and I need to live in a place where I can get support for day-to-day needs I can’t always accomplish on my own”.

    It’s great for people who don’t need to use resources, whether its an elevator, or anti-bullying messages, and all the other resources at conferences or colleges. But, it’s tiring to explain to people that others do need these things. And it has nothing to do with “strength” and everything to do with personal circumstance. You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps? Fantastic. But not everyone is born into the middle class with loving parents in a safe neighborhood. Realizing that shouldn’t be a shock. It’s called empathy, understanding, and recognizing there are circumstances outside one’s own.

    Thank you for this piece. And I appreciated you pointing out it’s for both genders.

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