wish i could pass this out like candy

Shapely Prose has a particularly wonderful guest post up by someone with the handle Starling on the subject of men who approach women in public.  You should go read it right now. It’s seriously so good I wish I could print out about 50 copies to carry in my bus-riding-tote and hand to every man I see on the bus.  I’ve written about my experiences being harassed both waiting for and riding public transportation.  Sometimes I wish I could wear a t-shirt with the words PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE emblazoned across the chest, but it’s probably not work appropriate.

One particularly wonderful thing about this post is the way it makes clear something I’m not sure male friends or even my husband fully understand: as a female in public, I’m constantly evaluating the threat level from others.  Starling puts it this way:

The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is.

Starling notes that this may sound crazy, but she sites the statistical likelihood that 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime as a major cause for concern. She also notes that based on rape statistics, 1 in 60 men is a rapist, and they don’t all look like creeps. She puts it much funnier:

These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion.

In fact, most rapists don’t look like mug shots of serial killers. They look like normal guys. Maybe even like friends, or boyfriends, or coworkers, or just someone you chat with in line at the grocery store. They look like “nice guys.” And so, women in public are on their guard, looking for signs that the guy approaching them in public might be approaching them in order to do them harm, and at the same time, women are sending out signs that let those who approach them know when to back off, if the approach-er is paying attention.

This is the part that REALLY hit home for me:

You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you…Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.

When I am on the bus, I do these things CONSCIOUSLY. By now, I have been bothered by enough strange men on the bus that I have a routine. I sit as close to the driver as possible. I read a book or look at the internet on my phone. I may or may not be listening to headphones. I do not make eye contact with others, particularly men. And yet there is one guy, a guy who is friendly enough but who smells sort of bad, who never seems to pay attention to these signs. I can be sitting in one of those two-seat benches, my giant taking-the-bus tote on one seat, reading a book with a pencil in hand, looking completely engrossed, and this guy, because I have made the mistake of chatting with him before, will ask if I can move over and let him sit next to me, even though the bus is full of other empty seats.  And the fact that this guy misses these signals, the fact that he STILL will sit next to me even though I sigh heavily and tell him, “I guess so, but I’m busy reading for class”?  This fact is a major red flag to me.

Starling sums up perfectly why this is such a red flag:

A man who ignores a woman’s NO in a non-sexual setting is more likely to ignore NO in a sexual setting, as well. So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

So, guy who sits next to me and talks on the phone loudly about sexual escapades: this post is for you. Same goes to the guy I never saw, who was sitting in the back and came running up behind me, startling me as I tried to exit the bus, in order to hand me your phone number.  FYI, phone number guy?  I was scared for weeks that you’d be on the bus again, only that this time, instead of chasing me down to hand me your number, you’d follow me off the bus and hurt me. This post is for you too, creepy guy who sits across from me and stares leeringly. And let’s not forget you, man who doesn’t seem to understand that I really am reading this book and avoiding eye contact and sighing heavily because I DON’T WANT YOU TO SIT NEXT TO ME AND I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU.

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4 thoughts on “wish i could pass this out like candy

  1. A-freaking-men. I’ve been taking a self-defense class with one of my coworkers, and he gave me a great list of signs to be looking out for, and I’ve definitely run across some of this behavior in the last few weeks. As a result, I seem to have a constant bitchface, but I really don’t care. I hole up on the train with headphones, my laptop and a good DVD (along with, you know, work), and on the bus I’m on constant surveillance to make sure someone isn’t looking too long at me.

    And a few days ago I had to ignore some catcallers as I made my way up the hill towards home. Thank GOD Columbia has a number of “safe zones”–stores and restaurants you can go into if you’re not feeling safe for whatever reason, such as someone following you.

    I cannot believe some dude chased you down to give you his number–so freaking scary.

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  2. yes, yes, and yes. i really don’t think men understand what it’s like to be a woman (well, in many ways!) but especially in regards to safety. it just doesn’t register with them. they tell themselves “Oh, I’m a nice guy, it’s OK,” but they don’t understand that we don’t know that about them and that we can’t trust strange men. we just can’t.

    i always have my headphones in when i’m on the bus. even when i forget to charge my ipod and the battery’s dead, i still keep the the headphones in, just to look less willing to talk to people. :)

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  3. I’m a bit late in the response, but I’ve just discovered your (very interesting and thought-provoking) blog, and thought I’d leave a comment.

    I find it interesting that it falls on women to be giving these signals…. perhaps this argument is inherent in your discussion of your public behavior, but the fact that this post and the post on Shapely Prose were even written makes me angry at the society that says, “yes, women, it’s your responsibility to give these signals, to go to extremes to ensure your safety, and to avoid ‘dangerous’ men.”

    Perhaps we could go further than teaching men to recognize these defenses in women and teach them the appropriate way to act in public in the first place. Highly improbable, yes. Necessary… probably.

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    • I absolutely agree– the ideal solution is for men (and women!) to simply respect each other’s boundaries in public. Having to signal my annoyance and reluctance to be approached is merely a stopgap until the ideal day when I won’t be harrassed while in public for merely being female!

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