This is a story about being a woman.
“Excuse me, I really like your backpack”
I looked up from locking my bike. In front of me stood a man who looked to be about thirty. I might have been able to better guess his age if he hadn’t been wearing sunglasses; instead of seeing his eyes, on their mirrored surface I only saw my own slightly sweaty face with its’ mixed expression of optimism and disdain.
“Oh, thank you!” I said. I wanted to give this guy a chance. Maybe he was just passing by and wanted to compliment my backpack. Plus, and this is a huge plus, it was daytime, and right outside of Second City, so there were plenty of people around getting coffee and talking about the “stand-up” they just saw. So there would be plenty of people that would see this guy try to drag me into an alley, or grab my ass, or yell at me. And because this guy had enough gel in his hair to make me believe that he was someone who cared about his appearance, I figured I was safe from him taking any of those actions. So, I chose to continue the conversation.
“Yeah, it’s new, I just bought it”.
“Yeah, I like it” He said. Then, without any hesitation, “So, I actually saw you riding your bike and I thought you were really pretty”.
Ok, never mind. This is exactly what I thought it was. At this point, I stop making eye contact. I want this guy to know that this isn’t a conversation I’m no longer invested in. I start locking up my bike again.
“Thank you” I said.
“Are you dating someone?”
Damn dude, you’re getting right it. I give him the easy answer of “yes”, even though it pisses me off to have to give that answer. To be fair, that is the correct answer to that question. But it’s also the answer I have to give, because we all know that sometimes if you give a man a denial, he’s probably gonna want a long explanation to go along with it. I want this conversation to be over, so I say yes.
He immediately shoots back,
“Are you happy?”
I wish so, SO badly at that moment that I would have stopped locking up my bike, gazed at my still, empty hands for just a moment, then looked up at this guy with just the slightest amount of yearning in my eyes and softly said “No”. It would have been fun for me to let this guy think, for just a second, that his simple question was about to free me from a black-hole of a relationship that was sucking every ounce of joy from my life, and that I would leave a man that had for years caused me nothing but pain and suffering for him, this stranger on the street. My rescuer. Then I could have said “ha-ha, I’m just fucking with you”, and walked away. That’s what I wish I would have done, because fuck this guy for being so invasive. For thinking he was gonna “catch me off guard” or “hit me with honesty” with that question And fuck whatever older cousin or movie told him that was a good question to ask. Ugh, what a dumb, dumb thing to say. Instead, though, because again, I just want this conversation to end, I don’t do that. I say, still looking down, “yep”.
The man, again with no hesitation, said “Ok, have a good day”. And walked away. And that was it. He didn’t try to repeatedly question me, or call me a bitch, or tell me I was really missing out, which is how a lot of these conversations end. And that’s never happened to me, but it happens to a lot of my friends. A conversation with a man that ends with him just accepting a woman’s answer and not challenging her is an exception to the rule.
This interaction made me think about a lot of different things. I thought about human nature, and the fact that this guy was willing to ask out a total stranger SOLELY based on the way I looked, not knowing anything about me. Maybe it was for sex, maybe for company, who knows. What I ended up thinking about the most was the fact that I let this conversation happen at all. I’ll explain what I mean.
So, I’ve rarely been harassed, thankfully. Like, in my whole life. I don’t usually get cat-called; I think I have the perfect female body that allows me to perfectly be invisible to men. Not that I really care, but I think the average man on the street is indifferent to my body. I’m not especially curvy, I don’t have tattoos or an exotic hair cut that men can pretend to like and then turn around and say they hate when I don’t accept their compliments, and I don’t “look like a lesbian”, whatever that means to the average asshole. I dress pretty casually, I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I’m just at this point where how I look is not really conducive to street harassment. Hooray! Maybe one day, that’s how every woman will look! And trust me, I don’t actively style myself to avoid harassment. I don’t care if how I dress attracts the calls of strange men, because they’re not who I dress for. I’m just saying that because of how I look, at this point in my life, I don’t get much attention from people I don’t know.
This has left me pretty optimistic in terms of conversation with strangers. For most of my life, when a stranger has approached me, it was not to hit on me, or call me a name. Part of that is because I grew up in a small town, so most interactions with strangers involved petting their dog on the sidewalk and then finding out you go to high-school with their niece. So, I still kind of like talking to people I don’t know. My brain thinks, “oh, what fun conversation am I going to have with this fellow human being?” as opposed to “this man is about to say something to me about my appearance that I don’t want to hear from a stranger”.
But now I’ve lived in Chicago for a year and a half and I can kind of feel that changing. The other day I was running across the street and accidentally cut off of a couple cyclists. They were far enough away to stop and let me cross, so I waved at them and finished crossing the street. As I did, a male crossing guard said “they let you go, that was nice of them!”, or something. I couldn’t really hear him so I just smiled and responded with “ha, yeah!” As I strolled along the sidewalk I thought, ‘Gosh; the woman, the bikers, the crossing guard; just four people sharing the human experience, how blissful”. As I walked down the street, the crossing guard called after me, “you’re so pretty! I wish I was goin’ with you!”. And the experience was totally ruined for me. I thought about shooting back, “hey, it must be nice to get paid to harass women!”, but I just kept walking. It made me sad, and angry. I thought this guy just wanted to say something nice to another person. But I was wrong. He wanted to talk to me because he thought I was pretty. Or because I was a woman, and I was alone, and he felt like it. Or whatever.
So, after this happens twenty, thirty, a hundred times, most women are just done. They’re done interacting with men they don’t know, because they know the most likely outcome of the conversation. Sure, there’s a chance that you’ll just have a nice conversation, but there’s a bigger chance you’ll get asked out, or yelled at, or grabbed, or, if you’re in Wrigleyville during a Cubs game, get asked out, yelled at and grabbed. So we just don’t bother. It’s kind of like how your English teacher made you feel stupid every time you offered your opinion in class, so eventually you just stopped raising your hand.
Which is so sad to me. That men, as a whole, have indirectly prevented me from fully experiencing the world. I can’t take a shortcut through an alley, I can’t wear headphones too early in the morning, I choose not to engage with men on the train platform. If I start talking to a man, maybe we’ll have a nice conversation, but maybe I’ll get asked out, or accused of leading them on, or interrogated about whether or not I have a boyfriend. Because a lot of men can’t take “no” for an answer. They wanna know why. WHY don’t you want to go out with me, WHERE is your boyfriend, WHERE are you going, WHY the fuck did you lead me on, then? And I don’t know how to answer those questions. They catch me off guard, make me flustered and uncomfortable. And after that happens to me, or to anyone, enough times, they just start to keep to themselves in public. They just don’t want to deal with all of that.
Luckily, the man with mirrored sunglasses did take no for an answer. He may have been a little too invasive, but when I indicated that I wasn’t interested, he walked away. Granted, I had the help of my invisible boyfriend because hey, we all know that some men respect the idea of me being another man’s property way more than the ludicrous idea that I might just not be interested in them, but that’s a different essay for a different time.
Ok, so at this point I was thinking of how to end this story. I thought I was gonna be jaded and be like “I can’t take the outside world anymore. I’m done”. But I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to say it. I was thinking about it one night as I rode home on my bike.
“Excuse me,” I heard. I looked up. There was man standing at the intersection.
“What do you use to listen to music?”
“Oh, a bluetooth speaker”, I said, grabbing the small pink speaker attached to my backpack and twisting it around so he could see it. “Just a little $15 speaker, and it’s playing music from my phone”
“Oh, bluetooth?” He said “Cool”.
About ten seconds later, the light turned green.
“Safe ride!” He called after me.
It was so nice! It was such a nice interaction! It also totally fucked up this story! Because he made me realize that I want to keep talking to strangers, and meeting new people. I don’t want to slowly shut down and keep to myself to avoid being harassed. But what’s sad is that if I make that decision, if I say, “no, I will keep experiencing the world to it’s fullest possible extent”, than harassment is an inevitability. It’s something that will happen to me. It’s just something I’ll have to fold into my daily life. And that sucks. And you know what, the women that make the decision to draw into themselves and ignore most strangers STILL have to deal with harassment, because some men take a woman’s presence as a personal invitation to start a conversation. It’s just sad that no matter how optimistic, or angry, or assertive or passive any woman is, harassment will happen to her.
These interactions can’t be sorted into the three neat categories of “assault”, and “harassment” and “micro-aggressions”. I don’t know how to define most of them. When that guy asked me out, I didn’t really feel “harassed”. He was a little overeager, a little entitled, but I wouldn’t say he harassed me. But another woman could call that harassment, and she would be right. To each her own.
A lot of times, men insert things into my life that I don’t know how to categorize. They’re weird, and inappropriate, but I don’t really know how to label them. They just become “things that happened”. And I’ve learned that that to be a woman is to have a lot “things” happen to you that you can’t categorize or define. To struggle with whether or not something is “supposed” to make you angry because it made some of your friends angry. To have to google “tone-policing” because I had never heard of it before I accidentally did it to someone on Facebook. And that’s really what it means to be any person; no one’s brain is a filing cabinet in which every personal experience is neatly sorted. We all have memories of undefinable experiences floating around in our brains. Women just have a lot more memories of bad experiences forced upon them by entitled dudes.
In the past week, all my interactions with strangers have been positive. I shared a moment with someone who had the same bike as me, someone said ‘Bless you’ to me when I was riding my bike, which to me is exceptionally nice. It makes me really happy because I love just talking to people. It lets me temporarily forget that there’s so many hateful things going on in the world. It makes me think that maybe most people are good. So I’m gonna keep talking to people. Unfortunately this means that I will keep getting harassed. I wish I could separate those things, but I can’t. That’s what being a woman is, for me, right now.