*Trigger warning: discussions of street harassment and sexual assault.*
A former friend of mine once got on my bus while being chased by a volatile and unstable man. She was short and petite. He was big and tall. He yelled inarticulately. She was from a Stanford-educated, socially conscious and privileged background. She was completely unprepared for how to react.
They don't teach you street smarts at Ivy League colleges.
She was waiting for a bus at a stop different than that of my route. There were other people around. This guy came up and started leering, shouting inches from her face and blubbering in tongues.
Most homeless people have friends. This guy doesn't have any. Because he's really, really really far gone. It doesn't matter who you are; you don't want to hang around this guy. When I see him about, he's always alone. He needed help a long time ago.
She ran away from the bus stop, missing her last bus home for the night. The ugliest part of this story is that there were plenty of other people waiting at that stop. They did nothing. She ran away and he ran after her. By incredible coincidence, my bus appeared and she ran onto it. I tried to close the doors quickly so he couldn't come running in after her. But I couldn't, because somebody at Metro decided the doors on all the new buses should close extra slowly. Once the bus doors are opened, they're programmed to stay open for two seconds before they close. A "safety" feature.
Because of that, he bounded easily in, right after her, and hounded her at the top of his lungs. He was American, but I couldn't understand a word. It was brain-swaddled jibberish. Was it hateful? Was it sexual? I'm actually not sure. But it was terrifying.
I asked her if this man was bothering her. I needed her to confirm this verbally before intervening, because as a civil servant I represented Metro and I'm not supposed to be making assumptions about people based on appearance. She happened to be white, and he happened to be black. She didn't pick up on the importance of the question for some time and squeaked repeatedly that she was okay. We finally reached an understanding and I did what I could, which was call for police and ask him to leave, which he did, slowly, before police could arrive.
A 2018 study finds that 81 percent of women have experienced street harassment, and a 2015 report shows that nearly every woman has taken steps to avoid it, from choosing alternate modes of transport to changing jobs. Let's not even get started with rape. In the United States alone, there are 87,000 rapes a year.* That's a crime with lifelong trauma for every victim, occurring at a frequency to be measured not in months, days, or even minutes, but seconds. For sanity's sake I won't mention the astronomically, several-orders-of-magnitude more dire statistics for India or South Africa, two of the worst places to be a woman, ever. Compared to much of the rest of the world, we've got it good. But we've still got those 87,000 rapes. You know and I know almost every one of those cases is that of a man against a woman.
There is the leading cause of death for pregnant women being murder by their male spouse. There are the statistics for Native American women (one in three get raped; nearly all incidents occurring on reservations are by non-Native men, who choose that venue so they can have legal immunity). I don't need to go further. You get the picture.
Shall we pretend these are isolated incidents? Shall we pretend violence isn't gendered?
Most men are good. Kindness exists across the spectrum. It isn't that most men are violent. It's that most violence is male. Guns are available to everyone, and yet 93 percent of murders are committed by... Well, you know the rest of that sentence. The continuum of online intimidation, workplace belittling, street harassment, domestic violence, assault, rape and murder... Let's at least admit there's a trend here, as regards which gender identification does all of those, almost all the time, to which other gender.
We can start there.
Let's acknowledge that street harassment, which is what I'm focusing on because this is a bus blog, is a bad thing, a form of control and violation of personhood, and should be addressed.
There are a lot of suggestions out there for what women should do to avoid getting harassed. Wear demure clothing. Avoid eye contact. Take a different route home. Avoid going out.
There’s a problem with these well-meaning but ridiculous suggestions. You know where I'm going with this. Each assumes that the male impulse to destroy women is unchangeable. They take as a basic constant that men are evil, and here's how to deal with that.
I see things a little differently. I think it makes more sense to get men to stop assaulting than to teach women how to hide. How to censure and limit the quality of their lives.
The root of this problem isn't female. It's male. And problems are best solved at the root. I'm not writing this for my female readership. You ladies already know. This is old news to you. No, I'm writing to you, friend, you who are male and who, like many men, are not violent, respect women, and know that violation of personhood and the willful control of another is a bad thing. You're one of the good guys, and strangely, good men are hard to find. Because too often they stay in the shadows. When something's going down, something like the above, ugly and wrong, on your bus, at your job, outside the bar, on the train platform...
Men respect the opinions of other men. You have an unfair advantage women sadly don't get enough of. Use it. By involving yourself you also make him a minority in the equation; you've just turned it into two against one. You'll say, how you guys doing tonight. Is this guy bothering you? At this point, she won't answer, but he will. He'll tell you to mind your own business. You'll say, let's see what she thinks, and you'll ask her if she wants to be alone right now. Maybe she'll say yes. You'll say, see, it's nothing personal. She just wants to be alone. That’s one way to do it. But subtler can be even more effective: often you don’t have to say anything. Just offer your presence. Or be indirect. Ask him for directions. The time. Trust your gut. Research how to take a stand in ways that work for you (links below).
And with just that, you'll have started a trend. Everyone around you will have seen what you just did. They may even have joined in to help. Or they'll be inspired to follow your lead in the future. Or they'll think, wow.
Am I trying to say that women can't solve this problem on their own? Of course not. I’m saying maybe we can all play a role. Harassment and worse of women is a problem for everyone. It concerns me, because I live in this society and I want the best for all its people. Second, if we say only women can solve this, we're right back at square one, reinforcing the notion that men aren't the problem. They can help themselves. They can be raised better, educated in a different light, taught to be in touch with their emotions, encouraged to respect women as equals. They can possibly be capable of growth or empathy. They're not just wild, apathetic monsters, and we don't have to tiptoe around them to figure this out.
I believe that in the rape, abuse or harassment of a woman by a man, the problem is the man. And you solve problems by getting at the root. By giving women a voice, and letting the men and women who get it go to work. Education is the unsexy solution with the longest-term benefits here, and intervention is one way we can continue to emphasize what used to be commonplace: the notion that we should behave as a community, looking out for each other.
I write these words because of the times I’ve intervened and it worked, but more potently because of the times I wanted to and failed, because I was scared, unprepared, and ashamed that I lacked the resolve to do something. I’d like to get better.
Let’s do this together.
Further ideas for dealing with harassment from stopstreetharassment.org.
More detailed suggestions for bystanders and associated research, some of which I’ve appropriated for the post.
Suggestions for assertive responses when being harassed.
*The rape statistics stem from Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 essay collection, Men Explain Things to Me.