+
upworthy

Why women smile at men who sexually harass us.

“Why do you always engage them? If you didn’t engage them, they wouldn’t keep talking to you.”

It’s nighttime and it’s bitterly cold and I’m at a bus stop with my boyfriend. We’ve just left a performance of some sort and are trying to get home, but our evening has been interrupted and it is, apparently, my fault.


Photo via iStock.

An intoxicated man stands about two feet away, swaying like a thin tree in the wind, staring at me with a fixed gaze. He appears to be living in extreme poverty, most likely sleeping outside tonight, and, just moments ago, I was worrying about how he’d stay warm.

I’m still worried, but now I am also annoyed, mostly on behalf of my boyfriend, who is visibly upset by the encounter.

The man’s knuckles are wrapped around a garbage can and his other hand is beckoning me with one finger. He has already spoken to me, too close and smelling like hard liquor, about my body and my appearance. He keeps pinballing from his garbage can to me and back again, prompting me to talk to him. This goes on for at least 10 minutes, during which I am courteous and my boyfriend grows more and more anxious.

The sexual harassment isn’t what irritates me in this moment. For me, this isn’t frightening or even that uncomfortable. This is every single day.

I leave the house. Men talk to me. I hold my breath and I am polite and I am unshakable and then I get home. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

What annoys me is the fact that I am being blamed for this moment in time, for this interaction. While this isn’t new to me — this is the price of living my life, of going to things — it is new for him. And he doesn’t enjoy it.

"Just don’t talk to him. He’ll go away," my boyfriend tells me again. His face is pale and he is clearly nervous and perhaps downright afraid of what the man will do to us — to him — next.

I’m not afraid, because I’m doing what I have learned to do to keep us both safe. The exact thing that my boyfriend thinks is causing this interaction is the thing that I know will ensure it is over more promptly and without incident. So I remain courteous as we wait.

Sometimes when I get home, I tell my boyfriend about the persistence of interactions like this, the pervasiveness of it.

Photo via StockSnap/Pixabay.

He seems aghast, but I also get the feeling that he, like of a lot of men, think I’m exaggerating.

I can’t entirely blame him; most people have a hard time grasping the gravitas of a situation until they, themselves, have experienced it. He’s never seen this happen in public. He’s never had it happen to him. And, of course, he has told me to just ignore it because that seems like the most logical approach. When you ignore things, they go away, right?

It’s hard to even be disturbed by an occurrence that happens so often because if I were to allow myself to feel it every time, I would never be able to leave the house again — something I’m reminded of whenever a man is present for an incident like this and is so very visibly shaken and at a loss for what to do or how to react.

Seeing it happen this time, though, doesn’t seem to breed empathy in my boyfriend.

Instead, it confirms everything that he believes: I didn’t ignore the man, and now he’s here, in our presence, in our life, wicking up our time and attention like water. I smiled and I was polite and that is why he talked to me  — though of course, I was paying exactly no attention to him before he began to demand mine. I was doing exactly nothing to invite this man’s leering and sexually aggressive language, except for existing as a woman, which for many men is more than enough.

"Seriously, stop being nice to him. You’re making it worse."

It is worth noting that my boyfriend is a man who is, for all intents and purposes, considered one of the "good ones." He participated in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. He has seen "The Vagina Monologues." He has read Judith Butler and bell hooks, and he knows about the male gaze and the Bechdel Test. He would never harass a woman on the street. He would never blame the victim.

Except right now, a man is making my boyfriend uncomfortable because of me. And this is the thing about being an ally — it requires very little nuance of understanding. Catching the sexism in a beer commercial? You’re an ally. Lamenting the gender wage gap? You’re an ally. Blaming women for the behavior of men in everyday occurrences of sexual harassment? Well...

The men who yell repulsive things about me from their cars or on the street. The men who follow me home. The men whose hands slip up the back of my skirt as I squeeze by for a seat on the bus. The men who wave their limp, rubbery genitalia at me in broad daylight. These interactions with men happen regardless of what I’m wearing, regardless of how I feel, regardless of how I move through the world, regardless of if I smile or not. It’s not what I do, and it’s not how I act. It is my presence — and just that!

Sometimes the attention comes with good intentions. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes it comes with no intention at all other than to interrupt and interject — someone just has something they want to say or do to me, and they can see exactly no reason not to say it or do it.

It’s not a question of if it will happen, but when and how often. How many times today. How many times for the rest of my life. How many will go sour. How many will end with me in danger.

I can’t make it stop, and I can’t reduce the volume. What I can do is ensure that it’s not worse.

Photo via iStock.

And so I smile. And I make conversation. And I am charming and sweet, and I even swallow hot stomach acid to choke out the words "thank you" because these are the actions that, it has been proven to me over and over by trial and error, work best. These actions keep me safe. But I shouldn't have to use them.

A small smile heads off the rage. A wave back keeps the situation civil. A forced laugh keeps the man outside of the drugstore from following me any farther. A full-fledged conversation when I am trapped in line helps me suss out whether or not this person is violent or just overly friendly.

And yes, I know that in doing this — in using courtesy as a weapon of self defense — that I am also actively enabling the behavior and I am encouraging it further and I am part of the problem.

But my body is not the battleground for this fight, and my personal safety is not a currency I am willing to exchange for ending it because even if I cash it in, it will persist.

For this reason, each day, I decide to be temporarily OK being part of the problem because I know that my part is the absolute smallest part. I also decide to be part of the problem because the alternative — "just ignoring it" — is also part of the problem.

On this exact night, with this boyfriend who should know better because he prides himself on understanding and hearing women, the tiredness overwhelms me, and I can’t be part of it anymore.

"No, actually, he won’t. He won’t go away, and he won’t leave us alone and actually 'engaging' is one of the best ways I know how to keep myself safe."

For the entire bus ride home (the bus finally comes), I unload all of the little scraps of indignity that I have packed around with me for all of these years. And I don’t care if he hears it or learns a goddamn thing because mostly I just need to say these things. These things that I have said above and more.

In the years since that night, I have told this exact story many times, to many men, in large part because being silent — just ignoring it — doesn’t make women safer, and I need you to know that. I just need you to know that.

The truth is, we don’t have the luxury to ignore harassment. We engage, we’re kind — because that is what keeps us safe.

But now, it’s time for everyone to engage. Because we shouldn't have to smile to stay safe.

If you’re tired of hearing about women being harassed, tired of us sharing our stories about it, maybe that’s because you’ve been ignoring it, and we don’t believe that you should have that luxury anymore either.

Pop Culture

Two brothers Irish stepdancing to Beyoncé's country hit 'Texas Hold 'Em' is pure delight

The Gardiner Brothers and Queen Bey proving that music can unite us all.

Gardiner Brothers/TikTok (with permission)

The Gardiner Brothers stepping in time to Beyoncé's "Texas Hold 'Em."

In early February 2024, Beyoncé rocked the music world by releasing a surprise new album of country tunes. The album, Renaissance: Act II, includes a song called "Texas Hold 'Em," which shot up the country charts—with a few bumps along the way—and landed Queen Bey at the No.1 spot.

As the first Black female artist to have a song hit No. 1 on Billboard's country music charts, Beyoncé once again proved her popularity, versatility and ability to break barriers without missing a beat. In one fell swoop, she got people who had zero interest in country music to give it a second look, forced country music fans to broaden their own ideas about what country music looks like and prompted conversations about bending and blending musical genres and styles.

And she inspired the Gardiner Brothers to add yet another element to the mix—Irish stepdance.

Keep ReadingShow less

Kellogg's CEO tells people to eat cereal to save money

It doesn't matter if you're a single adult or married with children, there's nothing quite like having cereal for dinner or a late night snack once in a while.

Something about it feels nostalgic but it's also really easy to fall back on when you're too exhausted to cook a full meal. There's nothing wrong with grabbing a bowl of cereal for a meal outside of breakfast. You're feeding yourself or your family a food that contains some of the vitamins a body needs.

Maybe that's the thought process Kellogg's CEO Gary Pilnick was going with when he unintentionally sparked some serious backlash. Pilnick was interviewed by CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" discussing the cereal giant's new commercial featuring Tony the Tiger. The commercial itself isn't really the problem. It features a mom holding a box of cereal with kids excitedly awaiting their cereal for dinner chanting along with Tony the Tiger's call to eat the sweet meal.

The backlash came followeing Pilnick's comments about why his company felt the need to create a commercial advocating families eating cereal for diner.

Keep ReadingShow less


We all know that Americans pay more for healthcare than every other country in the world. But how much more?

According an American expatriate who shared the story of his ER visit in a Taiwanese hospital, Americans are being taken to the cleaners when we go to the doctor. We live in a country that claims to be the greatest in the world, but where an emergency trip to the hospital can easily bankrupt someone.

Kevin Bozeat had that fact in mind when he fell ill while living in Taiwan and needed to go to the hospital. He didn't have insurance and he had no idea how much it was going to cost him. He shared the experience in a now-viral Facebook post he called "The Horrors of Socialized Medicine: A first hand experience."

Keep ReadingShow less
Pop Culture

Monica Lewinsky reclaims the office power suit in new voting campaign

The activist teamed with apparel brand Reformation to combat voter frustration in a fabulous way.

Lewinsky partnered with Reformation for their "You've Got The Power" voting campaign

Monica Lewinsky knows a thing or two about reinvention.

The former White House intern became the source of media obsession after her affair with former President Bill Clinton become public. It solidified her place in history against her will, but through her actions since, Lewinsky has transformed her public persona into a feminist icon and champion of a powerful anti-bullying campaign.

Now, the 50-year-old Lewinsky is lending her household name to sustainable fashion brand Reformation and Vote.org in hopes to encourage people to vote this year.
Keep ReadingShow less
Pop Culture

Don't worry, Wendy's isn't raising prices during the busiest times. But changes are coming.

People were very upset after hearing that surge pricing may come to the local drive-thru.

A combo meal from Wendy's.

In a world where prices are continuously increasing, prominent companies are turning to surge pricing to raise prices even further during peak demand times. Uber charges people more for a ride when demand is high. Hotels have been changing prices based on demand for years and Amazon uses AI to keep prices constantly in flux.

Recently, Ticketmaster, known for charging high fees, has been charging customers even more for tickets as demand rises.

On Monday, February 26, news reports began circulating that Wendy’s, America's 5th most popular fast-food chain, would implement dynamic pricing at its restaurants. Many assumed that meant a Dave’s Double burger would cost an extra $3 during dinner time or medium fries would cost an extra buck during the lunch rush.

Keep ReadingShow less
Pop Culture

What is in its 'golden age' but not enough people know about it?

There's so much good out there if you know where to look.

Canva

From astronomy to knitting, some fields of human endeavor are having a heyday.

When you peruse the news headlines or dive into discussions on current events on social media, it's pretty easy to feel despondent. Doom and gloom sells, unfortunately, and our natural negativity bias that's meant to protect us can be overworked by a 24/7 bombardment of humanity's challenges.

There is an anecdote to all of that, though: Curating and cultivating the good. Sometimes it's just knowing where to look to find examples of problems being solved, discoveries being made, innovation taking huge leaps and other evidence that humans are moving our collective life forward in incredible ways.

Someone on Reddit asked, "What is currently in its 'Golden age,' but not enough people know about it?" and thousands of people responded. Reading through the answers is an enlightening and uplifting glimpse of things we might not personally be involved with but are happy to see having a heyday. Like, who wouldn't like to know that we're in a golden age of astronomy and paleontology. Space and dinosaurs? It's like realizing our 5-year-old selves' ideal future.

Keep ReadingShow less