Essays · Strangers

You’re A Man Encountering Me in Public

Earlier this summer, when walking home from work, a man approached me with his hands out as though he were going to grab my breasts. He got maybe a foot from me before I told him to fuck off and he giggled and walked away.

I really wanted to kick him in the balls, but since he hadn’t actually touched me, I figured I’d be the one to get in trouble. But I certainly considered it. I was tired, and that wasn’t the first time that day that I’d encountered an asshole man who thought I existed for his pleasure.

I get talked to, creepily stared at, or even shouted after often. Not daily, but weekly at least. It’s worse in the summer, and it can make me dread my time outside by myself.

It’s shitty, because I love to walk around this town. I walk to and from work every day, so I spend at least an hour vulnerable to these pricks.

Two nights ago, on my way to class, a man flipped me off from his car as I looked at him when he started screaming at a woman in front of him for having the gall to not turn left into a crosswalk full of people. I am 100% certain that if I’d been one of the people in the crosswalk, he would have ‘jokingly’ driven his car right up to me to teach me a lesson.*

On my walk to work this morning, I stopped at a crosswalk to wait for the light to turn. I had been looking at my phone, but saw that there was some construction work going on across the street, and that the sidewalk on the other side of the street was closed (they also had a sign to that end).**

When the light changed this morning, I crossed the street and then turned to make my way across the other part of the intersection, because (as indicated by the sign, as well as the large truck and cones in the road ahead) the sidewalk was closed. A male construction worker approached me with a pissed off look on face and said “We put that sign up because the sidewalk is closed.” To which I responded “I know, I saw, that’s why I’m crossing the street here.”

That should have ended the encounter. In fact, there should never have been an encounter. I think he expected that I had only found myself there because I was reading my phone; in reality I’d stopped at the light, saw the situation, and figured out how to safely make my way across the street.

You know, I applied my 35 years of experience walking to the situation. Shocking!

Then the light turned and I started to go on my way. Not content to let logic win, the man started yelling at me to pay attention – even though we’d just established that I saw his sign and adjusted my movement accordingly. I get that he was probably tired of people giving him shit (they’d shut down a major arterial’s sidewalk and one lane in the middle of rush hour), but all I’d done was be a woman who followed the street signs on my way to work. If he’d wanted the crosswalk closed, then he should have closed the crosswalk. But he didn’t, and perhaps he was now realizing he’d fucked up.

Either way, that’s his issue to sort out, not mine. I just continued to cross the road, content that I’d been more than polite in indulging this stranger’s need to puff his chest in an attempt to exert authority in this bizarre little scene playing out. I got maybe 10 feet from him when he chose to start screaming “Ma’am. Ma’am. MA’AM” like three or four times, still demanding my attention.

I didn’t turn back, because fuck that guy. Given the experiences I’ve listed above, along with myriad others, I don’t trust men who speak to me when I am outside, especially when they have already demonstrated to me that they aren’t entirely clear about how to interact with other human beings. I just don’t.

It’s entirely possible (although HIGHLY unlikely) that he was screaming at me not because I’d bruised his ego, but because a truck was about to run a red light and flatten me. But the thing is, I would have been hit by that truck, thanks to all the men over the years who have made me feel unsafe when I leave my home and dare to walk anywhere.

When I first started to write this post, I thought I was being oversensitive, and that maybe this wasn’t a great example of how unpleasant it is to navigate this world while being a woman. But then I realized it is the PERFECT example. Because it isn’t the typical cat calling – it’s something that theoretically could be innocuous (although in this case it was super patronizing), but because of my 20+ years of encounters with shitty men in public, EVERY encounter with a man I don’t know in public raises my stress levels.

In daylight, I worry I’m going to encounter men who get angry if I refuse to engage with them. I worry that the man who is trying to make eye contact with me is going to complement my dress but then expect me to fawn over the words that mean nothing to me (I genuinely could not give less of a shit whether a random dude at the bus stop likes my style). I worry that, when I’m on the bus, I will once again be shown a wad of cash as a rider attempts to buy time in my presence. I worry that I’m going to be touched, grabbed, spit on or just made to feel even more unsafe in the world than I already do.

Nighttime is a different story, but not that different, because when men are jerks to me during the day, no one steps in then, either. They aren’t obligated to, but my goodness it’s kind of amazing how quickly people will pretend to have no peripheral vision as soon as a man starts to verbally assault a woman on the street. Sure, at night I’m a bit more afraid of physical assault, but I still have a stress response every single time, whether the sun is out or not.

In case it isn’t clear, I fucking hate a society that produces so many jerks who think that women own them their time. A man stopping me on the street to complement me isn’t a complement – it is a moment where I’m not sure if he is going to continue on his way or threaten to fuck me up when I refuse to smile. A man approaching me from a construction site – even if his message is an attempt to keep me safe – needs to understand that literally decades of experience have taught me that what he is about to say to me is going to be condescending at best, and threatening at worst.

In all of these interactions I’m going to try to be as neutral as possible – not overly friendly (lest you think I’m flirting with you) and not overly bitchy (lest I wound your deeply fragile feelings), but I’m going to extract myself from them as quickly as possible.

So, the takeaway here is how not to be a jerk when you’re a man talking to a strange woman in public? Don’t talk to a strange woman in public.

* That happened to me in Manhattan once; the guy actually tapped my calf, which was a bad idea, considering I then stomped on his bumper, denting it and causing a friend of mine to muse that I was really fitting into my new life in New York.

** That’s right, I read and walk. Sometimes I’m reading my phone, and sometimes I’m reading a book. I have figured out, over the past 18 years of doing this, how to do so safely. I’ve tripped once (which, frankly, is much less than I trip when I’m doing nothing but walking). I stop at every curb, and put away what I’m doing to cross the street. I get that a lot of people get so annoyed with people who walk and look at their phones, but honestly, I’ve been doing some version of this since I was in college.

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