I was just sitting there in the library café, minding my own business, when a man approached me.
“Hi,” he said. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks,” I responded, turning back to my laptop to show I had no interest in further conversation.
“What’s your name?” he asked. “I’m married,” I responded, naively thinking that would do the trick.
“Oh, I saw your ring… I, too, am married and it doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you…”
My initial irritation had turned in to humiliation and anger. I looked at him with despite as he left my table. Not only were his words extremely disrespectful, but the event also brought back memories from previous incidents when random men decided to walk all over my personal boundaries.
I know there are worse things than involuntary attention from strangers, and yes this is sadly a common experience for girls and women alike. Compared to those who suffered serious assaults and abuse, my personal experiences have been mild, but still filled by situations were men have passed my personal boundaries, leaving me with a feeling of unease or fear. My girlfriends and I have had this discussion many times and we all seem to share the same experience. Oftentimes it starts out as a seemingly friendly conversation that gradually turns abusive or insulting: on occasions even physical—a hand grabbing as you walk down the street.
When it happened to me (twice), I responded by screaming. I’m a loud screamer and I screamed like mad; unbothered by the looks from passersby (as no one ever saw the deed in action and probably just assumed I was crazy). This tactic worked, the men left me alone—with a bitter aftertaste of reservation towards strangers.
This reservation was not because I think all men are semi-perverts or potential rapists, but because I’ve been scared that it was me encouraging something involuntarily.
Like that one day I was unloading groceries off my bike outside my house, a man I saw earlier that day drove up to the porch, stepped out of his car and said, “I saw you in the supermarket before and I drove here to say that I think you are very, very pretty.” That time I just turned and hurried inside to look the door. What had he expected? That I would be flattered, happy or even invite him in?
Did he reflect over the fact that following someone for two miles to give them a compliment (my house was remotely located) is far from normal, and that by doing so you would do nothing but intimidate them?
It’s been a long time since someone left me with such a feeling of unease—until today.
Back in the library café: the man decides to take another shot. I focus on my writing as he stands up and walks over. He hands me his card, (which I ignore) asking me random personal questions. When I fail to respond, he begins to tell me about himself.
By now, I had lost my patience; but, instead of a scream I fired of a smile and said, “Whatever it is your offering, I’m sure it’s excellent, but I’m not interested. Honestly, you kind of scare me, so just go. Thank you.“
My voice was firm and clear to not show off too much emotion. He looks around, turns and makes a joke, half to himself, half to our spectators, as he takes his belongings and leaves.
As I was talking to a (male) friend on the chat, I told him what had just happened. “Take it as a compliment,” he responded. “Get over it; he left, so don’t make this a thing.” Once again, that feeling of humiliation—but this time it had nothing to do with the guy, or the inconsideration of my friend; this time, it was me and the fact that his comment made me revaluate my view of the situation.
Was I overreacting, really?
Then one of the cafe visitors came up to me, saying, “you should be proud, what you did made me proud,” smiling, as she walked away.
These little words of encouragement were enough to erase all doubts. She was right—I stood my ground and I should be proud for not letting him get away with his behavior.
Let’s face it, we live in a culture where a woman over 30 should consider herself “lucky” to get attention from a man, where “ugly” girls can’t be raped (we know she wanted it); in a culture like ours, there will always be someone who thinks you’re overreacting—no matter what.
Personally, I have become more sensitive with age. Things I found bearable before, I now consider violent and humiliating, and I firmly believe we should stand our ground and be proud of ourselves for speaking up to those who fail to respect our limits—no matter how “small” the violation might be.
There is no blame to take.
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Ed: Sara Crolick