I hesitate to write this, but I think it’s important. When I was an undergraduate at a large, state campus, I didn’t fully register how different my experience was than my male classmates’, nor how that scaled and effected the subjective experience and opportunity of women at college or in the world in general. As a more aware, 29 year-old graduate student, I’m in a new position to write about some parts of the college experience as a woman with a bit more life experience.
Today, I wrote this tweet about flipping off a catcaller.
My Twitter account is apparently attached to my Facebook account, and the post generated some great conversation there about why people catcall and how to respond.
In fact, it wasn’t just the guy in the parking lot who decided to tell me what he thought of my body today. While I was walking to and waiting for the bus, 6 different guys honked at me or shouted out their car windows loud enough for me to notice over my podcast (most of them were work vehicles, surprisingly).
I mean, I did take the long way today, but still. 6. That even one guy thought I was there for his visual appreciation and that it was OK to go out of his way to express that idea is pretty frustrating, but 6?
So, my enlightened readers know that I was not walking in this parking lot wondering what this random man in a windowless van thinks of my body. Instead, I was walking to the shuttle to get to work, where I think original thoughts, feel feelings, contribute, and otherwise operate just like an autonomous human being. But guess what about that shuttle?
The University offers this free shuttle to help students, faculty, and staff live in more affordable areas and commute to school. I love the shuttle– it’s key to my being able to live without a car! That said, the moment I show my ID to the driver and turn to take a seat, there are three people I look for.
Stare-y McStareson. Stare-y is easy to notice, because he sits in the seats at the front of the bus that face the center, rather than the front, and stares. He is an equal opportunity starer at first– his gaze follows men and women as they get on the bus. If there’s no one actively getting on the shuttle, he takes turns staring at the women he can see from his seat. If Stare-y McStareson is on the shuttle, I want to try to sit in the back– ideally with several people between me and him. I get the sense that he is just surprisingly un-self-aware, but it is quite unsettling. He would be no problem at all if it weren’t for…
J. J tends to sit in the back of the bus. He takes the shuttle at night on his way home from work with a restaurant on campus around 9 when I get out of class, and gets off at the same stop as I do. I know his first initial because he first time we got off the bus together, he was friendly and we had a nice chat as we walked back to our neighborhood. He was the first person I’d met in my neighborhood, so when he handed me his phone to put my number in, I decided against feeling rude and handing it back, even though I got a bit of a vibe from him. When I did this, I figured I’d mention my boyfriend at the first opportunity and he’d get the hint, and maybe we could be friends. I didn’t realize at the time that he went way out of his way to walk me to my apartment. I also didn’t expect him to be so persistent. This is the last part of our email exchange, after I fully registered that there was no hope of simple friendship.
The “Hey not being funny. . . ” text is in response to an IRL moment, in which I saw him on the shuttle, he asked why I wasn’t responding to his text messages, and I told him he was making me uncomfortable.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 4 times (not including the very first text response, in which I said I had a boyfriend I was very happy with and was not looking for dates) that I tried to get him to back off, very directly. Can you imagine how a young woman who has been socialized to be polite and accommodating would feel and respond to this guy? Even I, Feminist Shrew, felt guilty and mean and scared the first two times, until I got pissed.
Wild Card. The last guy on the shuttle I look for we’ll call Wild Card. I met him a few weeks ago, I was waiting for lunch, listening to a podcast on headphones. I noticed someone waiting to order was looking right at me. Startled, I didn’t register the words he was mouthing at me.
“What?” I asked.
“I know you.” He said. I didn’t recognize him. Alarmed, I took out my headphones.
“What?” I asked again.
He proceeded to tell me where I work and the number of the shuttle route I take to get there. Then he asked me where I live.
Now, I have no proof, or honestly even a reason to believe that this man was anything other than a shockingly unempathetic, immature guy who had no idea how he was coming off. But the risk that his ignorance extends to perceived entitlement to women’s time, affection, or even bodies is non-zero. And frankly the fact that he can make it to his age without thinking about what it might be like to be a woman is telling and infuriating.
And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about these non-incident incidents. If we don’t talk about what it’s like to constantly assess threats, try to balance being assertive and feeling safe, strategically choosing a seat on the bus, and weighing a long walk home in the dark from the city bus stop against getting off the shuttle with the guy who will not leave you alone, people who don’t have to deal with it will not be able to empathize, even if they may want to.
The privilege of not being female may protect you from this experience, but so may living in a safe neighborhood, or living with a male partner– I’ve lived here for 8 months and I have never experienced this level of street harassment or inappropriate come-ons in any city I’ve lived in the past. But if you haven’t had this experience or it’s a rare nuisance, please consider not dismissing the women who complain about it as paranoid or sensitive. The probability of their being in physical danger may indeed be small, but potential cost of letting her guard down is astronomical, and the emotional experience of being treated like a powerless object is a real, damaging thing.
If you have kids of either gender, talk to them about this stuff. If they empathize, they won’t do it, and they won’t stand for their friends doing it. And when they go off to college or move out to develop their career, your daughters will be prepared to resist the pressure to be polite when others are being rude and creepy. There’s very little risk that your daughter will be so flattered by a cat-caller that she runs away with him, but she could internalize the ideas of men who see and treat her as an object of value for her physical appearance, and that endangers her mental health, her potential, and to a diluted degree, the potential of women everywhere.