Blog notes: I've received my college placement for Oxford! I'll be matriculating at St. Anne's College, a good college with a sense of humor and a beaver for a mascot. This means that things are ramping up for the transition overseas, which may make my blogging schedule a bit irregular over the summer. Thanks for sticking with me!
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This last week, I witnessed something that offended me deeply, even if many would consider it a small thing. I was sitting in my local coffee shop – where the baristas know me by name and I’ve been a regular customer for a couple of years now. A young lady next to me was working on something, and in common coffee shop etiquette, we quietly ignored each other and worked.
We worked, that was, until a man came over to visit with the woman next to me. I thought at first that he must know her, considering how brazenly he grabbed her bags and moved them out of the way so he could sit down in the chair next to her.
And then he introduced himself, and I glanced over at the woman to see a grimace on her face. I was stunned into silence – I wish I’d had the temerity to say something in the moment, but it all happened so quickly that it was over before I could process what, actually, had happened. When he got up and left, the woman turned to me and said, “He is so creepy. He comes and talks to me every time I’m in here.”
We shared a moment of female solidarity, understanding and not liking the distress caused by men who see us as their objects to interrupt and monopolize. I could see relief spread across her face as I affirmed that, no, what he did was definitely creepy, and I would talk to the manager about it.
And I did. The manager already knows about him, but unfortunately, legally, the coffee shop needs to have a high threshold of proved behavior before they can permanently ban him from their space.
So the following Sunday, I found myself sitting in the same shop, with the same lady a few feet away, tensing up when That Guy walked through the door again. I had been ready to leave, ready to give up on my project for the day and go, but I found myself rooted to the spot. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving until one of the two had left. I feel an obligation to protect my fellow women, my sisters, from predators of every stripe – from those who commit full on crimes to those who toe the line of plausible deniability and use social indifference to cover up their creepiness.
Because, you see, this man isn’t an anomaly. Men everywhere do this. I’d be willing to bet some don’t even do it consciously – instead, they have been trained and conditioned to see women as part of their property, as something they are entitled to, instead of a person with a right to personal space, and her own time and life.
When I was in college, I worked as a student assistant in the college library. I loved my job – I basically got to sit around and read for a good chunk of the time. During my freshman year, I was plagued by this one public library patron who would come in all the time. He’d stand at the desk and prattle on about his time in the military, about how he ended up in South Dakota – totally meaningless crap. And I’d look up from my book, smile and nod and never really respond.
“Oh, I bet that was hard,” I’d say as I’d look back down at my book, hoping and praying he’d get the hint. He never did. I began to dread working on weekends or evenings when I knew he’d be in – he rarely came through when my supervisors were aroud.
It took me awhile to realize that he only monopolized the time of the female employees, that he only bothered us when we didn’t really have anyone else around. He wasn’t a hapless man who was simply clueless about social interaction. He was calculating times and situations where we women were most likely to be vulnerable.
During my senior year, I was one of the respected student assistants who was given extra responsibilities and even some opportunity to train freshmen. We’d dealt with a lot of weirdos in the four years I’d worked there, and had developed new policies around public library patrons (a man using our computers to look up child pornography resulted in very strict computer use policies and a security guard regularly patrolling in the evenings).
Even with the new policies, it took us awhile to catch and ban Big Gulp Man.
One of our student assistant duties was reshelving the books in the library into their proper place. We’d take a cart into the basement where the majority of our collection is and wander back and forth through the stacks, putting books back on the shelves.
And the female students soon noticed that there was a grown man – not a student – who would lurk just around the corner of the shelves. The telltale mark was that he carried a Big Gulp 64oz cup of pop from a local gas station everywhere. He’d stand on the other side of the shelves, just watching. It took reports from several different assistants for them to realize and recognize that this wasn’t just a figment of our imagination but an actual guy creeping around, specifically on female assistants. We finally had to have a supervisor stay late with security one evening to catch him and ban him from the premises.
As a 29 year old woman, the stories I have about men creeping into my spaces, about how much action it takes before a guy crosses that blurry line between plausible deniability and total creeper, about how affirmation and word of other women ultimately gets the job done, could fill another book. The crux of the matter, I’ve found, is that we need to do our part as women to affirm for other women that what they’re experiencing is real and true and has real and true consequences.
We cannot simply let these things happen and pretend we didn’t see. Seeing something and saying something are vital not only to placing the creeper on notice but to affirming for women that they are not alone, that their feelings are valid, and that we hear them.