Saturday, March 10, 2018

An anatomy of street harassment

This is something that happened to me a couple of years ago, and it's absolutely text book. I'm writing about it as men sometimes ask how women tell the difference between someone who's interested in them, and someone who's harassing them. So I'm going to tell this story to elucidate some of the finer points. I'd be very surprised if every female reader didn't immediately recognise this experience.....

It starts in the early evening on a university campus, where I've been attending a conference. I'm waiting at the bus stop, by myself, in order to go into the city for the conference dinner. I've got a book to help pass the time. But it's starting to get dark, and I'm a little unsure about how to get to my destination. 

A man walks into the bus shelter.

Do I acknowledge his presence? Do I keep my head in my book and pretend he's not there?

Acknowledge. It's not that dark, he's most likely a university student, there's no reason not to be friendly.

'Good evening!' he says. 'Hello!' I say, and return to my book. I've been polite to a fellow traveler, and the interaction could end here.

But he keeps talking. Asks me if I'm a student here too, what I'm studying. I'm at a conference, I tell him, and explain a bit about it. He tells me about his thesis. All very pleasant and light-hearted. I would actually be rather reading my book, this is a little intrusive into personal time and space, but hey, why not? Sometimes you meet nice people in random places, and it's no big deal after all. Ten minutes of my time to learn about someone else's life. He also advises me not to catch the bus the online journey planner recommended; his local knowledge is useful here. Catch the next bus, he says, it's a more direct route to the city.

The bus arrives.

This is also the bus he is catching. Do we sit together to continue the conversation or not? Does he expect me to? Do I owe him more conversation for telling me about the bus?

No. We have had a pleasant conversation already. I have been in too many of these situations before, and feel that this is the logical disengagement point. I will sit in a different part of the bus, if I can.

He boards the bus, sits halfway down. I sit near the front and continue to read my book. Someone boards and sits beside me. Excellent, no spare seat.

So we travel on. It's dark by now. As we draw closer to the city, the person sitting next to me gets off. I'm aware that he has seen this and I'm now exposed again. Sure enough, he comes up and says, 'Do you mind if I sit with you?'

OK. This is where I really know where this is going. I'm 50 years old. I can say no. But it seems ungrateful. After all, he did help give me advice about which bus to catch. On the other hand, I know this script all too well.

It's another ten minutes of conversation. He's pleasant enough. It would feel mean to say no. I'll make leaving the bus the definitive cut-off.

'Sure', I say to him.

So we chat away, and finally we're in the city. We both get off the bus. 'Well', I say, 'it was lovely to meet you, good luck with your thesis, and have a great evening'. 'Oh', he says, 'are you sure you know how to get to your conference dinner? I could walk you'. 'No, really, it's fine. I have my phone and I'm perfectly fine by myself. Thank you though, it's very kind of you to offer'. But he doesn't give up. We go over this point a number of times, he's got plenty of time, he's very happy to walk with me, no I'm fine, how kind, but no, I don't need him to walk me, I'm sure he's keen to get home, no really he has heaps of time, he doesn't mind, it's on his way home anyway.

Short of being even blunter, there is no way out of this impasse.

I don't really want to be brutal, even though I know what the consequences are likely to be. But perhaps I'm wrong. He may just be a kind person. And what if I do get lost in the dark streets?

'OK', I say, 'if you're sure it's not out of your way'.


It's not that I feel in any physical danger from this person, although one can never rule it out. I'd also feel differently if I was on my way home, and he would find out where I lived. I'm just going to a function centre. But I'm a few too many steps down the decision tree now. All I've done is postpone the moment where I have to shut it down. I've been soft and cowardly in order to avoid the horrible experience of feeling you've been mean to someone. The one thing you can't do, which you've been trained not to do since girlhood, is hurt their feelings. It's really hard to overcome, especially if you're a young woman.

So we walk and chat. He tries on a few compliments. 'I'm sure you're a great teacher'. Things like that. I respond non-committally, trying to give him no encouragement. What else can I do? Soon we're in the street where the function centre is, and I can see where I need to go. 'OK', I say, 'there it is over there. Thank you so much, it was lovely to meet you, I don't want to hold you up any more'.  'No problems', he says. 'What are you doing tomorrow? Would you have time to meet for a coffee?'. 

This is a polite request, and there's no harm in meeting someone for a coffee, is there? But will he interpret it as a green light to press for more? Of course he will - he hasn't paid attention to a single 'no' I have given him so far.

I don't want to have coffee with him, and moreover, I simply don't have time to skive off from a professional conference to meet with a stranger. If I had this time to spare, I'd rather spend it with my Canberra friends.

'I'm afraid not', I tell him, 'the conference starts at 8.30 am, and I'm flying out directly after. I simply won't have time'. 

But he won't leave this one. He asks again. I say no. He asks again. This is getting tedious. I'm really starting to be annoyed.


And here I make the biggest mistake of all. Even as I did it, my brain was screaming WHAT ARE YOU DOING. I think I wanted to make clear that I was a professional, that we were simply two people in the academic world talking about academic things, and to make an obvious break that will allow me to walk away.

I give him my card. I say 'If you're ever in Adelaide, look me up'. Then I realise, holy shit, my mobile phone number is on the card.

By now a few other conference delegates I recognise are on the street, converging on the door. One of them, Andy, looks at me quizzically; very perceptively, he has sensed the vibe that I'm not comfortable (this, believe me, is rare). I use the look to escape, and join Andy thankfully at the door of the venue. I wave goodbye to my new 'friend', and finally, at last, he walks away. It's hard not to think that this is because I am now with another man and so no longer fair game.

So, you might think, nothing happened here. The man was not offensive, I did not feel in actual danger at any point. It was just annoying. What's the big deal?

What the big deal is, is that he forced me to manage the situation. At every point along the way, I had to judge his intentions and decide when to pull the pin. And yet at no time did he do anything overt enough for me to call it out. Taken individually, each single watchpoint was insignificant. But at every point where I did not shut him down, he took it as tacit permission to continue. 

I had to be responsible for his actions. I had to assess them and make decisions about what to do. And you know what, it's fucking exhausting. It's exhausting playing cat and mouse, it's exhausting managing someone else's shit. Instead of a straightforward bus trip into town, I spent 45 minutes dealing with this bloke. I made rookie mistakes, all with the desire of not hurting his feelings. And the consequences were exactly what I knew they would be.

That night, after the conference dinner, he rang my mobile.

I received many phone calls and texts over the next weeks. Mostly I didn't respond. Once I did answer and told him I was very busy. A second time I was just fed up with it. I told him that it had been nice to meet him, that I was grateful for his assistance in my journey, but that I didn't want to talk to him. Nothing personal, perhaps I'd get in touch if I was in that city again.

More calls. I didn't respond.

They've stopped now, thank heavens.

He didn't respect me reading my book at the bus stop, sitting by myself on the bus, refusing his offer to walk me, telling him I didn't want to talk. Oh, he's done this before, and probably wondered why women won't talk to him because he's a 'nice guy'.

No comments:

Post a Comment