As a woman, I know that there is always risk in politely talking to a male stranger in public, particularly if he initiates the conversation. No matter how benign or polite the topic of conversation is at first, there is always a risk that he will not know when to stop talking and will end up continuing to talk to you, follow you, try to get personal information from you, and maybe do worse, until you have no choice but to be rude to get him to stop.
This has happened to me many times, most recently this past Friday evening during my commute from work in Washington, DC to my home in Virginia.
Around 5:15 p.m., I boarded on an orange line metro car. I sat down next to a man who had his eyes closed. I read a book. We stayed like this for about 18 minutes. Then about two minutes before my stop the man sitting next to me started fidgeting. As I was blocking his way out due to the way the seats are arranged, he turned to me and said, “When you get to the bottom of the page can you please get up, it’s my stop next.”
I said, “Don’t worry, it’s my stop too, so I’ll be getting up anyway.”
“Oh okay,” he said, “then go ahead and read some more since we’ll get up at the same time.” (He mumbled when he said it the first time so I had to ask him to repeat himself)
I put my book away though because we were almost there and he informed me again that it was okay for me to finish reading that page [as if I needed his permission…].
I said, “It’s okay I can’t concentrate anymore.” He said, “Yeah, I know how that is.”
We arrived at the stop and I got up and then smiled and nodded at him when I left to acknowledge that we had had a human interaction as usually no one talks to each other during rush hour on my metro line. He mumbled something as he stood up but all I caught was, “you are beautiful.”
I nodded again, feeling awkward, and left the metro car. On the escalator to leave the metro platform, he stood on the right side and I passed him on the left side, and as I passed (the escalator was filled with people, none of whom are speaking) he said to me, “I should have gone on that side.” I nodded, to acknowledge him, and kept walking up.
He caught up to me soon after the escalator and after we went through the metro card reader area, he walked beside me and again mumbled and again all I caught was something about how beautiful I am. At that point I became annoyed and worried that he was going to keep following me so I didn’t acknowledge him and hurried down the next set of escalators to my bus stop. Fortunately he went to a different bus stop and that was the end of that.
So in a matter of minutes the interaction went from an interaction I would consider acceptable (aside from him feeling the need to grant me permission to read my book) and polite to him making me feel objectified and uncomfortable. Just because I was polite and smiled at him, apparently he felt that was an invitation to follow me and comment on my appearance, not once, but twice. In the end, I had to be rude and stop acknowledging him before he would leave me alone.
It reminds me of the following quote by Sue Wise & Liz Stanley, authors of Georgie Porgie: Sexual Harassment in Everyday Life:
“Most sexual harassment involves men who think that they have the automatic right to demand the time and attention from women, and will invoke that right whenever they choose. And any woman is fair game by virtue of being a woman…most sexual harassment comes in shades of grey and beige; and more often than not it’s entirely ambiguous behavior that could be sexual harassment, but could equally well be seen differently” (115).
Have you had a similar experience? How did you respond?
Location: Falls Church, VA