My fiancé and I were in a cab on the way home from the bar, in the right lane of a one-way street. Our cab was stopped in traffic, and we were going nowhere.
To our right was a group of women waiting to cross the street, dressed up for a night out.
A black SUV pulled up to our left, and a man with a big beard leaned out the back window to catcall the women, sandwiching our cab between him and them.
Joe, who enjoys friendly mocking drunk idiots, decided to take the opportunity. “Are you talking to me?” he said to the bearded man. I tried to shrink in my seat.
Not understanding the joke, the man said to Joe, “I was talking to those attractive women.” (Insert a million eye rolls here.) Determined to get the man to notice the joke, Joe said, “You don’t think we’re attractive?”
I adjusted the collar of my coat around my jawline and looked away. Joe didn’t know. He hadn’t dealt with these guys his whole life. I would have told him not to bother, but now it was too late—now he’d brought me into this man’s life.
The man turned his attention from the women and peered into our cab. “You’re fine; I don’t go for men.” He looked at me (I assume, although I was trying my hardest to become invisible and therefore wasn’t looking at him). “Maybe her. Is that your wife or girlfriend?” He didn’t give Joe a chance to answer before he said, “She may be too old.”
Joe laughed and repeated what the bearded man said, as though maybe there was a sound barrier that had kept me from hearing it. This man, who is leaning out of his car window to harass women on the street, has now been invited to harass me. Did I ask for his opinion? No. I don’t want to know, nor do I care, if this asshole thinks I’m attractive or “too old” (which, for the record, I’m 28 so let’s just straighten that one out right there. And even if I was older—screw you, dude.)
Our cab driver rolled down his window and said something to the man in Arabic. The man in the SUV said something back in Arabic, and his car drove away.
Our cab began moving again, and the cab driver explained to us that he had basically said “shame on you” to the bearded man. The driver told us that the man was growing his beard to try and look like a good guy, but then acting shamefully. I can’t speak to that culture, to the symbolism of beards in that culture and what does and does not produce shame and to whom. But that is how the story ended and I think it’s worth noting, not because speaking Arabic made the bearded man any more of a threat, but because my cab driver stood up for me and for those women and Joe didn’t.
Although he did take the harasser’s attention away from those other women, Joe ended up accidentally diverting it to me. I was mad at him after this happened. Boiling mad. When you ask a street harasser if he thinks your fiancé is attractive, I imagine we got off easy with “she may be too old.” No body parts mentioned. No sexual acts described. What would Joe have done then?
But after thinking about it from his perspective, I’ve stopped being mad. As a man, Joe sometimes experiences the world very differently than me. So rather than expecting him to magically know what it’s like to grow up as a woman, I’m cutting him some slack and trying to help him understand my point of view, so he can be better armed for next time.
If the bearded man had seemed threatening to him, I feel confident that Joe wouldn’t have said anything to him. But they were on equal footing for height, weight, and the fact that he was also in the back of a car. But for me? A stranger in a dark SUV who is bigger than me and calling out desperately to women he doesn’t know? That person is threatening to me. Joe hadn’t thought about that, because he’s never had to. It’s not second nature to Joe to ignore a street harasser simply for the fact that you don’t know what they’re capable of, but it’s second nature to me.
I haven’t known Joe his whole life, but I imagine he’s been taught a few ways to protect himself as a guy: fight back. Use humor. Walk away instead of letting yourself get angry. Tell an adult.
I have been taught different ways to protect myself: walk home with a friend. Keep your eyes on your drink. Keep your keys between your fingers in case they attack you. Buy mace in case they attack you. Don’t let them follow you home. Don’t get too drunk. Don’t wear a ponytail because they can grab it and pull you into an alley. Don’t stay out too late. Wear clothes that cover yourself (but not too much, prude.) Here is another article about a girl who was attacked. Here is how likely it is that you’ll be raped. Here is a list of things you can say to someone to stop them from raping you. Here is your rape whistle.
When these are the lessons people teach you, you learn very quickly that when someone calls out to you on the street, you don’t call back. I wish I had never been taught to protect myself because we had already taught everyone not to harass and attack people. But that’s not how the world is.
By himself, Joe has never had to worry about the strangers he chooses to interact with. But when I’m around, he does. I’m not saying he has to protect me in a superhero-movie-poster way. But he needs to consider both of us before he talks to aggressive strangers, and he needs to understand what “aggressive” means to me.
Since Joe’s experience with street harassers is so much different from mine, I needed a way to help him walk in my shoes. How do you explain exactly why a street harasser makes you feel unsafe, when technically they haven’t touched you and are “complimenting” you (not Joe’s words, just a general excuse harassers use)? Finally, I ended up with this:
Someone who you don’t know, who is stronger than you and who might have a gun, calls out to you in public to say they’d like to have sex with you. Do you feel safe?
Joe would never call out to a girl on the street, or even consider it. But his experiences haven’t taught him how to react to street harassers in the way that my experiences have. I’m so used to trying to ignore and avoid harassers, I don’t give it a second thought. Joe doesn’t give a second thought to the harassers in the first place. Hopefully now he does.
If you’d like to help stop street harassment, check out Hollaback! They aren’t paying me to say that, I just think it’s awesome.