I’m lucky enough to have been never harassed on the street by men. Maybe because most people view me as a boy, or at least question my gender. But I see it happening around me all the time, I read about it, I watch in on t.v. Sexism, street harassment, sexual harassment, rape culture: they’re all there for us to see it, if we Want to see it. I already wrote about an incident I watched on the subway a while back and even though I have no idea how it feels to get harassed by men, I can definitely imagine how awful it must be. Last week I read two blogs that both had a great post about street / sexual harassment. One post was from a woman who blogged about a harassment situation she came into. She wrote this fierce piece about the culture that leads to these situations, about our society where there is a : ‘line that women walk every time they navigate public spaces, the line that men have never once had to consider, the line that in all reality does not exist because the men who harass us don’t give a flying fuck what signals of interest or non-interest we’re sending out.’
The other post I found a couple of days later. It’s written by a man, who in the most original way I can imagine, did something to end a situation where a woman was harassed.
I will reblog these two posts here. This first one is from the feminist blog: Disrupting Dinner Parties
My friends and I were on our way to a dance; we needed gas; I walked into a gas station wearing a slinky red dress.
I knew there would be stares, knew there would be comments. This is what happens, when you are female-bodied and you wear a red dress at night. Men stare, and they comment, because obviously you are wearing that dress so they can look at you! Why would you wear a dress – especially a slinky dress, especially a red dress – if you didn’t want to be stared at?
Head up, eyes forward, absolute refusal to acknowledge the eyes raking me up and down. Don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is an invitation to approach.
Of course, not everyone waits for an invitation.
“Daaaamn girl, you look good in that dress,” says a man as I walk past him to the waiting car. I don’t turn, don’t make eye contact, don’t smile, don’t acknowledge him in anyway. Acknowledgement is an invitation to escalate.
This guy, he’s really not all about the invitations.
“What, you can’t say ‘thank you,’ bitch?”
Not a recommended response for safety reasons. But oh, it would feel so good.
I keep walking, to my car, to my friends, to safety. If they were not waiting for me, I might not have had the option of being a bitch. If the lot were a little less well-lit, my car a little farther away, I would not have had the luxury of dignity and aloofness. I would have had to smile at this man as he commented on my body, appease him, try to walk that impossible line between not-inviting and not-antagonizing. The line that women walk every time they navigate public spaces, the line that men have never once had to consider, the line that in all reality does not exist because the men who harass us don’t give a flying fuck what signals of interest or non-interest we’re sending out.
I used to walk a lot further on the not-antagonizing side of the Bullshit Line. I had a horror of being rude, of hurting someone’s feelings. I had been trained in a thousand ways to smooth over any situation, at the expense of my own comfort and safety. So I followed the “rules,” illustrated brilliantly by Harriet Jay in her “Another Post About Rape.”
“You could flirt back a little, look meek, not talk, not move away. You might have to put up with a lot more talking, you might have to put up with him trying to ask you out to lunch every day, you might even have to go out to lunch with him. You might have to deal with him copping a feel. But he won’t turn violent on you, and neither will the spectators who have watched him browbeat you into a frightened and flirtatious corner.”
Following the rules is meant to offer us protection. Protection from the unpredictable violence of strange men, as long as we appease them. Protection from the censure and ostracization of those around us, as long as we don’t cause a scene by having emotions or enforcing our boundaries.
Protection – until the man we have let inside our boundaries rapes us, and all of a sudden following the rules is used as proof that we didn’t say “No” loud enough, so it wasn’t really rape.
For every time she lowered her voice, let go of a boundary, didn’t move away, let her needs be conveniently misinterpreted, and was given positive reinforcement and a place in society, she is now being told that all that was wrong, this one time, and she should have known that, duh.
I have given my phone number to a man who creeped me out, only to have him call me incessantly for two weeks until a male friend answered and told him to fuck off. I have smiled and laughed uncomfortably with an old man on the bus as his friendly chat suddenly came to involve references to my “cute little butt” and revelations about how he waited to get on the bus until he saw which one I was getting on. I have moved a man’s hands gently off my body, over and over, laughing to soften the rejection, to not offend, until at the end of the night he tried to forcibly drag me onto a dark beach.
So now I’m a bitch.
I don’t make eye contact. I don’t smile. My body language is guarded, closed off, aloof. When men approach me, I shut the conversation down or move away as quickly and unambiguously as possible.
The bitch approach is not any safer than the appeasement approach. The specter of male violence is a real threat, as the experience of this woman so vividly illustrates. And we can never, ever, count on bystanders to come to our defense.
On a Sunday morning last year, I went into a grocery store wearing yoga pants.
My friends and I were making brunch; we needed bread and eggs; I went into a grocery store wearing yoga pants.
I stood with my back to him, hands clenched, stomach knotted, shaking with fury. Acknowledgement is an invitation to escalate. Do not turn around. If you say anything it will only get worse. It will get worse and it will be your fault. What were you thinking, wearing yoga pants to the grocery store?
And then this asshole started on my freckles. My freckles. They’re on my neck, a part of my body that feels so vulnerable, that feels innocent and worthy of protection in a way my other curves never have. When he started talking about my freckles I felt violated in a new and horrible way, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I can hear you,” I snapped, whirling around to face the man I had yet to even see.
As if these things would have been okay to say if I couldn’t hear them? If only I had found the right words. Then, he would have backed down. Then, the crowd around us would have come to my defense.
He laughed in my face. “What? If you thick, you thick. I’m just saying what I see.” His friend – a woman – laughs in my face as well.
The people behind us in checkout line watch, silent. My friends, standing before me in the checkout aisle, watch, silent.
“You need to stop. Right. Now.” I grit through my teeth.
“Don’t need to be stuck-up about it. If you thick, you thick,” he says again. He is grinning. He has won and I have lost and we both know it. He is a man and I am a woman and I have no right to my own body in public spaces. Not if I’m thick.
I turn around because I can feel tears starting and I don’t want him to see them. He is about to start in again when friends of his show up. “Let’s go,” he says. “Some stuck-up bitches here in this aisle.”
I have this to say to the man in the grocery store. To the man outside the gas station. To every man on every bus and every street corner who has stolen my time and violated my space and passed judgment on my body as if it is yours to approve of and consume:
I do not owe you anything. My body is mine, and if claiming it as my own makes me a bitch, then so be it. I will be a bitch until the day I die.
From Writing about Writing by Chris Brecheen
So a thing happened to me yesterday on the BART as I was coming home from work. (And no, it wasn’t a Sharknado…mores the pity.) Maybe I’m just rewriting history or trying to make a story fit in this the context of this blog…maybe, but I really, honestly think that what happened did so (at least in my case) because I am a writer.
You see, as a writer, I am also a reader–a big crazy, prolific-as-shit reader. I’ve read two or three dozen articles my friends have linked over the years on women’s experience with creepers on public transit–usually with some sort of commentary attached to it by said friend along the lines of “ZOMG THIS!!!!” or “SO FUCKING TRUE!!!!” I’ve read Schrodinger’s Rapist, Rape Culture 101, Jezebel articles by the dozens (perhaps hundreds), and even my own friends’ tribulations on BARTs and busses. I even read that article (which I can’t find now) that lays out a well reasoned case that our culture’s entirely fucked up sense of consent and rape culture exist naturally as an extension of the same mindset that cause women to be afraid of being blunt and honest when they get cornered in public by someone they’re not interested in. [ETA- One of the commenters knew the piece I was talking about. It’s called Another Post About Rape.]
And in reading all these things I’ve come to be aware of a narrative. An everyday narrative almost as common for women as “the train pulled into the station, and I got on.” It’s not that no one but a writer could be aware of this narrative it’s just that in a world where tragically few are, that was my gateway.
It is the narrative of how men hit on women in public places. A tired old story if ever there were one. A story where consent is not a character we actually ever meet, and where the real antagonist is not a person, but rather the way she has been socialized to be polite, to be civil, to not be “such a bitch”….no matter how much of a Douchasauras Rex HE is being about not picking up the subtle clues. Yes, a human being might fill the role of the immediate obstacle–and in doing so personify the larger issue, but the careful reader of this tropetastic narrative knows the real villain is the culture that discourages her from rebuking him in no uncertain terms lest she be castigated. (And that’s the best case scenario; the worst is that she angers someone with much greater upper body strength who may become violent.) The real antagonist is a society where she is actually discouraged from being honest about what she wants…or doesn’t want. And the society that socialized him that it’s okay for him to corner her…pressure her….be persistent to the point of ignoring the fact that she has said no.
I saw the heroine of our story sitting on the BART. The train wasn’t busy in the afternoon along the “anti-commute” line, so it was only a few of us spread out far and wide. She was thin but not skinny and wore one of those wispy skirts that always make me want to send God a fruit basket for inventing summer. The kind of woman my step-father would have gotten distracted by and then grudgingly called “a real looker.”
|So under Google images as available for commercial reuse,
I searched for the keyword “creepy guy.”
This isn’t him, but surprisingly, it’s not TOO far off.
But what is much more important that I noticed, because I’m all writerly and observant and shit like that, is that everything about her screamed “leave me alone.” She had headphones jammed in her ears. Her nose was down in a book (my hand to God, I think it was Storm of Swords). She was pulled inward with body language that couldn’t have been more clear if she had one of those shields from Dune…activated.
But still….he tried.
He sat right behind her–already a warning sign on such an empty train.
The real antagonist may have been society, but our personification of it was well cast. He had a sort of Christian Bale look about him, if Christian Bale were playing a role of a douchecanoe. Revisionist memory is always suspect, but I’m telling this story, and I’m going to stand by the fact that I thought he looked like a creepy guy long before he started acting like one.
He waited until the train was in motion to make his move–a true sign of someone who knows how to make the environment work to their advantage. Then he leaned forward. “Hi.” “How you doing?” “What are you reading?” “What’s your name?” “I really like your hair.” “That’s a really nice skirt.” “You must work out.”
It was painful to watch. She clearly wanted nothing to do with him, and he clearly wasn’t going to take the hint. Her rebukes got firmer. “I’d like to read my book.” And he pulled out the social pressure. “Hey, I’m just asking you a question. You don’t have to be so rude.” She started to look around for outs. Her head swiveled from one exit to another.
The thing was, I had already heard this story, many many times. I knew how it would play out. I knew all the tropes. I probably could have quoted the lines before they said them. I wanted a new narrative. Time to mix it up.
So I moved seats until I was sitting behind him. I leaned forward with my head on the back of his seat.
“Hi,” I said with a little smile.
He looked at me like I was a little crazy–which isn’t exactly untrue–and turned back to her.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” he said flatly without ever looking back.
“I really like your hair,” I said. “It looks soft.”
That’s about when it got…..weird.
He sort of half turned and glared back me, and I could tell I was pissing him off. His eyes told me to back the hell away, and his lips were pressed together tightly enough to drain the color from them completely.
But no good story ever ends with the conflict just defusing. He started to turn back to her.
“Wait, don’t be like that,” I said. “Lemmie just ask you one question…”
“What!” he said in that you-have-clearly-gone-too-far voice that is part of the freshmen year finals at the school of machismo.
And I’m not exactly a hundred percent sure why I didn’t call it a day at that point, but…..maybe I just love turning the screw to see what happens. I gave him the bedroomy-est eyes I could muster. “What’s your name?”
Right now I’m sitting here typing out this story, and I’m still not entirely sure why I’m not nursing a fat lip or a black eye. Because that obviously made him so mad that I still am not sure why it didn’t come to blows. There are cliches about eyes flaring and rage behind someones eyes and shit like that that are so overdone. But it really does look like that. When someone gets violent, their eyes just kind of “pop” with intention–pupils dilate, eyelids widen. And his did. Even sitting down he was clearly bigger than me and I was pretty sure he was kind of muscular too, so at that moment I was figuring I was probably going to need an ice pack and sympathy sex from my girlfriend by day’s end.
“DUDE,” he shouted. “I’M NOT GAY.”
That’s when I dropped the bedroom eyes and switched to a normal voice. “Oh well I could see not being interested didn’t matter to you when you were hitting on her, so I just thought that’s how you rolled.”
(Of course later, I thought of a dozen cleverer things I could have said, but, I’m going for honesty here. I was tripping over my own words due to the adrenaline dump. My voice was probably shaking too, and I’m guessing the line above was more shouted than said with even, level, movie-caliber cool. I am in no way a badass.)
But whatever I said, or however I said it, it did the trick. I don’t know if he “got it.” I don’t know if he just thought better of committing assault in front of the BART cameras. I don’t know if he just didn’t want to escalate past bravado. But whatever went through his head, he turned back in his seat, sat back (away from her) and muttered “asshole.” And that turned out to be this story’s climax.
What I do know–and this made almost getting my clock cleaned worth it–was that the denouement was quite nice. She mouthed the words “thank you” to me as she stepped out the door of the Rockridge station.
Yep. Worth it.
I don’t want to steer too close to the idea that no one but a writer could ever do what I did because that’s obviously not true. Anyone could and more men should. But what I do sort of think is that I was aware of that narrative because I am a writer. Others might get it for other reasons, but I got it because I am a writer. I knew the tropes and the cliches and the tired old lines. I was aware of how to create a role reversal in the “typical characters.” I’m aware that most men don’t know what it’s like to be hit on by someone they’re not interested in who won’t take their hints. I look at things differently. I see the world from another angle. I think what would happen if we told this story from another point of view. And sometimes, not often–but sometimes, I can change a narrative completely.
And I’m going to go ahead and say that too (at least for me) is because I am a writer.