Endearingly Unsafe

Yesterday at work something weird happened.

I was out for a 10 minute break. It had been raining all day and it had finally stopped and the sun was coming out and the rivers that had just recently been flowing down the sidewalk had begun to dry. The water on the ground was making the sunshine extra delicious and everything smelled really nice. I decided to walk for just a few blocks and then come go back to the office. Afternoon sanity check.

And then standing at the corner, waiting for the hand to become a little walking man, I felt someone brush up against me, brush across my butt and a little up my side. I really didn’t think of it, the corner was normally crowded. People in crowded places don’t generally mean to bump into you, usually it’s a bag or a bulky coat, they don’t even know they are doing it. I’m a benefit of the doubt kind of person, no need to shove back. I’ve witnessed the people who have had their fair share of strangers bumping up in their space bubble. Nobody wins in those confrontations. So, the body space intrusion registered, and then I cataloged it accordingly and kept waiting for the walk sign, thinking my thoughts.

And then the person who had brushed up against me came to a halt directly next to me. Maybe inches from my shoulder. And I glanced at him, as one does. Usually it is a glance (reflex) and then a look away, the face of the person not even registering in my memory bank. Forgotten even before I look away. This time though, he was staring back at me. Staring. And then he looked me up and down with this little hint of a grin. And then he kept staring. And staring.

Now, the majority of this time I was just trying to figure out what had happened and what was happening right in that moment. I was trying to connect the dots and get a handle on the man who was not acting the way the rest of pedestrians in most areas of the world silently agree to act. He looked at me long enough for it to register, for me to figure it out, for me to glare back at him. But he kept staring, kept suggestively glancing me over.

And then I felt it, like a jolt behind my eyes. I felt unsafe. The places where he had brushed up against me suddenly screamed on my skin as unwanted touch. The way he was looking at me made me want to cover myself with my hands, though I was in jeans, tennis shoes, and a raincoat – but that doesn’t matter, does it?

He was part of a local convention. His badge hung big and blue around his neck. He carried a laptop in a squishy sleeve with a handle, he had a semi-military style haircut, he was older. When the light finally turned he looked away from me and strolled across the street in front of me and walked away. He just walked away. I resisted the urge to brush myself off. I looked for someone I knew on the street to tell them what had happened, what that guy had done, but no one I knew was around. I went back up to my office.

I told some male work friends about the incident. They laughed it off, made excuses for the man.

“He was at a convention! He was probably away from his wife, his kids, he was throwing his dice into the ring!”

“He was making a play! You can’t fault him for trying!”

“Wooow that was a club move right there!”

“That guy could try that at 50 street corners, and if just 1 woman eventually responds, then that’s a success!”

This is rape culture. I argued back, said touching is never ok, said how inappropriate it was, but I was too self-conscious to say how scary it was. How threatening it was. How unsafe I felt in broad daylight on a city street. And it’s just funny… it’s just how men are… you can’t blame a guy for trying. And for the hundreds of random people I may glance at a day, a week, a month, I won’t forget his face for a long while. I live in a culture that excuses violence against women, that shrugs it off, and makes it an endearment. I must really have it goin’ on, right? No. I was minding my business, walking along the street, being a human. You don’t get to treat me like I’m yours to do with as you please. Not ever. When this stops being funny and excusable it will be a good day.


28 thoughts on “Endearingly Unsafe”

  1. That’s just… unwanted physical contact is NEVER a compliment, and it horrifies me that other men pass it off as just that. And the fact that he was away from his wife? Yeah, that definitely excuses it – it’s not like men have self control, especially when around attractive women! Ugh. And this whole incident gives me the shivers on your behalf – that’s an awful, awful way to have your own autonomy and security ripped away.

  2. Ok, I was ALREADY mad on your behalf… and then you got to the part with the co-workers. I WOULD HAVE FLOWN INTO A VIOLENT RAGE. Good for you for calling them out on their bullshit.

    I’m curious — were the coworkers you told older or younger? Not that it’s an excuse, but I would like to HOPE that younger generations are at least learning that this type of behavior is inexcusable…

  3. Halfway into your story, my thought was “that guy was rape testing”. That’s what the instructor in a self defense class I once took called it. She used an example of a rapist here in DC who would do that exact behavior at bus stops, and then if a woman just tried to avoid him (versus looking at the guy, speaking with him, showing that she would speak up in some way, that she had seen and could identify him), he followed the women on to the bus and raped them when they got off. Your instincts on this guy were good. His behavior was unsettling and you felt on unsafe. You have to trust that. And the willingness of guys to brush off this behavior as no big deal is absolutely rape culture.

  4. It is never ok to touch without permission. It is never ok for a man to make excuses for any other man because, “We are just men”. It is never ok for anyone to ever say that his behavior was excused because he was at a convention, he was just being a man or it is what all men do. That is wrong and that is not the truth. Not all men act this way. I am really angry with the statements that your office co-workers had to say. That is just plain stupid. What?… did they grab their crotch while they were saying this and then grunt a few times? I know that you have been taught to look for these things and not accept them. You are always aware of the street and then I wonder how many other women would not have been able to know what was happening to them and to our society.

    I’m really sorry that this happened to you. You deserve better.

  5. “No. I was minding my business, walking along the street, being a human.”

    Except, of course, you weren’t being a human. You were being a woman. In public, of all places!

    The thing that makes me extra mad is that not only do your co-workers not understand how screwed up it is that men can touch women without repercussion on the street, but they don’t understand that they CONTRIBUTE to the experience when they make you feel so conscious that you can’t tell them you were scared. Plenty of men would never touch a woman on the street, but they don’t understand that they make it easier for other men to continue doing so.

  6. Oh I am so sorry this happened to you. And it makes me angry that this things happen and that excuses like the ones you got from your coworkers normalize it, trivialize it, make it “normal” or acceptable, when it is not any of those things.

  7. I’ve tried to explain to male friends, on multiple occasions, how commonplace it is to feel uncomfortable and unsafe while just walking down the street. Recently, in response to a similar conversation, I had a coworker (older, male, with a daughter who is a freshman in college) ask how frequently I feel unsafe or feel like I’m the recipient of very unwanted attention. And he was shocked when I answered “almost every day.” It is unbelievable how often strangers feel that its okay to shout lewd things, to do the once-over look and lick their lips or say something disgusting, to bump up against me in a public place. And what is even more unbelievable is that this is a huge shock to most men. Its sad, and I wish I knew what a solution looked like.

  8. Your coworkers’ response really surprises me. I’m always wondering what the end goal of these situations is, and I’ve come to realize it’s just to feel powerful by making someone else feel small. That’s all a man can possibly be hoping for. I can’t imagine that out of 50 women, even 1 would turn around and say, “Oh, you touched me without my consent? Let’s head back to your place!” If you find yourself attracted to someone on a streetcorner, you say something friendly or funny or maybe just weird but whatever. Maybe then, it works 1 out of 50 times. But grabbing someone? That’s a powerplay and a powerplay only.

  9. The incident itself is horrifying and I am so sorry. That has happened to me, multiple times. It is always awful.

    But I am fucking OUTRAGED at your coworkers’ responses.

  10. That is not okay. Not okay. Not okay. Please, somebody, tell me that men do not go around touching women just to see if all of a sudden, they are struck by the urge to have sex with you?

  11. Ugh, that’s so frustrating and very much not ok. I hate that this happens to people (women. you.) and I hate hate those responses (“can’t blame a guy”). Really?! Why not?! Not ok.

    Also, this comment makes me laugh (in that laugh-so-you-don’t-cry-kind-of-way): “Except, of course, you weren’t being a human. You were being a woman. In public, of all places!”

  12. That’s SO scary, and like everyone else, I was appalled to see your coworkers’ responses. I always imagine that sort of justifying/boys’ club stuff is more common here in Ye Olde Bible Belt. Disappointing.

    It has amazed me to see how young the grooming (which is what I’m beginning to think it is: grooming like pedophiles do, done on a much wider scale) for that crap starts–like sexualizing infants by telling me my 2-month old is flirting with you, etc. The other day, some random (older) man came up behind my 3-year old daughter and touched (“booped”) her nose. And then my exuberant, happy kid visibly shrunk into herself, and it was awful. I then had to remind a 3-year old child that it’s okay for her to tell grown-ass men not to touch her. Because god forbid the default should be: don’t touch other people without permission.

    All that to say, I’m infuriated right along with you, and am glad you’re (relatively) okay.

  13. The crazy thing – those coworkers are not at all bad people. I love those coworkers. They are kind and funny and good people. But they are examples of a much bigger issue.

    1. I would love for you to pose this question to them, since they seem to believe that as long as someone is testing the waters, so to speak, it’s okay to violate one’s space and body in a non-invasive way. Assuming they are all hetero, would they feel the same way if a man did it to them? Or would it register as disrespect? And if someone did this to their mom, would they find it amusing? Doubtful.

      1. “Assuming they are all hetero, would they feel the same way if a man did it to them?”

        I will be using this, thanks! Every time I’ve tried to get men to empathise, it goes like ‘if a woman did that to me, I would LOVE it.. har har har’. I don’t think that’s actually true but men will seldom acknowledge ‘unwanted’ female contact because that’s not macho.

  14. I was expecting the story to go “and then I realised I had been pick-pocketed”.
    I’m actually feeling that this is almost worse.

    I was in a bar with my now-husband a young guy decided to slap me on the bum (Hard!) every chance he got. When I turned around and yelled at him to f-off, he got *really* angry and started threatening me. I was totally freaked out and ran to a bouncer to report him while M stood as near to him as possible. The dude didn’t even notice M was there. He followed it up with almost assaulting the bouncer, and we had to ask to be let out a side door so I could feel safe out on the street for the 2 block walk home (so glad I didn’t have to stand around at a bus stop!)

  15. I’m so sorry this happened to you. We’ve all had that experience of feeling totally violated, used, and unsafe in a seemingly comfortable space.

    Thank you for pushing back with your coworkers. It shocks and surprises me how many men conflate unwelcome touching or staring with a flirty comment or a genuine hello. Those are very different things! And, really, you really want to engage a woman in a demeaning and belittlingly way to get her to sleep with you? That’s gross.

  16. Oh Lauren – that is so unnerving and scary. And you’re right, when good people react this way, it’s symptomatic of a much deeper cultural issue. I’m still pretty shocked by their reactions though. You should have gotten sympathy and a few rounds of “wish I was there to pound his face in” instead of the brush off.

  17. God, I feel reading this, like I do when those facebook/email self-defense emails come round – i.e. inside the mind of a rapist/here’s how you avoid becoming a victim. At first, I lap it up – I want to feel safe, teach me how to be safe out and about on the street. But then… really… how about we just teach men not to rape. Not to assault. Not to touch inappropriately. And not to accept that that’s just how men act.

  18. You know what I hate? That EVERY SINGLE WOMAN I know has at least one story like this. And that most men are shocked when I tell them that. Unsafe indeed.

  19. I also wanted to say – with your post title, I was briefly all excited that perhaps Gabe had started walking, or crawling really fast.
    Because you know, that WOULD be *endearingly* unsafe. (just ask any parent, its so out of your control and so cute at the same time!)
    Unlike this, which is just a punch in the guts.

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