I love living in New York. For someone who tends towards high strung, neurotic, and put off by crowds, I get a surprising sense of safety from the large numbers of people. I feel like if something were to happen, at least someone would be there to step in. They have to. How could they not?
I usually think stories about street harassment are trite and futile, but that’s largely because I’ve internalized the notion that it’s a part of life, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Everything that can be eloquently said about street harassment has been said, better than I can. So I’ll just tell you about what happened to me last night.
I was coming home from a night with my friends at Lincoln Center. We splurged on nosebleed seats to an opera, and I did my hair and wore one of my favorite dresses to work. I left my friends at Columbus Circle and got on my train to head back to Brooklyn. At 10:00 at night, the train was relatively full–I easily got a seat but there were definitely people in the car. It would never occur to me that it’s unsafe for me to be on that train alone because I wasn’t alone.
After a few stops, an older man about fifteen feet away from me yelled, “Hey, you!” I looked up because any noise startles me. We made eye contact. At first, I figured he wasn’t talking to me, so I looked down. “Yeah, you! With the scarfy thing!” I rolled my eyes and grumbled to myself. Don’t start this, I thought. I put my headphones in and read the program from the show.
“You’re so pretty! You’re everything I like!” I tuned it out like I do every day, because walking down the street in a woman’s body means a man will talk to you. At you.
Women are told to just “take the compliment.” But street harassment isn’t complimentary. It’s not a compliment when a guy comments on your appearance or yells “I wanna eat your pussy,” as happened a few weeks ago. The implied second part to that is not “See? I’m a reciprocal lover,” it’s “and I could if I wanted to.”
The man on the train started talking to the people around him. “Do you see that girl over there? She’s exactly what I like. I love her dress.” He was pointing and talking loudly enough that I could hear him through my headphones. I wished I were wearing sweatpants. I wished I hadn’t put makeup on. Suddenly, I felt so ugly. Everyone on the train knew who he was talking about–I was the only girl in that area of the train. I felt humiliated. This man was thinking about doing things to me and everyone heard.
“Hey sexy! Come over here! Come sit on my lap!” He made boob-grabbing gestures. I turned and glared, then put my music on louder, hoping that would end it.
A fair question: Why didn’t you just get off the train? First of all, I didn’t feel that I was in any danger. He was a fifteen feet away from me, and didn’t look like he intended to threaten my physically. I also worried that he’d maybe follow me, and I at least felt safe in the subway car full of people, instead of a potentially empty subway station. And for me, the last answer is the most important. I didn’t get off the train because it was my goddamn train home. If women got off the train every time a man said something lewd to them, we’d never get home.