Last spring my four-year-old son and I were taking the subway home after a lovely morning in the city. As we waited for the subway, a man approached and asked me for the time. It was only later, thinking back on the situation, that I was aware of the observations and judgments I started making automatically, not because I could foresee a problem with this specific man but because as a woman I’ve been trained to think of public spaces as hostile territory. From the second he moved in our direction, before he had done anything particularly odd, I was on high alert. Where was he looking? How fast was he moving? Could I see both his hands? Was he trying to talk to my son? After I’d given him the time, how far away did he move, and how fast?
He moved far enough away that he appeared to be about to board a different car when the train arrived. I kept my eye on him and I can’t say why I did, at first. I don’t know if there was something about the way he was standing, or if he was looking at me out of the corner of his eye, or if he was simply a man who had made contact and that was enough for me to consider him a threat.
At the last minute, he ducked into our car and sat several rows behind me and my son. In various reflections, I could see him staring at the back of my head. This is the point at which I started making plans – identifying other people on the train who could help me if it came to that, considering when I should get off the train, and what I would do if he followed me. My normal stop is near the end of the line and I hoped he would get off first.
At the next stop, though, as people exited and boarded, he got up and moved through the half-empty car to the seat directly in front of me. He sat sideways, his face maybe eighteen inches in front my own, and stared straight out the window across from me. I tried to stare him down, but he refused to make eye contract; each time I turned my own head, to check our location, or to reassure my son (who was beginning to pick up on my distress), the man would turn *his* head and stare at me. Then he would turn again to look out the window when I turned my face back.
Now I was really starting to become afraid. I think most women have mental boundaries by which we categorize street harassment, and this guy was crossing lines like crazy. Initiated unnecessary contact, check. Kept giving unwanted attention, check. Now he was violating my personal space, and the worst part (oddly) was that he wasn’t engaging. I’ve blown off my share of persistent assholes who keep trying to have a conversation I’m clearly not interested in having. This guy was escalating with no clear end in sight – he was obviously *waiting* for something, an opportunity to take some action involving me and/or my son that he wasn’t willing to do around other people in an enclosed space.
As each stop approached, the man would place his hand on the backrest and tense up, watching me out of the corner his eye, clearly preparing to follow us whenever we exited the train. Several stops before our own, I waited until the last moment, then grabbed my son and got off the train as quickly as I could. It wasn’t fast enough; the man jumped up and followed, close enough that when I wheeled and ducked into a covered bench area (with a few other people already inside), he sideswiped me. He paused for a second, as if trying to decide whether to stop or not, then kept moving. He locked his eyes with mine and stared me down as long as he could maintain eye contact.
The next fifteen minutes, waiting for the next train to arrive, where horrible. I kept checking the entire platform; I was the last to board the train so that I could be as sure as possible he hadn’t come back; when we arrived at our stop, I waited on the platform as the entire train emptied. I checked over my shoulder a hundred times on the way to the parking lot.
Writing this down still makes me shake. And why? Nothing happened. A creepy guy sat too close on the subway, big deal. The entire episode lasted less than forty minutes. It’s easy to wonder afterwards if you’re being “hysterical” or “over-sensitive”, particularly because street harassment is so often characterized as benign or just the price you pay for daring to exist in public.But I can safely I’ve never been that frightened before, and I’ve lived in big cities, and dealt with street harassment, my entire adult life. Having my son with me obviously increased my fear a hundredfold, both because I was afraid for him, and because of what it meant that the man was crossing all those boundaries with no regard for a child being involved.
Hearing the story later, my husband was sympathetic but couldn’t really understand why I was so freaked out. The women with whom I shared the story, though, reacted with total outrage. They got it. The threat doesn’t need to be overt to be real. And that’s the real cost of street harassment: women having to make a conscious threat analysis every time they leave the house, and avoiding the situations that just aren’t worth the risk of harassment or worse. It makes me sick.
Location: Baltimore, MD