My Existence is Not Your Invitation: A Few Words to the Men Who Harass Me on the Street

This afternoon while walking with a friend in the Chinatown area of DC, a man walked up to us, unasked, and uninvited.

“Well look at these two beautiful ladies,” he said. “You are a gift from God.”

I tried to grab on to my friend, but he was too close, stepping into the space between us for a moment until we gathered again in front of him. She glared at him and he just kept walking beside us. Just get into the restaurant, I thought. He’ll leave us alone then. Don’t look at him don’t acknowledge him what if he has a knife what if he grabs one of us what if what if what if. Just get inside.

Her thought process was the same.

Except he didn’t leave us alone. He followed us in.

We gathered in line, watching as he stood around the door, asking for money. After a tense few minutes he left, but we didn’t do the same until we saw him cross the street. And once we exited we had to walk several blocks around to make sure he didn’t spot us. Needless to say, I felt uneasy for the rest of the night.

Yesterday, a man touched me on the arm asking for Metro money. I don’t object being asked for Metro money, I’ve given it to people before, but I do object to being touched by a strange man when I know he’d never do that to another man.

Monday morning sometime around 7:30, I was catcalled by a man on a bicycle as I walked the short distance to the bus stop by my apartment.

“Beautiful lady!” he called as he rode past, mere inches from me.

I looked up out of reflex, making eye contact and feeling instantly uncomfortable. His expectant smile said “I complimented you, you should respond.” I didn’t, because I don’t owe a strange man calling to me on the street a damn thing. It was early, it was Monday, and after a fun but tiring weekend, I was grumpy. My make-up was half done, my hair was still damp, and my wardrobe choices could have gone better. It was chilly. I scarcely felt like talking or accepting compliments from people I like, let alone strangers riding past me. I had my headphones in and my morning have-not-yet-had-coffee-face on. I was not open for business or commentary.

Two weeks ago I was out by the pizza food truck by my office on a Monday. I got that creepy, spine-tingling feeling that I was being stared at, and when I looked up, I was. Next to the food truck waiting on his pizza was a middle-aged office-worker who looked as if he hadn’t showered in several days staring at me without even trying to mask it. He continued to do so until I left with my slices in hand.

A few days previously, another middle-aged man winked at me on the train.

Two months ago I was standing in the entrance to a metro station awaiting my friend. It was daylight, and not usually a time of day when I pay attention to every last person near me on the metro like I would late at night. It was rush hour and I was standing by the station manager’s kiosk with people streaming past, my headphones in and reading a book. Then, suddenly a hand that was most certainly not my friend’s was reaching toward my arm. I jumped back, one headphone falling out and the pages of my book flipping haphazardly.

“Woah,” the man said, raising his hands, condescension dripping from his grin. “No need to freak out.”

I started to mutter something like “sorry” and overrode it, because why should I apologize to him? Yet that was my first instinct. It would be a lot of women’s first instinct. Apologize for making this strange man who touched you in public uncomfortable, society says. I backed away and eventually he left. But I stood on red alert for the next five minutes until my friend arrived, standing close to the wall and making myself smaller, headphones still in but my gaze alert, my book put away in my bag.

Last year I was out with a friend who was in visiting me from London. We’d gotten frozen yogurt and were going up an escalator out of a well-traveled mall. Behind us, a consultant type who looked like he’d never outgrown his fraternity years made slurping noises at us as we ate our yogurt. Once off the escalator he followed us for a while. I grabbed my friend’s wrist, planning to duck into the Best Buy and call the police if needed. To hide until he was gone. Finally, he left. But I looked behind us every few seconds on the ten minute walk home at twilight.

Two years ago on my bus ride home, again in broad daylight, an old man patted the seat next to him while staring at me. Silently, I made contingency plans. What do I do if he follows me off the bus? Call 911? Hit him? Do I get off earlier and go into a public place? Luckily he got off before me, but it took several minutes before my heart stopped racing.

I’ve learned that being a woman is an automatic guarantee I won’t be left alone in public. It doesn’t matter if I arm myself with headphones, a glare, and a book, my space and my body are fair game, It’s a compliment, I hear.  A former male friend once asked me why I didn’t see it as such. I’ve been catcalled when I’m dressed up, when I’m in sweats, when I’m a mess or looking awesome. Back when my hair was brown and now that it’s blonde. I’ve been honked and whistled at, I’ve had cars slow down and make me fear for my physical safety, I’ve heard a slew of “compliments” from “hey sexy” to “nice legs” and any number of other things. They’re not catcalling me because they’re interested in me as a person or even because they think I myself am attractive. They’re catcalling me because I’m a woman and I’m there. Because I am public property and I am supposed to be grateful for that. If you’re so offended, people say, then why don’t you respond instead of just walking away and ignoring them?

Because, I say. God only knows what will happen if I do. Women are raped and mugged and murdered every day. How on earth could I risk my safety to respond to these men when I know that if I do and I am hurt, the papers will only say that I asked for it and those men might very well walk free?

And no, this doesn’t just happen in big cities. It happens everywhere. To every woman I’ve ever met.

So, men who catcall and stare and wink and invade my space, have you ever considered the idea that maybe you are not God’s gift to women? Have you considered that hey, maybe I’m asexual? That maybe I’m a lesbian? That maybe, and bear with me here, that I’m bisexual or straight and simply not interested in you?

I’ve heard arguments that I should be open on public transit because what if I meet my soulmate? But have you ever thought that maybe I’m not looking for a soulmate on my way to and from work or meeting friends? That maybe I’d like to read my book on 19th century French politics in peace? That I’d like to listen to my musical theater soundtracks without interruption? Or perhaps I’m not looking for a romantic soulmate at all? That’s not what you care about, anyway, you just want me to be open to your advances anytime and anywhere so you can have what you want when you want it. You assume that I’m interested in dating, and even if I was, why would you think a crowded, jerky train early in the morning or after a long day makes for a good dating atmosphere? When I’m commuting I’m going somewhere. I’m reading or listening to music or thinking about coffee or dinner or something I’m writing. I don’t care about flirting with you.

But you don’t mind when women compliment your shoes or your clothes or your hair, men whine.

No, you’re damn right I don’t. Because those women are complimenting something specific I’m wearing that they like, not offering some nebulous, unspecific commentary on my physical appearance meant to be responded to with gratitude. Those women aren’t going to touch me or follow me or attack me. I do not have to fear them.

I do have to fear you. Even if you’re the nicest man on the planet, I have no way of knowing it because how on earth can I tell you apart from the bad ones when men of all types have treated me this way? Instead of policing women, you should be policing your own. You don’t want women to jump or glare when you come near them on public transit or in public spaces? Tell your fellow men to shape up, because believe me, I’d much rather not walk around looking at every man like they might be the next creepy asshole who follows me into a restaurant.

And I don’t care if you spot me in a crowd because my hair is blonde and my trench-coat is red. So you notice me. So what? It isn’t an excuse to stare or wink, and even less of one to touch or follow me. I didn’t dye my hair blonde to fit society’s view of what constitutes beauty, I did it because I wanted to. Because it felt like me. I don’t wear red lipstick to make you look at me. I wear it because I like it and me makes me feel confident. My hair is not for you. My lipstick is not for you. My clothes are not for you. Fuck off, and stop thinking I exist at your pleasure. I will not fade into the background and wear pale colors so you don’t see me in the crowd. That’s not who I am. I won’t change. I will continue “asking for it.” I’m not the one who should change. You are.

My existence is not your invitation.

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