Welcome to the City

I recently just graduated from college and was fortunate enough to obtain a worth while job which relocated me to Atlanta, GA. I’ve never truly lived in a city before, especially on my own, and I was naturally excited by the idea of new adventures in a much more diverse environment than my childhood home.

In an effort to reduce my expenses and live a more green lifestyle, I use public transportation to fulfill my metropolitan duties. Before, I actually enjoyed my 45 minute commute to work which utilizes both the train and bus system of Atlanta because it was great “me time” to prepare myself for the day and then destress myself afterwards.

Yesterday morning, I got on the bus like I always do on my way to work. Typically I sit in the front part of the bus, but this time all the seats were taken so I had to go to the back corner of the bus for a seat. Like always, I pulled out my book to read while I waited for the bus to pull out of the station. A few minutes later, a man sits down beside me, accidentally spilling his lukewarm coffee on my lap. I immediately start to brush it off and he takes notice of me.

“Oh, I’m sorry…Sorry to make you wet…Did I make you wet?” in that conniving, disgusting, sexually objectifying voice which makes me feel so uncomfortable because he is so close to me that I can feel this breath on my skin. I don’t acknowledge his lewd tone, say it’s okay, and return to my book.

“You’re so pretty…are you single?”

This isn’t the first time a random stranger had made these kinds of remarks to me. Instinctively I say that no, I am not single, I have a boyfriend. In my past experiences, this answer is enough to impede the unwanted attention, but this man does not stop there. “How’s your sex life? Are you happy with him? Does he satisfy you?” I cannot believe what I am hearing. We are in a very crowded bus, everyone around us is listening. I even catch the glances of my fellow passengers who are uncomfortable and I desperately show that I am appalled. And yet not one word is spoken by anyone, only my agressor who continues his rant.

“Are you going to get married? Because if I had a woman like you, I would make her my wife so she couldn’t run around free.”

I have always identified myself as a feminist, and proudly so. On my college campus, I advocated proactive movements for my female peers to demand the respect of their male counterparts in order to equalize our statuses in society.

And yet here was a man who was clearly objectifying me, who was violating my right to privacy and I did not know how to respond. I considered getting off the bus several stops early, but realized if he followed me, I could not outrun him and escape. I was physically stuck and had to endure the rest of the grueling 15 minute bus ride.

Finally, he gets up to leave to bus, but not without saying “I won’t forget you. I’ll be thinking about you tonight.”

I was utterly nonplussed. The gall of this random man left me shocked, I could not move or respond. I saw another female passenger look at me and then immediately look away in shame. I finally reached my stop, went to my office, and then within 45 minutes left because I was too distracted to focus on my work.

24 hours later, my feelings of embarrassment and confusion are gone and only left with anger and frustration. After researching online, I realize I have become another statistic. Websites like ihollaback.org are filled with collections of stories from women all over the world with experiences like, and many times worse, than mine. It makes me question our notions of a civilized society as a whole.

Yes, the human race has made immeasurable advances in the sciences, humanities, and arts. And yet my basic right to respect as a contributing member of society is completely disregarded because I am a woman. My aggressor exercised his privilege as a man to sexually harass me and he felt entitled to it, like so many men across the world who feel that it is okay to comment on a woman’s physical attributes without being warranted at all.

I posted my experiences already via my social networks and have spoken to several of my peers who gave their overwhelming support and sympathies, but I noticed an overarching trend with their comments. They always speak that they are disgusted and sorry for me and immediately apologize for the other passengers on the bus who should have helped me and spoken up. One particularly well-read feminist friend told me that this is the reason why sexual harrassment and abuse is so prevelent, because very few are held publically accountable for their actions. People look away, not wanting to get involved, not wanting to “rock the boat” further and divert the unwanted attention to themselves. This negligence is a unspoken approval for an agressor’s actions.

A viral video of a woman who immediately called out a man on the DC Metro for flashing her swept internet message boards by storm, with many applauding the woman for her quick response and decisive action. I greatly admire her, but after being in the same experience, on the receiving end of harassment, I do not regret my reaction or lack there of. Sure, I wish I could have screamed, yelled, demanded the man stopped, but I was physically immobile and vulnerable. With everyone witnessing what had happened and no one saying anything, I felt true isolation, that if I had reacted more actively, I would be left defending myself, by myself and I would have lost.

What I wish more than anything else was that this man never started speaking to me in the first place. The coffee spill was an accident but he voluntarily harassed me and then continued to do so when he realized he had the advantage in the situation. Explotations like this lead to cases far more severe like sexual assault, domestic abuse, and rape. Crimes like these are what motivated movements like Toronto’s SlutWalk, that give attention to the fact that these aggressions are never deliberately provoked by any behavior by the victim. It is only the attacker and those who let such crimes occur that should be held publicly responsible for their actions.

So today on the bus, I deliberately sat in the front between two older women and kept my head down and thankfully the whole ride was uneventful. I don’t know how I’ll react if that same man or any other man harasses me again. But I know I’m not going to let this disgusting and unnecessary rite of passage stop me from living my new metropolitan life.

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  1. Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    “One particularly well-read feminist friend told me that this is the reason why sexual harrassment and abuse is so prevelent, because very few are held publically accountable for their actions. People look away, not wanting to get involved, not wanting to “rock the boat” further and divert the unwanted attention to themselves. This negligence is a unspoken approval for an agressor’s actions.”

    It isn’t always unspoken approval. I’ve been the guy who intervened at times, and I’ve also been the person who ignored at times.

    Here’s the thing: someone who’s willing to behave the way that guy did in public may also be the kind of guy who’s willing to hit me, stab me, or shoot me for intervening. When I intervene I always look that person over for weapons first and make sure that, if an altercation ensues, I can take them or at least not get wrecked.

    Why? Because I have a friend who did intervene. It cost him his life. One punch to the head, one bounce of his head off of a curb, and he’s dead. Simple as that.

    Noticing and doing nothing isn’t always acceptance, it’s just a different reaction to the same type of coercion.

  2. Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Great post. But I do have to agree with davenj as well. While the assaulter might see those signs as unspoken approval, it can be a really difficult situation for bystanders to judge whether or not to get involved. I’ve tried to speak up on behalf of other women I’ve seen being harrassed before and instead just become the newfound target of the harrassment myself. I’ve had friends where the same thing has happened to them. With one friend the guy actually proceeded to follow her off of the train. Luckily there was a cop posted right outside the station and she just stood right next to him until the man left but what if the cop wasn’t there?

    Unfortunately I cannot even count the number of times I’ve been harrassed in public and cat-called. I usually stick up for myself in some way either by very clearly removing myself from the situation, if possible, or by shouting a very clear “NO!” at the guy. He’s usually so shocked by this that he gets up and leaves. Probably because most women just ignore it, which is understandable. But there are times I say nothing because I just feel incredibly threatened. It’s hard to describe exactly why but the feeling is just there.

  3. Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I truly do understand why witnesses don’t speak up. It is natural to put one’s safety as top priority, and obviously verbal aggression can easily lead to physical aggression and no one wants to be the target of that.

    Especially me. If that man had turned to physical aggression, it is really only up to me to deal with it? That because he had singled me out, that everyone else is absolved and I am left alone to deal with the consequences? That thought truly sickens me. Davenj, I understand you don’t want to put your life and safety at risk, but I don’t want to compromise mine either. It’s this terrible situation where the only person who wins is the aggressor because he or she is allowed to continue with their disgusting and unsolicitated behavior.

    The bystander effect, while understandable, is harmful, but really that is detracting from my point. My point is that this kind of behavior, and the more aggressive behavior that stems from it, should not even be considered as an appropriate way to interact with another human being.

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      “My point is that this kind of behavior, and the more aggressive behavior that stems from it, should not even be considered as an appropriate way to interact with another human being.”

      This is already the case, at least for a very large chunk of society.

      The problem is that people who don’t conform to this social standard are also less likely to conform to social standards on things like violence in public.

      If someone is being assaulted physically it’s a different matter than verbal harassment. In that case groups of people can and should intervene, barring weapons, and employ their group force to do something. However, in the case of this different type of harassment it is much harder to intervene, and intervening in a solitary manner can be excessively dangerous.

      It’s tragic, but sometimes there are just cold equations to the way we interact with people who are dangerous and threatening. I have a hard time judging people who err on the side of caution, because I know people who have literally been murdered doing the opposite. Street harassment sucks. No question. Dying in a pointless brawl on the street sucks a whole lot worse, though.

  4. Posted June 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I hate guys like this. Not only does the coffee spilling sound “accidentally on purpose” given that he had his “sorry to make you wet” double entendre just ready and waiting, but why do they even bother asking if you’re single when their further responses indicate that the notion that you may have a partner that you are exclusive with means NOTHING to them! Ugh. Anyway, when this kind of thing happens to me directly my reaction may depend on my mood, I may simply move, I may mess with them with a line of deliberately bizarre and/or confusing statements, and sometimes I just get loud and embarrass them (but keep in mind I also happen to be a confrontational and abrasive little so-and-so.)

    If I’d seen this happening to another girl who obviously looked scared or uncomfortable? I’d probably insert myself into the action something like “Hey! Do you need a napkin to clean that? I hope it doesn’t leave a stain, that is a nice skirt, is it new?” and so on. Not the most head on confrontation, but such actions often give the woman a chance to be drawn into an innocuous conversation with another woman in such a way where the harasser cannot keep her focus solely on him. It’s a tactic I’ve seen employed by other women in public settings on occasion, even been the one who got the “save” from time to time. Not everyone will though.

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