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.
I considered saying, “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m not interested,” but I didn’t feel bold enough. I just tried to tune it out, even though he kept going. He described my body. Loudly. I was just his type. He liked my mouth and my hair and my shoes. He liked my dress.
It’s a good three minutes between the stop before mine and my stop, and it was during that time that he decided he was tired of waiting for me to come sit on his lap, like he’d been yelling at me to do. He turned to the guy next to him and said “I’m going to go sit with her.” He stood up, and unsteadily ran towards me, saying, “Hey, I’m going to come touch you all over! I want to touch you!” Looking back, “I want to touch you all over” is hilarious. What a line.
Suddenly, the people who had been trying to tune him out jumped up and pushed him down. He was yelling, “I just want to talk to her! I just want to sit next to her!” and he fought back against them. Luckily he was a smallish guy and the three dudes holding him down looked like they could have been professional bodyguards.
They held him down until the train stopped and then one of the bodyguard types sort of walked with me to the train door. I was so angry I think I could have punched the guy myself.
I was angry because I misread the situation and didn’t think he would try to assault me. I was angry because I was humiliated. I was angry that I thought I could just tune it out and let it go on for 20 minutes and for thinking that this is just what happens. And most of all, I was furious that words have such power. He didn’t even touch me. All of those feelings came pouring out of me in hyperventilating, livid sobs as I got myself upstairs. I tried to tell my boyfriend what had happened but was too angry and scared. So I just sat, saying nothing.
After the anger subsided, I started to feel thankful. That man was on his way to violate me and people stepped in. They held him down. These strangers put their bodies in between me and the man screaming at me, the man on his way to touch me “all over.” I may believe that people will always stop to help, but we know that’s not always the case. We know that for most people, it’s easier to be an unaffected bystander instead of helping. But these men stood up and protected me. Just maybe, the world is mostly good. Even to a sour soul negative Nancy like me.
I didn’t say thank you when I ran off the train. And I don’t know what happened after I left. I just know that I am so grateful those men stepped in before things escalated. Sometimes strangers get it right.
Photo: 30 Rock