Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Just a flasher?: You might think I am overreacting here, but I need an outside opinion. A few weeks ago, a stranger exposed himself to me in public. Since then, I have been very emotional and am having panic attacks. My husband is trying to comfort me, but he fails to see what the big deal is as it was “just a flasher.” I don’t know why this has made me react so strongly. What do you think?
A: I think you’re reacting appropriately to a deeply distressing and invasive violation. You are not overreacting, you are reacting. That man violated your sexual consent very recently. Just because he didn’t touch you doesn’t mean that it was insignificant or unimportant. What made it additionally frightening was the possibility that he would continue to escalate. When a man exposes himself to you in public, it’s such a violation of social norms, privacy, and consent that your immediate next thought is, “What else is he going to do? If he’s willing to do this in front of other people, is he willing to try to hurt me?” You’re having panic attacks and experiencing strong emotions because you feel unsafe, shaken, and paranoid about whether you can trust strange men in public to treat you like a human being rather than a prop in their creepy sexual fantasies. The fact that the man you’re married to doesn’t understand your concern is only adding to that feeling of shakiness and uncertainty.
I hope you can show your husband this letter, and that he can take a moment to imagine what this experience must have felt like for you, and how painful it is to go out in public without having a confident expectation that you will be treated safely and with respect. Your job isn’t to laugh this off and get over it as quickly as possible, your job is to pay serious attention to your own feelings and get the help you need. It might help you to see a therapist for a few weeks or months so that you have a private, confidential outlet for your anxieties and feelings. That’s not an overreaction or an unnecessary response to what you experienced.