Man or Bear? A Viral Meme About Who Women Feel Safer With Requires Expert Answers

Man or BearWould you rather be stuck in the woods with a man or a bear? (karpenko_ilia/Getty Images; Emma Patti Harris/The Baltimore Banner)

Some questions posed by internet memes are inherently silly: What color is this dress? What animal do you see in this cloud? What’s an opinion that will have virtual swords aimed at your head?

One of the most recent, born of TikTok and thousands of shares, is at its surface just as pithy but actually much more important. It asks whether a woman would want to be stuck in the forest with your average bear (sorry, Yogi) or a man. Because of the very high statistical number of attacks by men as compared to our wild ursine friends, the responses have been solidly Team Bear.

This has mystified and angered some men, but the discussion contrasts the behavior of a species whose dangers are instinctual versus that of allegedly higher beings who could choose to be safer, but sometimes don’t. So I consulted experts on both bears and sexual and domestic violence to get their informed opinions. In most cases, the bears are still winning.

“The overarching response I got back was that if you don’t mess with bears, they don’t mess with you,” said Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of area rape crisis center TurnAround Inc., who posed the question to her staff.

The same, sadly, cannot be said for humans, like the man who was recently charged with the murder of a woman in front of her twin sister because they both rejected his advances. Or the guy who sat next to me on the bench in a Miami bus stop enclosure in my 20s and started masturbating. These people entered a woman’s space and messed with them. Bears don’t do that.

Here is where I give the #notallmen disclaimer: All predators are not men, and every man is not a predator But the numbers don’t lie. Compare the number of bear attacks to those committed by men. According to Greg Bortz, media relations manager in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Communications, there have been only two reported black bear attacks in the state in recent years.

Compare that to the startling statistic that 20% of Maryland’s female residents have experienced rape in their lifetime, and nearly 55% have experienced some other sort of sexual violence, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.

“I think it’s a sad day when we do choose a bear over a human, an individual we can communicate and talk to and build a relationship with, but it’s where we are as a society,” said Nicole Jackman of Carroll County’s Springboard Community Services, which provides mental health care and support. “If you took 12 women who had some kind of encounter with a bear, two of those women will say they’ve already reported a rape or attempted rape, three of those women will have experienced intimate personal violence or domestic violence.”

That’s depressing, but true. For the most part, bears don’t attack humans unless they feel threatened. Bortz said both recent attacks in Maryland — which both victims survived — occurred when the animals were startled by off-leash dogs.

Erin Grimm, who works with bears on a daily basis as curator of mammals at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, said that most attacks are “females protecting their kids. They’re the most dangerous. The mom instinct always kicks in. People just surprise them, and they react literally out of fear.”

Grimm added that bears, like other wild animals, can be dangerous when approached because they don’t have the wherewithal to know that you’re just trying to get a cool video for your Instagram — which is also why those videos where dummies walk up on bison don’t end well. “Animals don’t have an English monologue in their heads. That’s the problem with people who think they can walk up to a bison, and the bison should know a person is not going to do anything,” she said. “The bison has no context for that.”

Human predators go deeper. They use guilt and gaslighting. They know you’ll be asked what you were wearing, if you were drinking. No one asks bear attack victims if they were eating honey and then blames them for that. Stop eating honey in the woods, dude.

Jackman asked her own husband whether he’d rather their daughters face a man or a bear in the woods. “He said, ‘At first was gonna go with the bear, but I’m gonna say the man,’ and his reasoning was that, ‘I think our daughters could outrun the man versus the bear,’” she said. “It wasn’t because the man was a safer option; it’s the option he thought our daughters could survive.”

I have been thinking about that since our interview because it shows even men know the stakes. All men are not predators. But enough are.

To Jackman, the question is an opportunity to educate the public about experiences and lives that may be different than theirs. “I had people say, ‘I’m gonna choose a man because every man in my life has been comforting and supportive, I feel safe with them, where a bear is very unknown,’” she explained. “That is great. That is what we would want for our daughters, for our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers to report. However, that’s not usually the case when you’re taking a report from an average group of women.”

Rodriguez said she hopes men who are offended by the bear vs. man conundrum just listen to the facts first. “We can have a conversation, and because the data supports that [women have more to fear around men] and collectively, women feel this way … we should be paying attention, and it doesn’t have to be about you. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. But as a society, we have to call it out, and that’s how you address it.”

And until we do, Grimm said, “I think a lot of people would choose to hang out with the bear.”