Why I still smile at street harassers

I try to act like every interaction I have with a man will not automatically escalate to violent sexual assault

Sexual assault is an everyday occurence that women and men must deal with.
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Being stared at is a uniquely unsettling experience: You feel the discomfort that comes with everyday street harassment, and get to wonder if the person looking at you is some sort of vengeful wizard. This, at least, was what I wondered when I got on the bus to meet a friend for brunch, and noticed a man noticing me.

I can tell you what the man looked like that day, and I can tell you what I looked like that day, though I'm not sure how much either description matters. He was a white guy somewhere in his 50s, and had on a sweater and jacket despite the warm summer weather. I was wearing a crocheted mini dress that showed off my legs, because, for me, it is a joy to show off my legs on a summer day, to take pride in my body, to notice people noticing me, and to flirt a little, clown a little, see what effect my body has on the world and what effect the world's notice has on me.

Less joyful, somehow, is the experience of someone noticing you, then staring at you, then moving so they can sit down across from you on the bus, then continuing to stare at you.

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He waved at me to get my attention, and I took my headphones out and put my book down.

"What's your name?" he said. I told him. He told me his. I shook his hand. I'm almost certain I smiled. I usually do.

Then I put my headphones back in and picked my book up and went back to reading. He continued to stare at me. He waved his hands to get my attention again. He stomped his feet on the bus aisle, I suppose so that, if I couldn't hear him, I would feel the vibration. I did hear him, and I did feel the vibration, but I carried on reading. I did not make the conscious decision to ignore him so much as decide that this was simply the best way to end the interaction and keep it from escalating.

The man kept staring at me. He got up and sat down next to me, and leaned toward me to see what I was reading, and when I got up to get off the bus even though it wasn't quite my stop yet he stood up and waited beside me, still staring, which disturbed me much more, in a way I could not have expected, than his presence in my personal space. I'm more used to that. The staring, though, suggested some deeper conviction. He had been looking at me for 10 minutes, without looking away, in a way that suggested I had something he needed. Most disturbing of all was how I began to wonder, after getting off the bus, whether I really did.

Another man who had been on the bus chased me down. "Did you know that guy?" he asked breathlessly.


"Oh. Well, he was staring at you the whole bus ride."

"I know," I said, because how does a person not know they're being stared at?

Maybe this is the kind of thing you can think you wouldn't notice, if you have never been stared at before. I didn't have time to ask the man, who got on another bus, leaving me wondering if he had something more to say — and, if not, what he expected me to do with the information he had given me.

Anyway, I went to brunch, because that's what you do in your 20s, as far as I can tell: have an experience that makes you feel frantically, itchily uncomfortable in your own skin, and wonder about your place in the world, and find no answers, and then go to brunch. Over coffee, I described the incident to my friend, who listened carefully and kindly, and then immediately became deeply uncomfortable.

"That sounds like a gendered experience," he said carefully, "and one I've never had."

"But you have a gender," I said. "Your gender is male."

But this is not what gender means, not really, not according to men who look at the problems women have in the world and think: Ah, yes. You have a gender. It got you in trouble. I wish it didn't have to be that way, but I can't possibly know what that's like.

He was still uncomfortable. We moved on. I was uncomfortable too.

Was it the dress? I wondered. Weird things do tend to happen to me when I wear that dress. Last year, I wore it out to a bar, and noticed at one point that a man had reached out and started stroking my hair. When I didn't pay attention to him, he grabbed a handful and pulled.

"Please don't do that," I said.

"You're so beautiful," he said.

"You don't get to touch a woman without her permission," I said, and left — not the bar, because all my friends were there, but for a different part of the bar, because the hair-puller, a white guy somewhere in his 50s, seemed drunk and maybe in a bad state. I didn't think he would bother me again. He didn't.

So maybe, I thought, it wasn't the dress — and then realized that it couldn't have been the dress, because, of course, it's never the dress. Noticing someone's body is an instinct. Staring at a stranger, touching them, following them, deciding that your interest in a body overrides its owner's, is a choice.

I have no idea what my friend would have said about the bus starer if we had taken the conversation any deeper than we did. As I got on the bus to head back home, I found myself wondering not what he might have said, but what stopped him from saying it. Maybe his assumption was that talking to a woman about street harassment would put him in an impossible position. Maybe he thought that trying to comfort me would make me feel infantilized, or that trying to problem-solve the issue would only lead to him saying the wrong thing. Maybe he would have. He couldn't possibly have had all the answers. But neither did I.

"You needed to end the conversation," my friend Addie told me later that day. She lived in New York City for several years, which, in the Midwestern college town where she now lives, makes people look at her like she has mild magical powers when it comes to difficult or confrontational social situations, because she does.

"I shouldn't have said hello," I agreed.

"You can say hello," she countered gently. "You just have to also say goodbye."

This was a gendered experience, but it went beyond that, too: into race, class, and economics; into my own daily decisions, as a woman and as a human, about how openly I want to interact with the world around me, and how large a role fear plays in those choices.

The men who ask me for things are usually homeless or having a bad time, and I usually try to give them something, wisely or unwisely. It's not policy. It's impulse. If a man tells me to smile I usually do it, because it actually makes me want to.

The other day a man approached me on the street and asked for a hug, and I hugged him. I felt safe enough, so I said, Sure. Then I walked away. I had agreed to something most other women rightly would not have agreed to, because I felt safe enough to do it.

I go through life based on the assumption that every interaction I have with a man will not automatically escalate to violent sexual assault. And writing that sentence makes me feel like the most reckless kind of desperado, which is more disturbing to me than any actual interaction I've had with a man on the street.

Why did I say yes to that hug? When I think back to that split-second decision, I can identify my fear of saying No to a demand, my bad habit of choosing the path of least resistance, and my feelings of white guilt (we were in San Francisco's rapidly gentrifying Mission District; he was black and I was white and, palpably, a gentrifier). But it also felt like the right decision. The man seemed homeless and maybe in a bad state. He looked like he could use a hug, but he was also friendly and warm. I didn't feel scared of him. He was one man, not a representative of all men, and I liked him.

I was also aware, in that moment, that men who ask me for things are not just making me feel my gender. They are having a gendered experience of their own. Somewhere along the way, they have come to believe that whatever afflicts them can be cured by a woman's tenderness. And all too often, it seems to me, men have learned that the only way to get tenderness is through sex.

This is the world my body lives in, and I have no choice but to inhabit it. The idea that I am alone in living a gendered life — in the daily dance of obedience and rebellion that is life in a gender role — is, simply, wrong. A man who harasses me on the street is experiencing his gender role as unavoidably as I am in that moment, as is a man who hears about it afterwards.

So I smile if I feel like it. I say hello. I hug. I make contact. I make a decision to touch or be touched for half a moment, and trust that this decision will not lead to something terrible. I trust men to understand this, because it's the truth. And if I don't trust that a man will see this, if I don't feel secure, if I don't feel willing to look up or smile or say hello, then I keep moving, because that is my decision to make.

What bothered me about being stared at on the bus was not the experience itself so much as my own sense of vulnerability. I said hello and began an encounter I didn't have the capacity to deal with at that moment; I made contact with someone desperate and then found myself unable to navigate the straits of that desperation safely. It made me worry about my own capacity to be present in the world and ensure my own safety. It made me feel stupid. It frightened me, in a way these interactions normally don't, and made me wonder if I was a fatuous child.

It made me feel I had done the wrong thing, and it was only when I let the complexity of the situation sink in — the fact that it was not just a gendered experience but an experience of class, economics, and civic identity, among other things — that I realized there was probably no right thing to do, either. We navigate these experiences as well as we can in the moment, but the only way to truly learn from them is to acknowledge that they are not just an inconvenient part of life in a woman's body, but a way to learn about the world we all live in.

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