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.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

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After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."