I’ve been asking myself this more or less constantly for the last five days. The answer is, I can’t stop. None of us can stop. We have to do something. We have to stand up for ourselves, and for other women. We have to keep this conversation going.
Reading #yesallwomen tweets and posts by other women has brought back so many memories I’d forgotten or pushed aside. I don’t feel like I’m ready to publicly share many of my experiences, but here are a few that have resurfaced for me in the past few days. Admittedly, these are nearly all encounters with strangers — many of the others are just too personal for me. But here we go.
…because when I was 16, a man tried to follow me home. Exposition: My mom wanted me to get some “experience” that I could put on my college applications, and so she arranged for me to be an intern one day a week at an art museum in a nearby city. I grew up in a relatively rural area, and I didn’t have my own car, so this involved riding a commuter bus that would take me the 40 minutes to get to this small city from where I lived. It made, more or less, one stop in each town along the way. One day while I was waiting downtown with the other commuters to catch my bus, a man approached me and began propositioning me. I didn’t know what to do as he became more aggressive (I was 16, and this was well before the age of cell phones). I remember feeling almost disoriented, like I was in a dream, because none of the other commuters standing around me — men and women — appeared to take any notice, and none did anything to help me or draw attention to what was happening. I tried to get away from the man by boarding the wrong bus, then jumping out through the middle door. I thought I’d gotten away, but I hadn’t. No sooner had I sat down on my own bus than he sat down directly across from me, legs spread, elbows on his knees, and proceeded to stare intensely at me for the entire bus ride. My panic grew the longer the bus went. I knew I couldn’t get off at my actual stop — I had to walk like half a mile from the center of town to get to my home, and once there I was going to be home alone, which wouldn’t be any help. I finally decided the best thing to do was to try the “bus jump” again. At the stop in the town before mine, I grabbed my purse and literally leapt out the back door of the bus as it was closing. I can’t remember if I called my mom from a pay phone or just walked to her work (she worked in that town), I just remember she wasn’t happy that I had inexplicably gotten off at the “wrong stop.” I was too rattled to say anything about it. When my mom drove me home later, I saw that the man was still sitting at the bus stop in the center of my town (it was the last stop on the line), I guess waiting for a bus back to the city. I told my boyfriend at the time (who was incredibly upset by the whole thing, and wanted to confront the man but on seeing him still at the bus stop thought better of it) but I never told anyone else.
…because a couple of years later, I was working in that city again, and the same thing nearly happened. This time, I was working full time just for the summer in the library of a college there. I was 19. The college itself is very pretty, but it’s not in the best area. I had to catch a city bus from a street near the college (just a nondescript side street, the bus stop was in front of a small auto-body repair shop) to get downtown to my commuter bus. One day a man approached me and began hitting on me. He was visibly drunk, which made me even more uncomfortable. I felt like I had to be “friendly” and “polite” though to defuse the situation. When he pressed for my name I told him my name was Linda, because yes, by then this kind of thing had already happened enough that I had a fake name that I kept (still keep) handy for these situations. He followed me onto the city bus, where he only kept up his banter. Despite my earlier experiences of being ignored by downtown commuters, I kept thinking if I could just get downtown, I’d be okay. Once we got off the city bus, I tried to lose him in the crowd of people, but he kept catching up to me. Again, no one seemed to notice what was happening. It’s like a dream where you’re screaming for help but no one can hear you. Except I wasn’t screaming, because I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me draw that kind of attention to myself. This time, the bus switch worked — he followed me onto a bus that wasn’t my bus, and I jumped off that bus before it pulled away. I was shaking and felt sick as he yelled out the window, “Linda!” After that happened, the mechanics who worked in the auto-body shop would always come out and stand just behind or beside me whenever a man approached me (which happened regularly as the summer wore on). Once when it was raining, one of them came out and held an umbrella above me. They didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak what they spoke (I’m not even sure where they were from), but I was so grateful to them. I wish I could have thanked them. In all of these incidents, they were the only people who ever tried to help me.
…because I’m still afraid of the Eiffel Tower. When I was 20, I went to Europe to visit friends of mine who were spending their junior year abroad. We took the Chunnel train to Paris from London for the weekend, and toured around all of the obligatory sights. One evening, we were planning to go to the Eiffel Tower. I was nervous about it, because I’m pretty afraid of heights. But it’s you know, a big deal to go see and stuff, so I was like sure I’ll go. I made it up to the first level (I think the one with the restaurant), and I was just like, this is way too high for me. But my friends all wanted to go to the top observation deck, so I told them to go ahead without me. I would just go back down and wait for them at the base. It wasn’t packed — it was a fairly cool March night — but there were lots of crowds of people around. I was just standing around waiting for my friends when a man approached me. He wasn’t French, I think he was Italian. He starts talking to me, and he’s making me nervous but I’m trying to be polite. I tell him my name is Linda. He keeps asking me to leave and go somewhere with him, and I keep telling him no. Eventually, he seems to give up, and he leans toward me. I don’t lean away, because I’m thinking it’s just the little cheek kiss thing Europeans do. It’s not. He grabs me and shoves his tongue in my mouth, while painfully kneading my butt with his hands. I struggle and get away from him, but he catches me again and does it again, trying to pull me away with him, even though by now I’m crying and starting to panic. (Yes, this is now the cell phone era, but I’m just in Europe for a short time and so I don’t have one.) I manager to shake him off and run away and try to find someone who can help me, who can either keep me safe or help me get in touch with my friends, who seem to be staying on the observation deck for an interminably long amount of time (although honestly, I am not sure how long it was). It was another bad dream scenario. I try going up to the different security guards and people who are working at the Tower, but I can’t find anyone who speaks English and understands what I want. Eventually I find an American tour group. By this point I am so upset I am a bit incoherent, not helping the language barrier. It’s because this guy hasn’t left — he’s been hanging back about 30’ from me, just circling. I beg them to please just let me stand with them, let me pretend to be part of their group. They seem weirded out by me and to not really understand what my situation is, but they let me do it. I basically hid in a crowd of Americans until my friends finally came back down. This was like 13 years ago, but even seeing a picture of the Eiffel Tower still makes me feel nauseated. I know this isn’t like, part of what happens when you try to go see world landmarks, but I still never, ever want to go back there.
…because the years I spent living in New York City were more or less just one big street harassment montage. It was the heyday of Sex & the City, and yes, I fancied myself a Carrie (on an extreme budget, but still). Multiple times though, I had to go home and change (or if I was too far from home, go into whatever business was convenient) because crowds of men were following me. If it was just one man, fine, I’d ignore it, but once it was two or more I got scared. I was proud of my clothes, I spent so much time trying to find UES ladies’ designer castoffs in church basements and turn them into SATC-worthy outfits. It felt like a strange betrayal when what I thought was making me unique and expressive made me a target. I was never groped or flashed on the subway, and you know what’s f-cked up? That happened so often, and to pretty much every other woman I knew, that I actually felt weird that it didn’t happen to me. Like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t receive unwanted subway attention. The longer I lived in the city, the more I strategized how to manage getting around and minimize being harassed or threatened. I always wore my earbuds, whether I was listening to music or not. That way I could credibly pretend not to hear what some man was saying to me, or yelling at me. I wore large, dark sunglasses whenever I was outside so that it would be hard for men to make eye contact with me or tell where I was looking. If I was walking home from the subway by myself, I would hold my keys in one fist, with each key sticking out of the cracks between my fingers, like a sad little Wolverine fist. Thank goodness I never had to see if that one would actually work. Wherever I was walking, if I was by myself, I made a habit of regularly looking at my reflection in windows, so I could see if anybody was following me. Living in New York wasn’t fun for me, and the sense of constant vigilance didn’t help anything. Even trying to relax could backfire. Once, when I was 22, it was a beautiful spring day, and I decided to go lay in the park and tan (which if you’ve never lived in New York is considered a legitimate activity — it’s not like I came up with this brainwave on my own). I was wearing a bikini top and shorts, lying on my towel, listening to music, when I got a feeling someone was near me. I opened my eyes, and a man was standing right over me, touching himself. I grabbed my bag and ran. I don’t even think I took my towel. He yelled after me, “Please, I wasn’t going to touch you, I just wanted to look!”
…because when I was 27, I stopped going to the gym because a man wouldn’t leave me alone. I’ve always felt that basic gym etiquette is you don’t talk to the other people, and if I’ve got my headphones in, I’m sweating, I’m clearly exerting myself, then I am even more obviously not there to chat. When I moved into the apartment complex I lived in, I was excited that they had a little gym. Convenient fitness! Not too long after I started going there though, a creepy guy — younger than me, I think — started talking to me in there. At first I tried to be polite, but he kept pressing for longer and longer conversations. He wouldn’t even work out, he’d just stand there and talk to me. I told him I had a boyfriend (which was true), and he’d just try to tell me reasons he was better than that boyfriend. Eventually I started wearing a big engagement ring — from the time I spent working at a wedding magazine, I had a large CZ solitaire that was pretty convincing — and told him I was engaged. But no matter what I said, or how I acted, he wouldn’t leave me alone. So I stopped going to the gym. I put on some weight, and was afraid to go to even other gyms for roughly 2 years after that.
In all of these examples, I wasn’t doing anything in particular. I was just trying to live my life. To get to work, to get home, to go to the gym, whatever. But all of these men felt I owed them something. My time. My smile. My name. My body. Not all men act like these men, but knowing that these kinds of things can happen when you’re just waiting for the bus or relaxing at the park means that, yes, all women have to have keep on their toes, have to be on guard, have to have a plan, be ready. I am a human being, but I don’t feel that I can trust that men will treat me like a human being. There have been too many times that I have been treated like a woman, and in case it’s not clear by now, no, I don’t mean by having the door held open for me.
I can’t stop being angry.