Yesterday afternoon, I bundled up in my ski parka, wrapped my scarf around half my face, and put on a hat, bracing myself for the cold—but very short—trip to Starbucks, just a few doors down from my office. On my way, a white utility van paused just before it passed me on the street, and a man in what looked like a FedEx uniform leaned out the window.
“Excuse me, miss?” he said politely.
I looked up at him. This is a man who needs directions, I thought. This is a man who is just trying to do his job and I can help him.
“I’ve had a real hard day,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “Could you help me out?”
“Could you just come over here and give me a warm hug?” He crossed his arms across his chest. “That would just be so nice.”
The man in the passenger seat was thumbing his phone. This was clearly a normal part of their day. Taxis were backing up behind the van. This man had stopped traffic to harass me.
“Aw!” he shouted as I walked away. “Don’t be mad cuz I think you’re beautiful!”
Standing in line at Starbucks, I began to cry. (There are many reasons to cry at Starbucks; that’s probably why no one seemed bothered.) And then I got angry at myself for crying. I get harassed on the street all the time—why was this incident any different? Why did that particular man deserve my tears? I realized I was crying from fatigue. I was tired. (I am tired.) All the years of street harassment finally wore me down, and I fell into a dark, scary place.
I drank too much last night. I needed my feelings to go away. But that’s not how it works.
Men, I am tired of you telling me to smile, as if my face exists for your pleasure. I am tired of you telling me I have pretty eyes — please don’t come so close that you can see the color of my eyes. I am tired of you stopping me on the sidewalk under the guise of needing directions, only to then explain in great detail what you think of my face, my body, my clothes — as if my time belongs to you, as if I stepped out my front door this morning hoping to please you.
And to every man who has ever argued that these are just compliments, that you are just trying to be nice: please know that every time you approach me in these ways, and every time you whisper at me as I pass, I am reminded that you regard me as prey. I am reminded that you have a desire to consume me, and that you believe it is your right to do so. I am reminded that I am vulnerable to predators hiding in broad daylight. Men in suits. Men in jeans. Men in sweatshirts. Men in FedEx uniforms. Men in all manner of uniforms. Men who do not care that their name and company and employee number are listed on their uniforms.
Men who do not know how it feels to be prey. Men who do not know how carefully I choose my reactions.
How if I make eye contact, you take that as an invitation to approach me.
How if I don’t thank you for your “compliment”, you call me a cunt.
How because of you, I ignore those who really do need help. Tourists with questions. People in trouble. How because of you, I ran from a gentleman who tried to return my dropped Metrocard.
How you and your friend waited for me across from Key Foods, offered to carry my grocery bags, and when I smiled and politely declined, you shouted, “We’re going to run you out the neighborhood bitch!” and followed me to my building.
How you also harassed my mother on her first visit to New York, and followed her to my apartment. How I had to move because of that. And how men like you were in every neighborhood I looked.
How you walked backwards for blocks, just two feet in front of me, because you had so much to say and needed to be sure that I heard it all. How I shoved you hard into a brick wall and you cut your face and laughed.
How you reached out and touched me all those times. How you pressed your erection against me on the crowded train. How I could almost hear you think the words “be inside of you”.
How every time you mumble “you’re beautiful”, I do not hear a compliment. I hear a threat.
How your words make me fear for my safety.
How your attention makes me fear for my life.