Several times a month while walking down the street in Paris, men would call out or walk alongside me to tell me how pretty I was, men who wanted me to get coffee with them or to strike up a conversation, or who asked for my phone number. In one circumstance, I was late for work and almost running to get to the metro station when a man partially blocked my way and asked me where I was going and whether I wanted to go anywhere with him. I was furious that although I was so clearly not in the mood to stop for a chat, apparently this act of calling attention to myself in public made this man feel like it was appropriate to approach me. And I resented the arrogance of privilege that made him think that his desire to talk to me was more important than my need to get where I was going. After each time it happened – and I had never been stopped on the street like that before Paris, when I lived in a smaller town in Virginia – I felt shaken, my personal space violated.
The people who stopped me (other than to ask for directions) were all male and mostly young. What struck me the most is that they always seemed to intend to project friendliness (although the effect was the opposite), and all seemed convinced that I might be receptive to their advances, although I gave absolutely no signal that I might want to talk. Every man who approached me also seemed to be a migrant from North or Subsaharan Africa, and I’ve since thought that perhaps cultural differences in signals of women’s availability or in where it’s acceptable to strike up conversation could account for some of it, rather than malicious intent.
But it’s important for me to say that, no matter what their motives might have been, what matters is the effect they had on me. I always felt angry, disrespected, like some of my agency had been taken away. I was offended by the implication that I would agree to do anything with a guy who so clearly just wanted my body, who didn’t know anything about my personality or interests. I began to feel a little less secure when walking in public. I was never really afraid of violence during the daytime, but being forced to interact with someone just because I happened to be in public, being forced either to break social conventions by being rude or to give someone access to myself that I definitely didn’t want him to have, made me feel trapped and furious.
Location: Paris, France