This is from my friend Sid, who has experienced a lot of street harassment in the years I’ve known her. The most recent incident was different, and Sid asked me to let her tell you about it.
I’ve been working on different versions of this same blog post for maybe a month. Part of it is that I’ve never felt that I blog particularly well—I start them, I stop them, I never know what to do with them. Most of it, however, is that this blog stemmed from wanting to express an experience I had and to express how such a simple thing could terrify me so deeply—but when I started actually writing the post, I found that just bringing the experience back into my reality long enough to write about it was nearly impossible.
The event I’m referencing was my most intimate experience with harassment. Now, harassment can take all kinds of forms. It can be as simple as someone excessively staring at you or as complex as someone coordinating their actions around yours (this gets the extra label, “stalking”). For someone on the receiving end, the line between what is and isn’t harassment can feel fuzzier than it is, specifically because we’re trained to be tolerant and polite—particularly women—to a startlingly detrimental degree.
My experience was just a couple of weeks ago. I tried several times to write the story down, but was startled by the degree to which I found it difficult. I could start, but before I got very far, this wave of despair would wash over me and I would be unable to finish. Finally, I got the bare bones of the story down, which is below for context.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that I’m presently recovering from a significant injury which has left me more physically vulnerable than I’ve ever been. As someone who is fairly strong and also trained in martial arts, this feeling of physical inferiority is still new to me, and part of what made the experience below so terrifying.
This event started as many of my less upsetting stories do—at the bus stop. Our antagonist was an older man who was the kind of drunk you just can’t achieve in a single afternoon. He asked if I was a “working girl” on a street notorious for prostitution, then apologized for being “so bold” while going on to explain how women just excite men, and so on.
From there, he cycled between trying to save me from a life I don’t lead and getting angry that I wouldn’t offer something I don’t sell. Once we got on the bus, I made every effort to be as far from him as possible, but once the bus started moving, he came and found me.
He continued the cycle for some time as I stared at my phone, his voice escalating until he was yelling at me on this crowded bus. I wondered if the folks around us thought we were together. I sat as far into my seat as my body would physically go while he was halfway out of his, knees almost constantly touching mine. At one point, I said in a clear, firm voice that I wanted him to stop touching me, and he yelled something else in Drunk. Eventually I noticed out of the corner of my eye (the only time I’d looked at him was to tell him to stop) that he was very slowly punching at the air about five inches from my face. When the doors next opened, I got off the bus and walked all the way home.
I’ve told the story several times in person, and when I do, I can make light of it. “He says this through a thirty-year drunk,” I usually explain, as I describe the slur that comes from not a lot of drinking, but from a long time of drinking, and my audience laughs and I laugh and we all laugh because it’s in the past and oh ho ho, what a funny tale it is. It sure is good fun to talk about the crazy shit that happens on the bus, lawl.
But it wasn’t funny. It was some scary shit. I wouldn’t call it the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me, but it was a new kind of terror. It was a much more intimate kind of terror. Invasive. And maybe most importantly—intimidating. Whether or not he was aware that he was trying to intimidate me (or aware of the date or where he was), he absolutely was. Yelling at someone in public is a form of intimidation—it hopes to quiet the other person into submission and agreement. Miming that you are punching a complete stranger is a threat, plain and simple, which is another form of intimidation. He wanted me to talk to him—and perhaps quite a bit more—and he was doing everything he could to manipulate the situation toward that outcome.
In my case, I didn’t take advantage of any of the ways I could have reported this man. I was too concerned with getting to a safe place for it to have even crossed my mind. Too often, though, even when harassment is reported, nothing—or not enough—is done about it. The recent events at Readercon are a great example of this.
If you’re not familiar with the Readercon debacle, this page makes it easy to follow. The very first post, by Genevieve Valentine, sums up her experience at the science fiction convention a few weeks ago, where another attendee harassed her, later hugged her from behind without invitation, and finally, supposedly seeing the error of his ways, followed her around the rest of the con so that he could apologize to her. She wanted him to go away. He refused to go away until she would hear his apology, thus nullifying the apology he insisted was so sincere.
According to Readercon’s own policy, they have zero tolerance for harassment of any kind, and harassers will simply be banned from the convention. Forever. In the case of Ms. Valentine’s harasser, however, the ban was a bit shorter than forever—rather, it was for two years. The board of directors stated that this leniency had been afforded because he was so sorry. (“You may not have been willing to hear his apology,” I imagine them saying, “but we’re so much more reasonable.”)
Before continuing, it is absolutely worth noting that Readercon has since come out with a full apology and has banned the gentleman in question for life, as per their original policy. (It’s quite a good apology, in my book.)
One of the biggest problems with the original verdict (and there are many) is that this tells harassers, “It’s okay to keep doing whatever you want, whenever you want because all you have to do at the end of the day is act really apologetic (you needn’t even genuinely feel it, but make us believe it), and you’ll be off the hook.” The even bigger problem? This gives them even more of a reason to turn an apology into harassment. It makes harassers feel even more justified in cornering you away from people long enough to make you understand how sorry they are.
The most important part of Ms. Valentine’s post might be that harassers lose the right to choose how they apologize. “You have forfeited the right,” she points out, “to unburden yourself by apologizing to [a woman] until she forgives you, assuring her that you have learned things until she praises you.” With my experience above, I definitely got the sense that the drunk man was offended when I chose not to acknowledge his slurred apology for being “so bold” as to ask if my body was for sale—and further when I chose not to acknowledge anything else he tried to say to me. He started yelling as a method of getting me to acknowledge him.
I had a boyfriend who would use this same tactic. I would need space from an argument, so I would walk away, but he would need to fix things in that moment and why wasn’t I listening to him? He would grab me and hold me still, pressing his face against mine in an attempt to get me to hear him. He would chase me down the street—literally—yelling and crying the whole time. Because he was going to apologize to me whether or not I felt threatened by his method of apology. (I hope I needn’t mention that the relationship didn’t last.)
Too often, we’re made to feel unreasonable if we won’t listen to drunken, crying, or insistent apologies—many delivered in the same manner as the behavior they are supposedly decrying! “If you won’t listen to my apology,” we’re told, “then you’re just a bitch. You don’t even deserve my apology.” No. What we deserve is to be left alone if that’s what we’ve asked for. What we deserve is to be treated as full human beings and not tools you use to feel better about yourself. To quote Ms. Valentine: “If a woman has indicated you are unwelcome […] your apology is YOU, VANISHING.”
But the accusations make us second-guess ourselves—and they’re supposed to. The whole point of the outbursts and the cries of bitch and the exasperated fine! is to make us feel as though we’ve made the wrong choice. You can call it manipulation or social engineering or whatever you want, but it amounts to the same thing. The harasser begins to lose control of the situation and so takes to base tactics we all learned on the playground. (“If you don’t agree with me, then you’re a doody-head!” or “The louder I get, the righter I am!”) The truth is, of course, that it’s the harassers, not the harassees, who should be second-guessing—or more likely, reevaluating—their actions.
One of the best lines that has come out of the Readercon fiasco and the flurry of posts that followed is from science fiction author Ann Leckie:
If you really think anti-harassment rules bar flirting, you’ve got an idea of what constitutes flirting that really needs some re-evaluation. I mean, if someone said, “Hey, we should outlaw rape,” and the guy standing next to you said, “But that’s the same thing as saying people can’t have sex!” you wouldn’t say, “Wow, good point!”
In this post, Ann makes several points about how, even after everyone makes sure the harassee didn’t “send the wrong signals” (which in itself is condescending and demeaning), the attitude is still very poor poor harasser. “Did you have to be so mean?” That’s the question I always expect whenever I tell this kind of story, and the question too many women do get when they tell a story in which they stood up for themselves.
I even feel it myself. One late night, as I was waiting for the bus by my old apartment, a gentleman walked up to me (and when I say “walked up,” I mean the dude got really close, and I really don’t like people that close—especially strangers, especially late at night) and he said, “Do you think if a man does not desire a woman, that makes him gay?” Fairly certain he wasn’t actually looking for intellectual discourse, I said I didn’t know and took several steps away from him. He took this to mean that I wanted to continue our conversation over here, and followed. He started saying something else—I don’t know what it was because I honestly wasn’t listening, but he sure wasn’t asking for directions. I said, very loudly and clearly, “I need you to stop talking to me right now.”
He wandered off—which I had hoped, but not expected, he would do—and the first thought through my brain was, “Man, that was so rude of me.” Not: Why are you approaching women in the dark talking about desire? Not: Good job, Sid! Congrats! But: Oh no, I might have hurt the poor feelings of a man who was aggressively hitting on me late at night. Why is that my first reaction? Why do I expect people to tell me I’m ridiculous for being upset over some drunk guy yelling at me on the bus?
It’s a trap, this cycle of second-guessing—of either assuming or being led to assume that our reaction is somehow unreasonable or unjustified—and that’s what harassers depend on. That you’ll accept their apologies and then feel guilty for having any thoughts on the issue that don’t coincide with their own. Even well-meaning people can perpetuate the cycle of doubt and leave you unsure of what to do. I’m extremely fortunate that everyone in my social circle to whom I’ve ever told a harassment story has encouraged me to report it when applicable—or at least helped me see that I was, in fact, being reasonable.
I know that I need to hear this from time to time, so I’ll say it here: No matter your experience, harassment is harassment—whether someone’s stalking you around a convention or pretending to punch you on a bus. If you feel threatened, it’s harassment. If you’ve asked someone to stop a behavior directed at you and it continues, it’s harassment. If anyone at any time is trying control any aspect of your person or personhood, it’s harassment.
I can’t cover the full spectrum of what constitutes harassment in a single blog post, but you can feel it in your gut, and it’s so important to not ignore that. When I read or hear about other people’s experiences with harassment, it reminds me that mine weren’t imaginary—that what I perceived to be harassment really was. Even if you misjudge a situation, following your instinct will keep you safe. Your safety is not worth a wary courtesy—and the only people who would appreciate sacrificing your safety for a courtesy are the same people who would leap to take advantage of that.
The more we can each become confident in our own evaluation of a situation, the more we can collectively send out the message that harassment is not okay, and not something a woman—or anyone—should just get over or resign herself to expect.