5: Men on the streets

While not the most light-hearted topic, there has something that has been weighing me down lately. And I have hemmed and hawed about writing about this because I feel like it’s not the most enjoyable subject to write about and because it’s such a prickly issue to read about. Something that people already have opinions on and that it’s easy to just re-apply those opinions every time you hear a new story. I want to write about my range of frustration about being harassed on the streets. Within the last month it’s been more noticeable and more frequently than usual (Spring love, maybe?) and so I find myself thinking about it over and over again. And it happens on such scale of difference that it’s hard to talk about a whole. The fear is always that I’ll be marked as ‘oversensitive’ because the fleeting instance ‘wasn’t a big deal’ or shamed for bringing it up. But you’re measuring someone’s personal experience with discomfort. And occasion they would prefer not to have and I don’t think that should be discredited. ‘A thousand papercuts’ can slice you down when just one may not.

Being harassed on the streets isn’t something I’m used to since I grew up in the suburbs where you don’t walk around so often (it’s mostly through a parking lot in to a store). And even in Pittsburgh, I’m in school pretty for pretty much 12 hours a day. And yet….somehow in the very short walks I do take from the bus stop to my house or to get groceries, I my life is invaded with this uncomfortable moments. I feel helpless. I can’t retaliate in any way without the fear of being physically attacked. It just seems so unnecessary.

Before I start, let me say definitively that this none of this was flattering or wanted. Had the sleezebuckets been attractive to me at first, they would have instantly become detestable to me had they committed these actions.

Here’s what’s happened so far this month:

1.

I was walking home from the bus stop around 11:30pm. I was texting Igor frantically about something that happened on the bus. Two men were coming from the other direction, towards me.

There is this moment, for me anyway, where I kind of tense up when I see a man on the street. Especially late at night. It’s this really uncomfortable feeling for me that conflicts with how I want to treat people. I’m suspicious of them, but I also, in general, want to give everyone a fair chance—the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to be suspicious of people. I don’t want to be the person that makes people feel bad about themselves because the see my tighten my grip or avert my gaze. There is this internal battle between how to act, to look to not look. To smile to not smile. Luckily, I was texting anyway so I was mostly looking down. But came within two feet in front of me and I was going to walk between them, they both called out to me. Something like…

Wuddya you look at you? MmMmmm.

Hey girl, what are you doing tonight?

They didn’t slow or look at each other to exchange a “check it out: Did you see what I did?” look. I’m not saying I wanted more attention, I mean they they acted like it was automatic to call out. Like every time they walk passed a woman they have to harass her a little. The fact that it’s standard operating procedure—that they think it’s as ok as a hello-how-are-you—is a problem. I turned to glare at them but they didn’t even look back.

I remember being so livid this happened and how frustrated I felt. I wanted to yell out at them or tell them to stop. But there are two of them surrounding me and that’s not safe. And I was frustrated that I couldn’t react appropriately (telling them to stop) because I could put myself at risk. They had this small way to assert power over someone: to say something that the other person doesn’t like but that they can’t respond to.

My deep frustration with during this really set me off to notice the other things that happened shortly after.

2.

I want to say this was Tuesday because that’s when the garbage usually comes, but I have started feeling like it comes nearly every other day (I know this isn’t true, but they always park right by my first-floor window, so it certainly feels like it). I got ready for school in the morning. I walk down my block and I see the garbage truck on the perpendicular street. One of the garbage men is working and another one is directing the car. The second see’s me and calls out:

“How do you look so good?! Do you know what I have to go home to?” This he said facing me. But then as I turned the corner he kept calling out to my retreating back:

Do you know what I have to go home to?! How do you look so good and—Do—You—Know what I have go home to?

Disgusting. The implication that he wanted to be with me…that his significant other was detestable because of her looks…that I would enjoy being yelled at…and at someone else’s expense. Vile.

3.

I was walking along the road to the grocery store. Again, I’d only been out in public for a few minutes. But a blue SUV slows down to yell at me. The driver has yelled an explicit sexual act that he wants to do to me. I look up to meet his eyes. Since he’s in a car and can’t get out, I stop to glare at him.

He tells me what he wants to do to me again.

Looking into my eyes, he says it again.

I don’t have the words to combat him. Where most people would be quick to draw a finger or a sharp word….my friends know I don’t curse. And, besides, judging by the foulness of his own language, it would have have felt like a lullaby to him. I didn’t have the repository of harsh language to draw from. The best I could do after scanning my brain frantically was to scold: “Shut up!” to him.

He says it one more time before he’s passed. I’m still frantically thinking of what more I can do. The best I could think of was to take a picture of his passing car:

pgh-scum

Afterwards I was just reeling from the experience. I was so mad. It was so disgusting, what he yelled at me. That he went out of his way to harass me. The he looked me in the eyes from the comfort of his car to goad me. That he leaned out and publicly harassed me. Slang, action, public violence.

4.

I was still flustered from this incident while I was in the grocery store. While I was walking through the store, a guy with his friend was staring at me. I wasn’t even very far from him, I walked passed and he turned his head to continue looking at me. It was an unfriendly stare. It was something next to earnest interest that didn’t sit well.

Here’s one of these instances where you don’t know how to feel about them. Did anything really happen? Not really. Is looking ok? I guess. Is it the quality of the look? I mean, there are Looks. You mom gives you a Look. You know when I look is bad or good.

When is staring ok? If you’re caught and you continue staring and you can tell the person doesn’t like it, is that still ok? I asked my friend and he said “Almost never. It’s ok when a couple has been in mutual love for a few years.” I don’t even know if he’s being funny or not. But the point is maybe that Looks mean something.

[5.]

Maybe it’s also partially deeper intent behind the look and also the context. I have been bouncing back and forth about whether to describe some incidents in this post (like this last one and one more), because it’s hard to communicate how you feel after these fleeting moments and how they become wrapped up into your day-to-day. This morning I was riding on a full bus and had to sit next to someone. I took a seat next to a young man in the back. I was pretty annoyed at first because he was man-spreading, but I’m small so, whatever. After we rode a long for a while he asks me a question about the bus stop we’re at. I can’t hear him and he has to repeat himself a couple of times. He’s asking if it’s the last stop. It’s not and I show him my phone and tell him there’s at least one more because that’s where I’m getting off. He looks at the map on my phone and  gives slight nod of understanding and glances at me. I see his eyes dart to my right slightly and then go back to me.

“You have really nice hair,” he says looking back at me. I mumble thanks and give a small smile so that I don’t seem dismissive. “And a really nice smile.” He’s not overly friendly. It seems natural. I don’t feel uncomfortable. I give a neutral response of some kind and he returns to what he was doing on his phone. I prepare to get off at the next stop and that’s that.

In light of all the other instances I describe, this, I thought, was how you compliment a person if you feel like it’s so necessary to reach out to strangers. It felt genuinely harmless.

Your Turn:
  1. Peter says:

    Hi, did you see this video about harassment on the streets of New York?

    http://youtu.be/b1XGPvbWn0A

    To me, sexual harassment is a function of social inequality, since in times of high social inequality, a lot of men tend to have low motivation and work ethic, which translates to their approach to women and leads to a general culture of disrespect towards women who appear to be of a higher social status.

  2. Jacklynn says:

    I also think it’s mostly a systemic problem that reflects community cultures, but that awareness doesn’t make it more pleasant for me when I have individual instances. I also don’t think its necessarily limited to one income group or not (if that’s what your saying). I know that it would take a large social shift to really change this, but it’s possible!

  3. Peter says:

    Yeah, that’s what I meant by a “general culture of disrespect”, there may be contagion from one social group to another. Your awareness can go beyond your realization that it’s a systemic problem, it can also be an awareness of these men’s unsatisfactory situation, so you won’t take it as seriously or even feel some pity for them. It might help you put these sorts of incidents into perspective.

    I think it’s great you wrote it all up, it really seems to be an increasing problem which hopefully will take care of itself in the coming years. Whether this change can be effected by a conscious personal effort or not, we can certain that it *is* coming. I sometimes think a temporary economic crisis will be the reset button that brings society together again, but opinions may differ on that one.

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