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.