The other day while riding a Paris train, a man boarded my car and, out of all the empty places to sit, chose the seat directly facing me. He casually sprawled his legs open so that his lower thighs were sandwiching my rigidly-shut knees. My field of vision was filled with the bulge in his pants and gray chest hair draped in gold chains overflowing out of his way-too-unbuttoned shirt. And he just stared at me. When my eyes locked with his, I saw an expression so familiar that the hair on my arms stood up. It was a look that most men wouldn’t recognize, as they haven’t ever seen it and probably never will—the expression of someone looking at you as prey.
When a man picks you as prey, his eyes, which were dully scanning their surroundings, abruptly land on you and light up with intent. They linger abnormally long and intensify, beyond what would be normal if there was something unusual about your outfit or if he found you attractive. Sometimes the face relaxes, the eyebrows twitch or the corner of the mouth pulls upward into a smirk while the eyes remain hard, betraying the internal thought processes.
These thoughts are of pure consumption. They are based on the desire to possess — not your belongings, but one’s physical being. It is a drive to gain control over a person and render her powerless, thereby establishing the predator’s dominance and control in a world where he probably has very little. Women are persistently reminded of their physical vulnerability by male displays of sexual power—from gestures so discreet they make you question your own perception, to the ultimate act of consumption: physical violence. To avoid the latter, you must learn to recognize the former, and understand the intent of someone who is looking at you like that.
I am forced to acknowledge my vulnerability by strangers almost every single day while walking down the street in big cities. Most of the men who look at me like they want to eat me alive can’t do so because of practical considerations: witnesses, physical factors (I’m 5'10 and pack a significant bit of muscle), and the fear of repercussions. So instead, they just stare, gazing at me the way a wolf would eye a squirming bunny in a cage — so utterly tempting, but off-limits for now.
When you catch that gaze, you have some choices about what to do to ensure that you do not, in fact, become prey. They’re choices you shouldn’t have to be burdened with making, but that, in this world, they are impossible to avoid. You can alter your path, like I did when I got up and moved to the next train car. I had to go out of my way, but it took thirty seconds and then it was over. You can avert your eyes and look at the ground, both acknowledging your discomfort while at the same time refusing to participate in it further. But sometimes, this is where the game begins.
He might hold his gaze so intently that when you peek back up to see if he’s still watching you (and shit! he is, look away look away), a thrill shoots up his spine because he caught you checking. Now he knows that your inability to look up and examine your surroundings—your cowering stance—is because of him. He is controlling you, and you just got a bit leveled by a complete stranger. It interrupted your thought process, probably ruined your mood, and wasted your time. You didn’t authorize this; it was a violation, and the feelings these little violations instill in us—fear, frustration, anger, helplessness—accumulate over time to shape the way we live our lives.
If you’ve never experienced what it feels like to be someone’s prey, believe you me, it is fucking exhausting.
If you attempt to ignore the mind games of a predator, this is usually when the comments set in—an attempt to win the game by manipulating the air waves going into your ears. It follows this predictable format:
- A greeting: “Hey/hello/yo/hola/bonsoir baby/beautiful/gorgeous/sexy/mami/chica/mademoiselle/sugar tits/sweet lips.”
- A “compliment”: Some comment about your overall physical appearance that usually has nothing to do with the effort you put into your presentation. “You’d make great babies” is my recent fave.
- A call to action. Some request of what your predator would like you to do. One that scored major points for originality: “Get out of my head and into my van,” yelled out the window with a toot of the horn.
- An expression of desire. “I’d like to ___ you all over.”
The catcall that baffles me most is “God bless you” — uttered not the way a nun would say it or how one does after a sneeze, but while giving me the elevator and licking his lips. Once, after a guy told me I was looking sexy and I ignored him, he yelled after me that I was supposed to say “thank you.” I turned around and glared at him in disbelief, and he told me I was a bitch. That compliment I could accept from him. “Thank you,” I finally replied.
Sometimes I don’t have the will to engage in this mental combat while walking to the corner store on a Sunday afternoon, so I muster a fake, tight-lipped smile and nod my head with wide eyes, throwing them acknowledgement like I’d throw a dog a chicken bone if I didn’t want it to follow me. But sometimes a smile is just as risky as a middle finger, as it can be an unintentional invitation to the next level of interaction. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
When you complain about casual predation to guys, they usually laugh. They tell you not to let it get to you, and suggest ignoring the comments if you can’t handle a compliment. But the thing is, you can’t ignore it any more than you could ignore a bear approaching your campsite. You are evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to potential predators because sometimes they don’t stop at mind games and catcalls, as far too many of us know.
In my twenty-seven years on this planet, I’ve been stalked, followed home, threatened, attacked, hit, kicked, and groped by complete strangers. Two people have tried to abduct me, once by attempting to drag me into a dark alley and once by picking me up in a fake car-service car. A high school classmate tried to rape me, a UN peacekeeper tried to buy me, and at my own LadyBits launch party an old man put his hand on my knee, looked at me with that look, and said he might want to invest in me.
In all of those situations, I paid attention to the threats I perceived and I did what I had to do to get away, from screaming to pretending to be limp-noodle drunk, to jumping out of a moving vehicle, to engaging in physical combat. And you know what? I am fine. In fact, I’m better than fine—I am fucking lucky! I have my life, I’ve learned to love this thick skin I wear now, and I’ve learned how to protect it. And yeah, I have sought vengeance here and there.
So many women aren’t as lucky as me. What tends to happen to a person when she is shown she is vulnerable day after day is she begins to accept it, and this mentality follows her everywhere. When you’re prey, sometimes you stop being able to tell the difference between the life you choose because you want it, and the life that you settle for because the alternatives are too scary.
Personally, I refuse to compromise the way I live my life out of fear. Despite everything that’s happened to me (and almost happened, which I shudder to think about), I regularly walk alone at night. I have been traveling the world alone for the past six months, and I will continue to do so for six more. I’m single, and not really looking unless it really fits with my life. I walk down the street with my head held high and I look people in the eye when I pass them. And whenever I catch that predator eye, I send it back. I know it’s the lack of control in their lives that makes them act out in such desperation, and I refuse to give away an ounce of mine without good reason. Maybe this will get me in trouble some day, but until that day, I will be living my life.
And I’m not afraid.