Manspreading Kills! (No, Really)

Earlier this year, the NYPD arrested a man for taking up too much space on a train, and ended up catching a murderer. When they ran his name thorough the system for his manspreading ticket, they found out he was wanted for a murder in Brooklyn. I jokingly tweeted, “manspreading kills!”

But seriously folks, manspreading really does kill. Hear me out:

Manspreading is a manifestation of the belief that women are not allowed to take up space. It perpetuates a world order in which women’s bodily integrity is less respected than men’s. And that world kills women.

If you think I’m making a mountain out of a mole-hill, just think about other struggles in which the right to occupy public space has featured prominently. Think of Rosa Parks. Think of “whites only” sidewalks and building entrances. Think of religious buses in Brooklyn with separate women’s sections in the back. For that matter, think of sit-ins and other forms of activism that use the presence of human bodies in public spaces to send important messages.

Public transportation is one of the few areas of life where strangers are repeatedly forced into physical proximity. The way we treat each other on buses and trains is a microcosm of the way we perceive our fellow human beings and the hierarchies of our society.

Part of an MTA campaign addressing subway etiquette.

Not only do men take up more space on the train, but they have privilege of place in terms of who gets to keep the empty seat next to them. Like other New Yorkers, when burdened with more stuff than I can comfortably hold in my lap, I sometimes place some of it in the seat next to me. I only do this when there are plenty of empty seats on the train, and I move my bags to my lap or the floor when all the other empty seats have been taken.

But recently, I have started to notice that people — both men and women — will ask me to move my stuff and give up the seat, even when there is a completely empty seat next to a man right across the aisle.

People would rather demand that a woman move her stuff — a high level of social confrontation, all things considered — than imply to a man that he should move his leg a couple of inches.

In all fairness, part of this is probably just that nobody wants to sit next to a man. Women are always a little afraid of being in physical proximity to strange men, and men are afraid of physical contact with other men because of overt or subconscious homophobia.

But this preference is not enough to fully explain why, again and again, women are expected to rearrange their bodies and belongings to avoid inconveniencing a man just a little.

In the face of this realization, I have decided to take the radical step of acting like I have just as much right to take up space as the dude sitting across from me. Inspired by a wonderful article by Cassie J. Sneider, I have decided to say no. When someone asks me to move my stuff even though there is a totally empty seat next to a man, I just. Won’t. Do it.

The first time I refused to move, I was on a mostly full train car with my bag in the seat next to me. Directly across the aisle, there was an empty seat between a man and a woman — both well-dressed 30-something professionals. As the car filled up, a man walked up to me and made the universal gesture for “move your stuff so I can sit down.” I looked him in the eye, pointed across the aisle and said, “How about that empty seat right there?”

The man gave me what I can only describe as a death look and muttered, “Damn, bitch!” And then, instead of sitting down in the completely empty seat across the aisle, this dude walked halfway down the car and asked a different woman to move her stuff. Which she did.

Q.E.D., amiright?

But here’s the problem. I felt vindicated, but I also felt afraid. When we got to my stop at the end of the line, I got out of the train and the guy to whom I had refused my seat got off after me and walked behind me for about a block. The whole time, I felt like I had a target on my back. Having angered a man by demanding the right to take up space, I was at least a little bit worried that he might retaliate with physical violence.

A few weeks later, I again had my bag in the seat next to me, and across the aisle was an empty seat occupied only by some dude’s knee. And as I saw the situation taking shape — the empty seat across from me, all other seats taken — I started to be afraid. My heart pounded and I couldn’t focus on the book I was reading, because I was getting ready to piss off a very large man who could easily do me serious injury.

And let’s be real — calling out manspreaders could have actual consequences, which is why I would never demand that all women immediately stop moving for men on the subway.

Few things enrage a certain kind of man more than being publicly humiliated. Men sometimes — no, frequently — kill women for less.

I’m not saying such men are the majority (#notallmen or whatever), but there are enough of them that any confrontation with a strange man bears a not-insignificant risk.

I am not making this up. Embarrassing men on public transportation has ended badly for other women in the recent past. Earlier this year, a man started hitting on a random woman on the subway platform, and when she laughed him off, he slashed her with a box-cutter.

Manspreaders get away with this behavior not because it’s no big deal, but because women almost always choose to go out of their way in order to avoid provoking men. Moving for manspreaders is in the same category as having a buddy system for frat parties or taking a taxi to avoid walking home alone at night. It is an inconvenience women are willing to accept in order to protect themselves from violence.

Some have objected that women are also guilty of taking up too much space on the subway and coined the term “she-bagging.” But for evidence that this issue is not gender-neutral, we need look no further than the dramatic results of an experiment showing that the exact same behavior is not tolerated when women do it.

Manspreading is not a minor annoyance or an invented injustice thought up by evil feminists to persecute men.

Manspreading is the casual exercise of real power, supported by the threat of violence and rooted in fundamental disrespect for women’s right to take up space in the world.

And it has to stop right now. Which is why, even though it scares me, I will never move for a manspreader again.