To the Men I Meet on the Subway
by Jessica Myshrall, Storyteller for RU Student Life
Early in April was International Anti-Street Harassment Week, but I didn’t see much consciousness-raising. Maybe that’s because I’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, or maybe, as I suspect, it’s simply not getting the attention and discussion that it deserves.
The term “street-harassment” typically conjures up images of cat-calling, wolf-whistles, and actions that tend to make women* feel exposed and vulnerable in a split second. It does not, however, elicit images of the men who ruthlessly try to win women’s affections by ignoring every single indication that they would rather be left alone. I think that’s a huge part of why street-harassment is such a difficult thing to talk about: while some men may pride themselves on the fact that they’ve never made disparaging comments or gestures towards women on the street, they often fail to realize that their methods of engagement can be just as out-of-line.
Men are taught that their masculinity is contingent on the pursuit of women. At the same time, they’ve grown up within a culture that sees women as sexual objects waiting to be conquered if they know what’s good for them. It’s pervasive enough to affect even the nicest of guys and I can see it in the way that they approach me on the street.
Now, having a guy come up to me because they find me attractive is clearly not the worst thing that could ever happen to me. The issue lies more with what comes after they’ve decided that they’re going to come over. In every single instance that this has happened to me (and it has happened a lot), these men sweep into my immediate space with such a low regard for my personal comfort that it makes my stomach tighten. Then, after a brief introduction, a forced handshake, and a few rapid-fire small-talk cues, they ask for my personal information. This all happens far more quickly than I am able to decide whether or not I want to get to know them beyond our brief interaction, and, most importantly, if said interaction could, in any way, turn me into an unlucky statistic.
I’ve been “luckier” than most women in the sense that nothing truly terrible has happened to me at the hands of a stranger. That is, none of the men who’ve approached me, followed me, made lewd comments or gestures towards me, or who’ve coerced me into giving them a phone number have physically harmed me. I don’t attribute that to any supposed, “don’t fuck with me attitude” but instead to the fact that it simply hasn’t happened yet. I say that because women in North America have a one in four chance of being assaulted in their lifetime. So, it’s not so much a question of “if” it happens to me as “when” it happens. That’s partially why it’s so jarring when a man with a smiling face boldly enters into my path and why my haunches raise when he refuses to take no for an answer.
Aside from the underlying concern that my safety could be threatened, the lack of choice I am given during these interactions makes me livid. These men approach me because they wanted to, ask for my number because they wanted it, and expect me to be flattered because of the effort they are putting forth. They’re so focused on getting what they came for that they’re blind to the possibility that I won’t feel the same way.
In the event that I don’t feel the same way, I find myself faced with a limited array of optional responses. Polite declinations seem to come off as a slap-in-the-face, a bruise to the ego, and an indication that they aren’t trying hard enough. Turning the situation around and asking for their number (because at least that way I would be able to have more time to process their sudden manifestation before deciding to connect) throws them so far off-script that they almost panic. Being frank with them when telling them that I don’t want to give them my number means that I risk coming off as an “ungrateful bitch,” and telling them to screw off seems unwarranted because they’re being nice, even if they’re blatantly overlooking the fact that they’re making me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, none of those options works as well enough as pulling the, “I have a boyfriend” card.
No amount of me having a boyfriend or not having a boyfriend will make me hate that line less. That’s because no amount of me telling these men that I don’t want to give them my number will receive the same level of respect that my being some guy’s girlfriend warrants. Sometimes even that doesn’t work, which then leaves me with the “being frank” option. Normally by that point, I’ll just give out a number (usually my real number because it’s less awkward when they text me on the spot and ask to verify that I got it). At least that way, I don’t have to expend any more energy on trying to weasel myself out of the situation before it escalates further.
When it’s all said and done, I feel more defeated than flattered and angry at myself for not being braver when I wanted to say no. I commend the women I know who aren’t afraid to get confrontational, but even if I was able to exercise the same level of badassery, it would still seem to me like more energy than it ought to be when it comes to having someone respect my right to say “no.”
I’m not asking for men to stop engaging with women, just like I’m not pitting this as an us-vs-them scenario, but when I can’t leave the house without feeling like prey or someone’s conquest, then it’s hard not to feel that way even if just a little. Instead, I ask for those who genuinely hope to connect with someone to be more mindful and respectful of visual cues. Just as consent must encompass both body language and verbal indications, so should determining someone’s level of interest in you. I ask you to respect a person’s right to say no, even when you were really hoping they would say yes. They know what they want and need more than you do. Don’t back them into a corner until they do what you want, because it still counts as harassment even when you’re being nice. Maybe, if you’re really hoping to hear from them, give them your digits instead of insisting on theirs.
More information on street harassment can be found here:
You can also visit ryerson.ca/sexualviolence for more information and resources related to sexual assault and rape culture.
*I understand that this piece may not come off as inclusive of varying identities and orientations, but I only feel comfortable speaking about my own experiences as a heterosexual, CIS gender, white woman.