This piece was adapted by the author from a post originally written for MMCCLL.
I would like to take public transportation more. I’m lucky to have a car, but for cost, environmental, and parking reasons (mostly parking reasons), I try to bike or take the bus whenever I can. My most frequent route is to take the 18 up Nicollet to the Downtown Y, and I bike all over south Minneapolis. However, the biggest barrier that stops me from trudging out to the bus stop is how much emotional preparation that the bus—even just being out on the street—requires.
I’m not talking about the very real fear/threat of assault that women experience–that’s a whole other article. I’m talking about the daily wear of avoiding and enduring catcalls, heckles, interruptions, and questions, all unsolicited.
Examples of unsolicited “approaches” I have experienced on my commute:
- “Excuse me, what ARE you?” (in reference to my Asian phenotype)
- “Hey, so what book are you reading? Is it good? What’s it about?”
- “Where you going? Can I come with you?”
- “HEY! What’s your name? I said WHAT’S YOUR NAME?!”
And that’s not counting the whistles, jeers, or even just stares across the aisle. As a woman I often feel like I don’t know how to respond to Approachers, especially ones that aren’t outright rude in of themselves. I’m not angry at them for individually coming up and asking me how I’m doing, I’m mad at a culture that makes most people feel welcome to interrupt me when I am clearly not trying to chat. So I’ve taken up the defensive:
If you ALSO have this problem and ALSO would like people to leave you the hell alone while you live your life, I’ve made a handy toolkit! Five things to always have on your side to send a clear signal to the world that you are tired/late/thinking/not trying to talk and just trying to get to the gym/the store/your house/your friend’s house.
(Just kidding none of these things work.)
Note: A couple weeks after I did this project I was walking up the alley to my apartment building at night and a drunk guy called me a “stupid f*cking c*nt” for not saying hi to him. Unfortunately, I did not have any of the toolkit items on hand.
I love your pictures. My hope is that if transit becomes more “normal”, that the accepted behaviors of people (men) will change. But if women don’t feel comfortable enough to ride the bus in the first place, that will never happen!
It’s a catch-22.
Thanks for writing this. As a male, I’ve oftentimes been annoyed by other people’s behavior on buses, but never threatened. It’s good to be reminded of what other people face, otherwise I may not even notice it (unless it’s extremely blatant). Question: What can other well-meaning bus riders do to take a stand against obviously inappropriate or harrassing behavior? Or is that not even a good idea, since it may escalate a situation? Just curious, as someone who means well but doesn’t know what to do if I observe something.
I’ve kind of wondered about this too. I’ve seen people doing exactly these kinds of things and wanted to intervene, but I wasn’t really sure if that would make matters worse or also be unwelcome.
Hey Matt! This is a really hard one because every situation is different. I can only speak for myself, but in the case of the drunk man blatantly swearing at me, a couple of men who were in a parked car behind my building popped their heads out and asked if I was ok. I told them I was fine, but I appreciated that they were checking in. Personally I wouldn’t want anyone to intervene on my behalf, especially if it wasn’t something blatantly harrassment, but I find that check ins — people making eye contact with me in a way that lets me know people are paying attention — does make me feel more supported in public.
Matt, thanks for caring about this, it’s an important question and I realize it may be scary to take action.
I think every case is different, but personally I appreciate bystanders to step up. I often find myself intervening when it happens to someone else, and I think male counterparts stepping up would be more effective not only because a man would be scarier for another man but also because it will make an impression on the harasser and everyone else around the situation. I mean, it will be educational, a sort of example.
I encourage people to get involved. Somehow in this society, helping out a girl with groceries bags or letting her get in the bus first seems more important than defending her from harassment and violence even when it’s happening right under our noses. It doesn’t make sense.
Of course it doesn’t mean you have to get into a fist fight with every harasser you come across, but I think it would be nice if you talked them down or pointed out how bad it is to do such things. “Hey man, that’s not cool” or “Don’t harass people, it’s a horrible thing to do to someone”. I usually tell them this sort of things when I’m calmed and not combusting in anger and hate, but coming from a man might be even more effective.
Just checking in is great. Also, one time when men were yelling some really gross things at me when I was walking through a square, I yelled back and let them know it wasn’t ok. Then I was a “bitch” and their commentary got worse. Another man standing there simply (and loudly) said to them, “hey! Leave her alone!” It was one of the few times a good man has spoken up against bad male behavior. Most just ignore it, probably in part because they aren’t sure what to do.
Thanks for asking!
This is a good question. Personally, I like it when people speak up or otherwise demonstrate obvious disgust, because it creates a social environment in which the harasser is the person who has to feel awkward and diminished, whereas the status quo is that the victim is the one who has to both absorb the insults/intimidation *and* sit there feeling socially awkward while others look on. And it may only take one person saying something for others to feel comfortable doing so.
I think the perception that others are paying attention can also help prevent uglier situations (like a woman getting followed from the transit stop and attacked). I saw bystanders shut down particularly threatening harassment several times on buses in Seattle. I did so once myself when no one else was stepping in and I thought a woman was in imminent danger. I’m painfully shy and not intimidating in the slightest, and it was scary, but I really believed he was going to follow her off the bus and hurt her if nobody intervened.
The tougher situations to assist with are the little everyday things that don’t seem like a big deal, but which are exhausting when added up. For instance, I can’t read a book in public without getting interrupted. Sometimes it’s an interrogation; sometimes it’s an unsolicited rant or monologue on what I’m reading; once a guy even interrupted me to offer to help me read my book, because it “looked too hard for a woman.”
Signs that this is what’s going on: I’m repeatedly trying to look back at my book or put my headphones back in, but keep getting interrupted; my responses are monosyllabic and unenthusiastic; I’m looking around for another seat; I’m saying something like, “I’m trying to read.”
In those cases it has helped when an observant man nearby entered the monologue and interrupted the interrupter. This is particularly effective when the interrupter was just talking at me because I’m a conveniently-located woman, and not because he actually wanted a conversation on whatever he was talking about. The awkwardness of having a man enter what was never intended to be a two-way interaction at least distracts him from me long enough that I can more easily move or get my headphones out, and sometimes shuts him up entirely.
I’ve perfected what I call the, ‘vulture look’ (read: scowl on steroids) for situations you describe (probably wouldn’t work on the drunk guy) though lately I use it so much it seems to be my normal countenance. It communicates non-verbally that in no uncertain terms all communication is off-limits. I used to think it was partly effective because I a not particularly handsome male till I saw my daughter employing it to good effect.
Oh yes. I am more than happy to use this technique as it gets me out of most anything. Once a man replied to it with: “Mean mug and a shoulder shrug.”
You make good art for a good cause!
I’m not a confrontational person, but I often wonder how to intervene as a bystander of street harassment: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/male-allies/bystander-tips/
“I’ve found that distractions and indirect interventions help best. Asking for directions, asking for the time, or other innocuous questions can often be enough of a distraction for a harasser to go away and move on, without causing a big scene or putting anyone in physical danger.”
Punk ass bus drivers here certainly won’t help anyone or stop anyone, that’s for sure.
This begs the question: does the Twin Cities have any anti-street-harrassment advocacy program similar to this? (from DC)
I have found that carrying a discreet taser works wonders. If anyone approaches me I push the trigger and it emits that lovely cracking sound and it puts all Approachers at bay.
My daughters, high school and college age, will occasionally talk about their experiences on the 5 in south Minneapolis. I am simultaneously mortified by their experiences and damn proud of their strength in dealing with harassment. They will laugh it off as “that’s life in the city.” That’s fine for coping, but why should anyone have to live with this behavior? I take transit a lot and I never have to deal with this crap.
How different is this elsewhere? East coast? West? Europe? Asia?
I live in the central part of the US, we don’t have a lot of mass public transportation in the smaller town where I live, but street harassment is just as common and degrading here and everywhere I have been. It happens anywhere and everywhere…at the grocery store, at the park with my children, standing in line waiting to cash a check, shopping with friends. I think it is a fairly universal problem for women, men (not all men, but a large amount, and soviety in general) feel like women should feel complimented by unwanted attention.
*society, not soviety
it’s worse in some places, better in others. My friends in California use the same basic toolkit (plus knitting needles, which I see people using here too!) and report similar responses.
A surprising number of women who wouldn’t give “harassment” as the primary reason they stopped taking transit, if you start asking about it, it’s a significant reason – too much general wear and tear makes the opportunity of switching to a car much more enticing when it comes up.
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