I’m sitting in a small cafe in a small, safe Pennsylvania town. I’m writing a friend a very long email while also working on writing a blog post. An older man, probably in his 60s, comes into the coffee shop. It’s rather busy, but not very. He stands right next to my chair and in the main walking area, inches away from me. He keeps looking at me, looking down my shirt from behind me, but stares down at his phone whenever I glare at him. I cough. I move my chair across the floor very loudly. I get up, push my chair into his space, excuse myself, pull out a book from my backpack. My email conversation with a friend is, ironically, about casual, low-level sexual harassment and how differently men treat us when we’re on our own versus with a male companion. He’s right over my shoulder, and I’m so deliberately trying to keep my computer to myself. Finally, I take my headphones off.
‘Pardon me, but would you mind giving me a little more space? It makes my uncomfortable when someone’s right over my shoulder when I’m writing.’
‘Oh.’ That’s his response. He shifts a few inches. ‘Is that enough?’
‘I’m sorry, but I really don’t like people reading over my shoulder. Would you mind giving me a little more space?’
‘I’m not reading over your shoulder; there’s no need to overreact.’
‘I’m sorry, but you’re too close and it makes me uncomfortable.’
‘Are you nervous?’ He looks me in the eyes, and I feel my eyes harden into ice as I stare back.
‘No, you don’t make me nervous. I just appreciate my own space,’ I say. I set my jaw. I breathe deeply and sit up straight. I refuse to curl in on myself, I stick out my stomach, I stretch a muscled arm across the table—a kind of barrier. He gives me a disgusted look and moves away, muttering something to another man in the room.
This is a ‘mild’ interaction, not half of what either my friends or I have experienced even in the past month, the past week. It’s nothing, but it’s also everything that’s wrong, and it makes me angry.
It makes me angry that when I’m with my boyfriend—a tall, obviously strong man—I’m sheltered from most unsolicited advances, but when I’m on my own my space is invaded and people shout rudely across parking lots in broad daylight. It’s a slow, steady trickle of a not-so-subtle message: you, as a young woman, are a sexual object, either taken/protected or available, before you are anything else.
It makes me so fucking angry. This is
why women are raped why men rape women. If one supposes a woman is only worth talking to when presumably sexually available (which is determined only by whether or not she’s accompanied by another man), if one supposes that her space is not a right by a privilege a man grants her: this is why women are hurt. This is why men rape women.
I will not offer a disclaimer. I will not say ‘but not all men,’ because it’s silly to suppose I’m accusing all men of being rapists. That would be statistically ridiculous; clearly I’m talking about something far more nuanced. I’m talking about addressing the assumptions that insidiously render women and girls vulnerable and trespasses on their rights unseen.
Passing such unacceptable behaviour off as ‘human nature’ and saying ‘that’s the monsters’ is inherently inconsistent. It’s like saying cancer is ‘just life,’ but also so rare as to not be a problem that warrants meaningful attention. We can build a better logic than that.
Everything humans do is somehow within human nature, of course. ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’ It’s a scanty description of the problem, nothing more, and it’s morally evasive, a refusal of responsibility. I’m asking for a solution. I’m asking for responsibility. I’m saying this is wrong, and we all know it. I’m saying that acceptable attitudes and assumptions are culturally specific, and that we can change what we assume, what we say, how we act.
My father once told me about a trip to Japan he took in the late 80s. He stayed with a family there and was one day shocked that the father, a kind leader in the community, let his twelve-year-old daughter walk the city streets alone at midnight. ‘Nothing will happen to her,’ he said. ‘People aren’t permitted to look at girls that way here and she wants to see her friends.’ A generation and a good saturation of American media later, that is no longer the case.
And so I’m calling on myself to be more vocal. I’m calling on myself to actively resist the media that renders women objects. I’m calling on good men to engage other humans, women included, in earnest and respectful conversation. I’m calling on people to leave others alone if they so desire. I’m saying that politeness is not my primary or even secondary responsibility: my rights and the rights of the daughters so I so dearly wish to have are far more my responsibility than the fragile emotional comfort an invasive male.
Asking for respect, for a little space, is not being nervous or emotional. It’s being a goddamn human being, and I won’t settle for anything less.
Guest contribution by Emily.
Hello! I’m Emily, and I write over at [circumspectacles]. I try my best to split my overabundant energy supply between writing, climbing, anthropology, and gardening, but most importantly I hope to share joy with good people. I want to witness as much of the magic as I can in this world and speak out against what I feel is harmful, for everyone is worthy of both being and hearing a good story.