I was 16 years old when I attended my first Take Back the Night march. It blew the lid off my little hillbilly brain and made me feel something I had never felt before. I didn't have a word for that feeling then, but I have come to know it as empowerment. Marching in solidarity with a swarm of women, chanting and yelling about how we won't be raped and beaten, opened my eyes to something I had never been told before: that women are strong.
I am strong. I have felt that very distinct feeling of awe and empowerment every march since then (with the exception of a couple years when I lived out of the state). I am in my 30s now, and last year I was able to share the experience with my 1-year-old daughter, who rode along in her stroller.
I was heartbroken when I learned the march this year would not be solely for women. Don't get me wrong, I love men (I made a baby with one!), but TBTN is for women. Yes, men are victims of sexual assault, too, but not nearly at the rate women are, and when they are victimized, it is almost always by another man. Contrary to the slogan of this year's TBTN, sexual assault does indeed discriminate. Nine out of 10 rape victims are female. Of all rapists, 99.6 percent are male. One in six women will be raped at least once in their lifetime, compared to one in 33 men. Clearly, women are at a much-higher risk than men.
All that aside, TBTN is not a survivor walk. It is a women's empowerment march. There is a march for survivors that welcomes all genders every fall. Men who understand violence against women also understand and respect that sometimes women need women-only spaces. That is why, in past TBTN marches, our male allies have stood on the sidelines holding signs, dropping banners and cheering for the women as they march by. Supporting us, but letting us do our thing. Letting us reclaim the streets for ourselves.
Heterosexual men are not afraid to walk down the street at night. Most women are. Being raped, followed, sexually harassed or otherwise attacked is a constant fear in the back of women's minds. We are told from the time we are small girls not to go anywhere alone; not to walk home after dark; and to always have a boyfriend, brother, dad or male friend to protect us because we are weak and vulnerable.
Not only is this false, it also feeds into the myth that rapes are committed by strangers in dark alleys (most assaults are committed by people we know and trust). Nonetheless, it is nearly impossible to make it to adulthood as a woman without these fears swirling in your brain every time you dare to leave your house. That is what taking back the night is about: literally taking back the night that was stolen from us. Shaking off the layers of fear and false weakness we have been smothered with and reconnecting with our power as women.
Men don't need to take back the night - it has always belonged to them.
Myself, many female community members, Hollaback! and F**krapeculture are kindly asking any men who planned to march this year to instead gather on the sidelines and let the women have their space. Our male loved ones will be there waiting for you.
Devin Aeh of Nelsonville Devin is a prevention educator and self-defense instructor with the Sexual Assault Prevention Program and a site leader for Hollaback! Appalachian Ohio. She believes in equal rights for all people.