Street Harassment: Being “Nice”

WCP blogger Amanda Hess has a post up today detailing how responding in a polite fashion to more apparently benign forms of street harassment doesn’t deter but encourages it.

I experienced this type of outwardly friendly yet completely creepy behavior during the summer of 2008 when I still lived in Midwestern College Town. It was an absolutely beautiful day – not too hot, sun shining, light breeze – and I was walking down to the City Pool to enjoy myself. I was also visibly pregnant. It was a short and enjoyable walk; I had the option to drive, but no need.

As I was making my progress along a residential street, a middle aged man in a red pickup pulled up to me and offered me a ride. I don’t remember the precise exchange, but it boiled down to something like this:

He: [smiles] Can I give you a lift somewhere?
Me: [likewise friendly but wary] No thanks, I’m enjoying my walk.
He: [still smiling] Are you sure?
Me: [no longer smiling] I’m fine, thanks.

I sped up my pace a bit, made it more purposeful, and the man drove on. I changed my direction slightly, going first to a local coffee shop where I knew there would at least be people. I endlessly debated whether or not to report this incident to police, but my gut instinct was that they would just slough it off, as nothing identifiably bad had happened. I already had one dude thinking he knew better than me (as evidenced by the offer + “are you sure?”) – the last thing I needed was a (chances are) male cop added to the mix.

As I approached the coffee shop, the truck reappeared – he had apparently circled the block in order to continue following me.

It’s entirely possible that this man just thought he was being kind, practicing the sort of benevolent sexism present in all kinds of thinking about women: that we are to be protected, especially when pregnant, so far that if we’re out by ourselves, we can’t possibly be protected enough, so some dude had better hop to and assist, being all gentlemanly, etc. Trouble is, there’s no way for us to distinguish benevolent vs. malevolent intention until it’s too late.

It was abundantly clear that this man, while he may have had the best (if sexist) of intentions, was acting in a way that patently denied my agency and self-determination in favor of whatever random thought was in his head. That alone told me he was to be avoided at all costs.

But see? I was “nice”. I didn’t do all the things we’re told to do (be rude, put up a fight, shout for help) only after being conditioned to be polite or else. It didn’t “save” me, even though “nothing” happened. In fact, something did happen: that dude was demonstrating, yet again, that men’s desires trump women’s in every single case, no matter what mundane thing she has chosen to do. Even seemingly “innocent” encounters like this smack of patriarchial privilege, and serve to remind women of their designated place, which is certainly not making decisions for themselves to take a nice walk on a pretty day.

11 thoughts on “Street Harassment: Being “Nice”

  1. YES.
    I have had so many examples like this – “harmless” but namelessly disturbing street incidents – that happened before I was truly able to articulate why they were wrong and why I felt so afraid and angry about them.
    Small, partial, but necessary solution: keep articulating them now. Over and over and over.

  2. This was just the biggest and creepiest one. And it pisses me right off that these situations are deemed “harmless” because I wasn’t raped, molested or kidnapped. Harm comes in many forms, and where previous harm exists, you get MORE harm from these theoretically “harmless” encounters.

    Important for me to remember: if I am afraid, then there was a threat. I am not needlessly paranoid. He was out-and-out telling me that what he wanted was vastly more important than what I wanted — so much so that my desires for a peaceful walk to the pool didn’t even show up on his radar.

    Or, as fugitivus put it, he thoroughly failed the test.

  3. the “are you sure” part is what sometimes bothers me the most. what use to state an opinion (even asked for) if it will never be accepted?

    i am a person who elicits attention from strangers often. this happens both when i am alone and when i have company. most of the time it is simply a person who wants to talk to a face and not a void, and i have been told i have a face that seems open to listening. sometimes i am–but i am only sometimes successful at articulating when i would most like to be left alone. what i have gotten better at in the last few years of living in this city is knowing when i feel inconvenienced (which is still not okay) and when i feel afraid.

    and yes, being made to feel afraid is being harmed. no doubt about that. being disrespected is being harmed. being aware that there are further levels of harm is a good thing–letting levels dictate whether we are “allowed” to feel harmed is not.

  4. Fugitivus is brilliant, and while it sucks that she had to go through All That Crap to get where she is, I am thoroughly grateful that she’s sharing her wisdom and experience. Those are stories that need to be told.

  5. Hi there — been a while, but I just saw you over at IBtP today.

    The first exchange is possibly attributed to “Poor visibly pregnant woman; must be exhausting walking in the hot sun.” Hell, I’d have offered you a ride, too. But the “are you sure” followed by the circle-around-the-block? Your instincts were right-on.

    Yes, this shit is infuriating. “Protection” is just another way of telling you who has the power. Even worse is when someone tells you to “take it as a complement.” No. Fucking. Way.

  6. “It’s entirely possible that this man just thought he was being kind […]”

    But probably not! One time I took a guy up on a kind offer for a ride. I was standing at a bus stop in the rain, he looked to be in his mid-70s. When we got to the metro station I was heading for and he stopped to let me out, he turned and clamped both hands onto my breasts. I boggled at him and scraped him off and got out. He pretended to be embarrassed! I got off easy for being stupid. If a strange dude offers you anything he isn’t being kind, and if he circles the block, he is being aggressively scary.

  7. Hiya Notorious Ph.D.! You have no idea how pleased I am you came over and commented on my blog. ^_^ (I read yours with envy, especially the bits about playing in the archives.)

    And yes, Phio, there is no way to tell what’s in their heads until it’s Too Late, except of course if what you’re expecting to be in their head is “patriarchy”, in which case, you’re probably spot on. That’s the only time anyone’s ever offered me a ride like that, so I haven’t had your exact experience, but your story reminds me of the time I was getting off the bus, wearing my infant in a front-carrier, and some random dude reached out to “say goodbye” to the baby, and, under the guise of touching the kiddo’s hand (already not cool, yo!) groped my boob.

    I was shocked enough that I didn’t realize what exactly had happened until I was off the bus. Once I was off the bus (and safe enough to have time to think, right?) I realized that the dude was at the very least getting in two infractions for the price of one.

  8. Hi Jo, it was nice to see you at IBTP!

    I am so glad to see posts like this affirming that being made to feel afraid is being harmed. Far too many people claim we are being too-sensitive or paranoid. It isn’t paranoia if there really are people out to get you. Bah, lack of coffee leads to lack of coherence.

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