It's sunny here, and this afternoon found me out by the river, choosing a patch of grass near a tree and sitting down to read. As I did so, I took note of the two men hanging out nearby—safe, ordinary guys, I thought. Just two friends enjoying the sunshine like everyone else. Even so, I took the scarf from my shoulders and folded it over my bare legs.
An hour later, I did everything in reverse: put away my book, stood up, wrapped the scarf around my shoulders once again. It was only as I started to walk away that I noticed two faces turning to follow me and caught the words being thrown in my direction. "...Mademoiselle. Excusez-moi, s'il vous plaît."
We tend to think of street harassment as something obviously inappropriate: someone yelling that they like your ass, that that they'd hit that; wolf whistles and pet names hollered down the block. It feels kind of ridiculous, then, complaining about this. What, you're upset because they said "Excuse me"? They didn't even do anything. I tried to explain it to a therapist once, why it was that the strange shirtless guys hanging out on my floor made me so uncomfortable. How when I'd finally convinced myself to go past them to the kitchen, they had stopped their conversation and one of them had said, "Hey."
"Hey," my psychologist repeated. Coming out of the mouth of this middle-aged man, in a poorly-decorated office on a Wednesday morning, it seemed insignificant. The kind of thing strangers say to each other. I was getting worked up over nothing; it was just my social anxiety acting up.
But I hear these seemingly-harmless comments far more than their more explicit counterparts. At a certain point, I think you learn to tell the difference between "hey" and "hey," between someone who really does just want to get the time and someone who wants to get your number. Sometimes "Where are you from?" means that the person is curious as to where you're from. Other times, it feels like a code that means little more than "I want to fuck you," a distraction until they can get to what they really want.
I've written about this before: about the men who might just be asking for directions (but aren't), or the ones who just need a light (but want more). If I were to list every time this had happened to me, we'd be here all night—and I've been pretty lucky, compared to a lot of women.
I remember a moment last summer, as I was walking to catch the bus to work. A man stopped next to me at a corner, and I tensed up for a moment before telling myself that I was being ridiculous. Of course he's standing next to you. He's waiting for the light to change, just like you are. He's probably on his way to work, too. Stop assuming the worst about everyone.
The light changed and we both crossed the street, drifting farther apart as I passed a woman walking with her children and hurried on toward the station.
Not thirty seconds later, I heard a shout. "You do not touch me!" I turned to see the woman angrily fending off the man as he skittered around her and her children, his I-was-justs falling on ears that were clearly not having any of it.
This kind of thing is, unfortunately, far from rare. And yet, whenever the subject comes up in an article or on a Facebook post or among a group of friends at a bar, someone inevitably spits out the same tired lines. "But not all men are like that." "Why do women always assume the worst?" "I'm tired of being treated like some kind of rapist."
Here's why we always assume the worst: because every time we've tried to assume the best, we have found ourselves proven wrong. Because we have tried to give the benefit of the doubt, and we've seen it thrown back in our faces. Because we've learned that it's safer and more comfortable to be surprised by decency than by indecency. If you imagine that everyone who approaches you in a sketchy back alley might mug you, you're probably going to misjudge some folks—but might also avoid getting your wallet stolen.
Well, welcome to my sketchy back alley. It's sunny here.
[Photo credit: Ruth Orkin]