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.
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.
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.
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.