This week I had one of those experiences that pretty much every woman I know has had. Someone in a position of “power” (whether it’s an authority figure or someone who is controlling the space so you can’t exit) aggressively “hit on” me. It wasn’t violent, it wasn’t directly sexual, it was that insidious territory of deep-discomfort where you end up over-analyzing the whole interaction afterwards to see what you did “wrong” to make it happen.
As women we quickly learn the basics of navigating these interactions, or at least how to minimize their effect. Be polite and non-committal, try to quietly dodge the question and escape the situation so your rejection doesn’t trigger violence or being sworn at vehemently in public. All this learned behavior really does is further perpetuate the idea that women should be “pursued” and men should be insistent as to “wear us down” into agreeing to their desires. That the responsibility of preventing assault (verbal or physical) is on us and not the perpetrator (she was “asking for it”, she wore a revealing outfit, she had a human female body). But that’s ridiculous. You can’t manage a stranger’s emotional reactions, nor is it your responsibility to do so. You can’t read their minds!
This time it was a shuttle bus driver who kept insisting I “text him my number”, he controlled the door and when/where the bus stopped, I couldn’t just leave the situation. He didn’t touch me, he didn’t make revolting sexual comments, none of the things that would have me quickly calling the bus line and complaining happened- but it was deeply unprofessional and it made me feel trapped (and then furious).
All afternoon I went over the scene in my head, maybe I was too friendly. Maybe I shouldn’t have answered any of his initial “friendly” questions. Maybe I should take transit instead of the shuttle when I am dressed nicely. –NO–. This was not my fault, there is no preventing this bullshit as it happens regardless of what you’re wearing/doing/saying. No.
When I posted about this experience on my facebook so many women I know came forward with similar stories and experiences. We’ve all been in these situations. The fact that it’s still happening in 2017 is frankly exhausting. Dear dudes, why are you letting your friends behave this way? This shit isn’t happening in a vacuum.
When I have conversations about these experiences in groups or online some guy will almost always chime in with a variation of, “Be flattered by it!” (obviously flattered is code for “grateful” as if my entire existence hinges on whether I give some stranger a stiffy) and that just makes my skin crawl. Being cornered and made to feel powerless in a public space isn’t about seduction or flattery (there’s nothing sexy about fear), I don’t think the bus driver truly thought I’d text him my number.
What these excusers don’t realize is that these interactions- whether it’s being cornered by a bus driver or yelled at on the street- are not at all about getting sex, or giving complements. They’re about eliciting a reaction in a public space as a demonstration of power and ownership over that space (“I made you feel bad/visible for being here!”). No street harasser has ever gotten “lucky” with his barking, straw-man arguments aside. This behavior often comes from an antiquated idea that public spaces belong to men (and private spaces to women), women are relegated to the home and out of sight- so if she’s in public she is public property. She’s asking for it, she’s on display.
It also comes from an urge to police womens’ bodies, which are considered public property whenever they aren’t hidden away at home (see every news broadcast coverage of Hillary Clinton at any event etc). Comments about size, revealing/style of outfits, etc are common in street harassment and are intended to make the recipient uncomfortable and self-conscious. Maybe you won’t wear that short skirt again, maybe you’ll avoid walking alone on the Danforth (like I do, because I hate the men who just sit outside there and cough garbage at every passing woman),
maybe you’ll shrink yourself further and further out of sight.
These experiences change the way women behave, it forces us to develop the constant awareness of prey animals when out of our homes. And consequently even if he “means well” approaching her in public it’s ruined as he’s not just contending with her disinterest he’s contending with her fear for her physical safety.