A Simple Request


It seems it’s about that time again: the atmosphere is ripe for a heated debate (yet again) about street harassment. I don’t know what it is about fall, but for some reason, these tense debates seem to surface every six months – likely because a new story goes viral and a bunch of men get riled up (again) about being seen as “potential rapists” when they’re perfectly nice guys and women should just assume the best of their intentions instead of the worst because that’s what they do, dammit! Sigh.

I’ve told stories about cat-calling and how it made me feel afraid.

I’ve talked about men asserting their desire to have a conversation over and above my desire to be left alone, and how that makes me scared.

And every time I talk about it, every time another woman brings it up and other women chime in, there’s some straight cis-man there to explain to us that the problem is not that men are (infrequently, in their opinion) assholes, but that women are afraid, which angers perfectly nice guys like him! He’s not a rapist, you see, and it’s unfair to him that he’s treated like he could be one!

I don’t know how else to explain it to you, Nice Guy Who Wants to Talk to That Woman On the Bus Without Being Seen as Creepy and/or Rapey.

But here’s what I can say: I don’t believe for a second that you’re THAT BAD at reading body language. I don’t believe for a second that you actually believe women need to verbally tell you to leave them alone before you’ll get the hint. I don’t believe for even a nanosecond that the burden is on me, as the woman in the situation, to fend off approaches, rather than on you, the man, not to approach.

(And for those of you complaining about the unnecessary gendering of such a conversation, your seat is over there).

You see, I wear headphones every time I ride on public transit. Sometimes, I’m not even listening to anything. I learned to do this while I was living in Japan, because some people (always men) would approach me just to “try out” their English. I started wearing headphones absolutely everywhere I went, even grocery shopping, just so I would have something else to concentrate on. I listened to many, many audiobooks while there.

But even with headphones in, I’d still get approached. One man on the subway grabbed my arm and moved it away from the book I was pretending to read.  Another sat across from me and kept pointing to his “NYC” hat with a huge smile on his face and when I made eye contact, started excitedly talking to me about his visit to America. And one, after I’d put my headphones back in and pointed at them to signal that I wanted to listen to something else, proceeded to stand up in the middle of the train car and demonstrate his karate moves for me.

Okay, admittedly, the last one was more funny than scary because it was so WEIRD, but that’s also because it was in the middle of the day. At night, it would have been a completely different story.

I very rarely respond to men on public transit. It’s not because I’m a cold-hearted bitch, or because I think you’re ugly (indeed, many of the men who have approached me have actually been fairly nice looking) - both common arguments trying to explain my silence. It’s because when I’m out in public, 90% of the time, I’m in a protective bubble. I am giving off every signal I possibly can that says “Do not talk to me.”

And when you insist on approaching me when I’m in that state? Even if you’re the most not-rapey person alive?

You’re telling me that your desire to have a conversation trumps my desire to be left alone.

You instantly get a strike against you when you ignore my comfort in the situation because you just absolutely HAD to talk to me right then.

I know, intellectually, that you probably just want to talk to the cute girl on the bus. You’re thinking about the possibility of a new friend, a new connection. And believe me, I know there’s a good chance that you’re probably a nice guy.

But I’m not willing to take that risk. Why? Because your fellow man has already ruined that for you. Because other guys, who may give off the impression of being nice guys who also don’t want to rape me, have turned around and called me names after I said I wasn’t interested. Because other men have assaulted friends of mine. Because other men have turned out to be not so nice.

We don’t have rape-dar. We don’t know if you’re going to assault us until you actually do. As a result, many of us decide not to take that chance. Call it living in fear if you want, but growing up in this world has taught us that the burden is on us to protect ourselves. If we get hurt, we’ll probably be asked why we weren’t being more careful.

It’s not that you can’t approach women in public. It’s that you really need to hone your reading of the situation. It's also that you need to set aside your sense of entitlement to my space and my attention.

In a closed elevator? Not a good place.

In a subway car or bus between stops, especially at night? Not a good spot.

On the subway platform when you guys are the only ones around? Not good.

If she has headphones in or is reading? Those are not “approach me” signals.

When you’re in your car and she’s on the street walking? Absolutely not.

What I ask here is that you do not prioritize your desire to talk to me over my comfort in the situation. That is all that I ask, and it’s a very simple request. If you want to complain about it, the suggestion box is the same circular bin I put my trash from breakfast in this morning.