I’ve been quiet (ish) regarding the conversations surrounding women and street harassment that have been circulating the Internet in the last few months. Mostly, it’s because I agree that yelling at or trying to chat up women who are just going about their business is not ok, and that it’s an epidemic with roots of sexism and privilege that are as deep as the snow in Boston. And I don’t have much else to add on this point, so I’ve tried to be quiet and to listen to others who need the space to tell us their stories.
I get my share of catcalls when I’m out in the world. They are uncomfortable and unwanted. Once, some guy yelled from his car that I was the most “beautiful blind chick” he’s ever seen. Which is sort of funny, in a really sad way, and also not ok to yell at someone. I’ve definitely been the recipient of the all too common, “Smile baby. You’re so much prettier when you smile.” Lots of other comments centered around me being blind. I learned early in my bus traveling career not to engage with men who asked me questions or told me lengthy stories about a “friend” of theirs who was blind, and could they have my number for that friend? Seriously?
And you know what? I’ll come clean here: when I was in college and never took the bus, and hardly walked anywhere alone outside of campus, I had some of the same feelings other people have expressed about this issue. Feelings like: “Oh, they’re just trying to be nice”, or, “Come on, you should be flattered, someone’s telling you you’re beautiful, isn’t that GOOD?” They were feelings born from naivete. Sadly, sometimes you can’t learn something, truly, unless you experience it yourself, or see it experienced by someone who is close to you.
I never feel completely at ease walking by myself, even in familiar neighborhoods. And it’s not because I’m afraid of getting lost. No, it’s because I’m afraid some dude will try to talk to me and I won’t be able to escape. Does this keep me from living my life? No, not usually, but I absolutely, 100 percent understand that for some who have it worse than I, it would.
It became clear to me the other day while I was having coffee and working, the extent to which I have been conditioned to be on my guard against physical and verbal attention. A man approached my table, (though I didn’t see him, of course), and said, “Excuse me, are you by yourself?” Before my logical brain could sift through a bunch of perfectly acceptable reasons he might be asking me this, I felt my defenses skyrocket. In these moments, I can physically feel my body preparing to deflect confrontation. My face slithers into itself, closing tight like a fist. My spine straightens, steeling my muscles. My shoulders tense. I look straight ahead, not at the person, pretend I don’t hear or care or understand. A beat passed. He said, “Um, it’s just that, we have a group of seven, and if you’re by yourself, we were wondering if we could switch tables with you.” That was it. He didn’t actually say, “Because if you’re by yourself, I thought I might rape you”, or, (the more realistic one), “Because you’re a beautiful young lady.” No, he just wanted my table, and I fell all over myself to move me and my laptop and the coffee and the dog to give it to him, because I KNOW that I had been rude and actually, contrary to what you might think, I don’t want to be rude. But this is how I’ve built a shell around myself over the years, because the majority of the time they want something else, something more than a table, and even if that something is just a smile and a “thank you” or some other response I’m supposed to give based on being passive and being a woman, I shouldn’t have to adhere to that expectation just to appease someone else’s ego.
I hate that I had that reaction to the table switching guy. I felt badly about it. But as Ani Difranco says, “In this city, self-preservation is a fulltime occupation.” And I’m not getting paid to walk by myself and remain vulnerable to the things that I can’t see, but sometimes, I feel like I should be making millions.