I took the Amtrak home to Wisconsin for the week of Christmas. It included a layover in Chicago both ways, so I was happy to be able to meet two of my friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Well, technically I saw them when I was on my way to PA in July, but a layover’s just a few hours and before that it had been 2 and 7 years since I had seen them.
On the way back I was only able to meet one of them, and we had a good two-hour long conversation about a variety of things. During our talk I had such a sudden realization about how normal I myself thought harassment was, that I shocked myself.
I think I was talking about how the area I work in is kind of dangerous, when I told her that just the other day I got called a ‘ho’ by someone driving past while I was walking to work around 8 a.m. She seemed so completely taken aback that I was called that simply for walking down the street, that I was put off guard.
“Wait wait wait,” she interrupted me as I was laughing it off. “You were called a ho just for walking across the street?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Doesn’t that happen to you? Or really, every girl? It doesn’t matter if I’m in Wisconsin, Japan, or Pennsylvania.” After that I paused.
That’s what I think? That’s how normal it is to me?
And the fact of the matter is, every time it happens, it does burn, even a little bit. The time I had told her about I felt relatively safe since they were just driving by and it was 8 a.m., I wasn’t really worried. But as I got closer to work my cheeks got a little redder and I was more and more bothered by what happened. I let the work carry my thoughts away, and I did my best not to think about it.
So I thought I’d talk about some of the instances I remember that make me burn a little bit, make me feel unsafe, and breathe a little faster and walk a little quicker if there is a male or males in my path or behind me. I’ve already talked about some of the things that happened to me in Japan, so I’ll focus on my experiences in America.
Most recently, there’s been a few instances on my bus. Now, I was bullied in school, so it’s worth saying I get anxious when I hear laughter from a group of people that’s around me or behind me. I instantly wonder if my hat’s on wrong, if I look fat, etc. But this day, it wasn’t paranoia. As soon as I stepped onto the bus a group of 30-or-so-year-olds burst into laughter. I felt the usual frog in my throat and tried to suppress it. “It must just be coincidence, you’re paranoid,” I told myself.
But, no, one of the men spoke up and said “Hi there,” and I, not knowing what to do, simply sat down towards the front without even looking at them. I used to sit towards the middle, but more of these men have been riding lately so I’ve sat closer to the front. As soon as I sat down there was some more laughter (a little more stifled this time). Then, oh boy oh boy, I got to hear their conversation.
“Yeah, I usually go up to girls at bars and say, ‘Would you like to have my children?’ If they pause, I know I’m getting some pussy tonight. If they say no I just move onto the next girl!”
I tried to tune out, but they talked like that the whole way, I’ll spare you the rest of it.
A few days later the bus driver (who talks quite loudly) was talking with a passenger standing up front by him, we’ll call him ‘Bob.’ They were talking about how if they were going to ‘go after’ a girl, they’d ask their brother’s first, “you tap that?” and if they had they’d leave that girl alone because they didn’t want to be where their brothers had been.
Then, Bob started talking about a school trip. Again I tried blanking out as much if it as I could but they were loud. Bob told the driver about how he or someone else had ‘thumped this chick’ in the bathroom, and then he mimed the thrusting part. As if he wasn’t standing in front of a bus with people.
Now I’m not sure if it was the same guy or not because I was trying to avoid looking at him, but when I got on the bus, this guy who I think was ‘Bob’ was sitting in the back with a friend. When I sat in the front, he moved to the front away from his buddy, to the seat directly in front of me. Then he started talking to me. I gave him one word answers hoping he’d get the hint, and he did sort of give up after a few minutes. Then his buddy moved front and sat right next to me, with his back turned towards me. Just as both of them left, Bob’s friend turned and faced me.
“Sorry for sitting here,” he said, smiling.
“Oh no, it’s fine.” I replied.
“Have a good day,” he said, and then winked at me, laughed at Bob, and then got off the bus.
The next day Bob was already sitting in the front where he had the day before, and it was awkward so I just sat where I had been the past few times, the seat behind where he was sitting. Again he started a conversation and asked where I work. I told him working with refugees and immigrants. I try to be nice, but sometimes it’s really hard to tell where that line of ‘being polite’ and ‘asking for it’ is. In fact, I don’t think there is such a line. Here is a portion of our super chemistry-filled conversation.
“Refugees…they’re not from PA, right?”
“They have to come from somewhere else? There’s no refugees from PA?”
“Not resettled here, no,” I said.
“Ohhh. Giving back then, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So where you from?”
Do I just send out a beam that says NOT FROM PENNSYLVANIA? Pizza guy asked me the same thing. “Wisconsin.”
“Used to this cold then, huh?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I LOVE the Green Bay Packers. They’re my team. You must be a big fan.”
“I don’t really watch football but yeah, some of my family likes them.”
And so on. Clearly we have a lot in common. The next day I was grateful to see others had taken our ‘spots’ so I had to sit elsewhere. I sat in the middle of the bus where I used to sit. Bob and his buddy sat towards the front, and I could feel their eyes sometimes, but I had brought a book with me this time. I pulled it out and read. As Bob and his buddy made the move to get off I thought I could see them trying to make eye contact with me, but I kept reading. Then as he passed to the door (my seat was right behind it), Bob’s buddy shook a handkerchief at me to get my attention. I pretended I didn’t see it and kept reading. I kind of wish I had frowned at him because I think that was pretty rude, but I knew if I looked up the nice girl in me would take the controls and smile at them both.
That was just last week, so here’s hoping this week goes differently.
So, on to other times.
There have been a few others in Pennsylvania since I moved here. One was an ex-convict with kids who tried to give me his number at one of my events for work and kept looking me up and down when he thought I couldn’t tell. Another was a group of guys standing outside my place of work that said, “Hi,” and as soon as I said, “Hello,” back, started saying, “What’s up baby?” and so on.
There was another guy at a bus stop, with whom I had a similar conversation to the one I had with “Bob.” There have been a few instances of others yelling out of cars at me, but for the most part I couldn’t tell what they were saying. A couple times Yuuki was with me too, so they might have been racial, or just stupid college kids yelling out gibberish.
In Wisconsin, as I mentioned in the article about my experience in Japan with sexual harassment and assault, while I was walking back to my apartment at night after visiting a friend, someone yelled out their car window, “WHORE!” When I told my male roommate, he didn’t believe me. I’m still a bit shocked that he didn’t believe this sort of thing happens, when as you can tell it’s fairly prevalent in my life.
Another time in Eau Claire, as I was walking back from school at night, there weren’t any other people or other cars about, and lucky me, one car and I got stuck at a red light together. Turned out their were two college boys as passengers and they started cat calling me and telling me how much they liked my ass, and a couple things they’d like to do. I ignored them as best as I could and when the light turned for me to walk I did. They laughed and drove off. The whole walk back I felt like something was in my chest, and thinking about all the things I could and should have said to them.
There have been several other times any where I’ve lived where there has been honking or in-decipherable yelling out of car windows. I remember one of the first times I was walking in Minnesota with my cousin, a year younger, and a truck of young boys drove by. “BITCHES!” they yelled at us. “BASTARDS!” My cousin yelled back. I remember being amazed at how calm and quick she was. I knew I wasn’t capable of that.
This is my norm? It makes me sad.
And it makes me a more guarded, anxious person. Another time I recall walking down the street and alone and a guy riding a bicycle turned to follow me. My breath quickened and I walked a little faster. He tried saying something but I had earphones in, so I pretended my music was too loud. He rode up beside me and caught my eye so I finally stopped my music and took a deep breath.
“Your bag’s open and your stuff’s going to fall out,” he said, and rode away before I could respond.
Sure enough, he was right, and I felt stupid, ashamed, and confused. I wanted to explain to him why…but there is no way.
I’m grateful for movements like #everydaysexism. I hope it reaches those like my roommate who think it’s some urban legend that this is pervasive in the lives of many girls. But mostly I feel like it falls on deaf and dis-believing ears, or the ears of those who already know and understand.
I hope though, especially as my sister gets older and more independent, that it gets better and she can feel safe walking alone. I hope for my friends, my coworkers. I hope for myself a bit too, that I’ll be able to travel and talk to people, both men and women, without having to second-guess their motives or afraid that I’m inviting something sinister. I don’t like being suspicious of people who are trying to help me. I don’t like feeling this anxious.
This shouldn’t be my norm, but it is. And it is sad.