Here’s something I want you to know:
Last week I was walking down the street in my neighborhood. A guy at a bus stop high on something other than life asked me if I had any change. I said no. He responded with, “Well, fuck you. All you sluts do is take, take, take. You never give. But you’ve got some nice tits so come here, baby, I got something I wanna give to you.”
My bet is that if you’re a woman you’ve experienced this before. If it wasn’t a down-on-his-luck guy at a bus stop, it was a bunch of douche-bros outside a bar, or some dude who you cut off in traffic. Sexual harassment is like stepping in dog poop: it sucks and it’s in no way natural or necessary, but every so often, it’s gonna happen.
The bus stop guy then broke into a fit of coughing, a desperate sort of wheezing that sounded like a cross between a cat hacking up a hairball and the aftermath of a kid accidentally aspirating milk. It reminded me of how my grandmother sounded when she had emphysema and was drowning in her own lungs. His eyes started to fill with tears – partly, I assumed, because of the coughing – but it was also as if he were deeply sad. The kind of sad where bouts of vitriol make you feel weirdly hopeful because then at least you know the person has the energy to be something other than sad.
There was this split second where I almost stopped to give the guy a dollar. I’m not even sure why. That brief sign of hope? Memories? Guilt, maybe? But then he snarled, “Fucking bitch” so I walked past him as fast as I could.
My encounter with Sad Bus Stop Guy rattled me, so I mentioned it to the first friendly face I saw after it happened.
My friend said, “I don’t understand why you walk in that neighborhood anyway.”
“Because it’s *my* neighborhood,” I said. You can probably move someplace that’s free of bus stops, but you can’t move somewhere that’s free of misogynistic assholes. Wherever I live, sooner or later I’m going to encounter one of them and, because I’m female and exist, eventually one of them will make me a target. They might have a different M.O. than Sad Bus Stop Guy, but bullshit is bullshit, no matter how refined and expensive its outfit. It’s like a really awful lottery that every woman is guaranteed to win at some point.
When I got home I told my husband about it. First he said, “You were harassed today?! Harassed?!?” like this was outlandishly surprising rather than run of the mill dog poop territory. Like I should either be overcome with the vapors and fainting on a settee or be so outraged I dropped everything and made my day all about this incident. When I got to the part about my random impulse to give the dude a dollar, my husband got mad at me. “Why would you do that? I wouldn’t do that. Who does that? If you give him money you’re just reinforcing his bad behavior.”
“I know that and I *didn’t* actually give him the dollar,” I said. “And I’m pissed at you now because you’re basically telling me that my feelings about being harassed are wrong.” He’s a guy. He has the privilege of not having to know harassment is a thing.
I don’t want this post to be about the dollar. Or my friend. Or my neighborhood. Or the fact that my husband couldn’t understand. I want to convey how it feels when you get harassed and people are like, “See, here is how I would have reacted better and by default this is why this would never happen to me. You’re coping wrong, so, in a way, this is your fault…”
There’s this feeling that recounting your experience is opening yourself up to a self improvement seminar, like you’re the self that needs to be improved rather than the dude who felt the need to scream “fucking bitch” at you… All I did was walk by a bus stop with a vagina, which I do not feel is a behavior that needs improving or can realistically be changed.
Here’s what I want you to know: It’s 2014 and we still talk about harassment in terms of what the harassee should or shouldn’t have done. This is ridiculously frustrating. If you are a woman and you walk in the world, you get harassed just by virtue of being a woman who walks in the world. It does not matter what you do.
And those two things? The tacit blaming of the woman and the inevitability of harassment? That’s fucked up.