“You have the power to end street harassment.” – iHollaback.org
News! Alicia and I and a few other people are going to be launching the Toronto branch for Hollaback!, a website dedicated to ending street harassment. It’s an incredible project that has gained a lot of momentum in recent years, and now has sites representing 62 cities and 25 countries. We are currently learning about logistics and will be doing a lot of planning in the next couple of months, but it’s all very exciting. You can check out more at Hollaback!, as your city may already be represented.
What better way to celebrate than with another true story about street harassment? (This one has a twist.)
This happened last Thursday:
I am on the way home, waiting for the subway with a slice of pizza and enjoying it thoroughly. A middle-aged man asks me if I have been waiting long, and I reply that I’ve just been standing here a couple of minutes. As the subway train pulls up beside us, he says with a hint of an indistinguishable accent, “Can I just say, you are the most elegant woman I have ever seen!”
I say a simple thank you because this is actually less creepy than the attention random men usually show me after midnight on public transportation in this city. It would be fine if he had just left it at that. One compliment, that’s all. Thanks.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. As I am stepping onto the train car, he says to me, “And your legs are…mmm, fantastic.” I say thanks again, much more curtly this time, and sit down with my arms crossed and look away. I can tell by now that he has had at least a little bit to drink tonight. There are other people on the subway though, so I don’t feel unsafe, just uncomfortable and slightly irritated with his continuing attention.
He slouches against the wall opposite from me, taking out his phone. “I simply must ask for your email address.”
I make direct eye contact with him and say loudly, “I don’t have an email address.” A couple of people look over, and then quickly avert their eyes.
He retorts rather lamely, “You are a bad liar.”
A few stops pass by, and then he leans towards me again and says, “I already have a lover, but you should be my second lover. It would be nice.”
At this point, I’m annoyed. There is nothing in my posture or anything I have said to this man that could be construed as demonstrating interest in pursuing any sort of sexual relationship with him. I respond coldly, hoping that this will shut the conversation down for good, “No. Thank. You. And for the record, I would never be anyone’s second lover.”
I see a man in a purple sweater and jacket glancing over at us, taking in my crossed arms and loud tone. He knows we don’t know each other, and that this man is bothering me. Instead of averting his eyes, like everyone else around me has done, this man does something truly unexpected: he intervenes.
He stands up for the next couple of stops, subtly shifting position until he is in between the harasser and my seat. He leans toward me while the man is fiddling with his cell phone and makes eye contact, asking me, “Are you okay?”
The harasser glances up, but I don’t know if he actually notices that the purple sweater man is talking to me. Either way, his strange assumption that I want to continue with this increasingly sexualized conversation seems to dissipate as soon as someone else enters the picture. The harasser is suddenly looking out the subway doors, at his phone, anywhere except in my direction.
I respond that I am okay. The man in the purple sweater nods, gets off the subway, looks back at me a final time for confirmation as he’s walking down the platform.
This experience was a shock — but not the first man’s sustained badgering when I was just trying to get home after a long night, like everyone else on that subway car. Unfortunately, this happens to me and other women that I know enough to be considered common — even expected — when one is in public. It was the second man’s intervention and willingness to address the harassment openly that I had never before encountered.
Bystander effect, also known as bystander apathy, describes a common social phenomenon in which the greater the number of bystanders witnessing a potentially dangerous or problematic situation, the less likely any of them are to react and help out the person in trouble. In this case, it is easier to tune out signs of potential harassment in public if you assume someone else will step in if it gets really bad. Or, even more troubling, you might justify not stepping in yourself because no one else has done it yet – so it can’t be that bad, right?
The man in the purple sweater does not suffer from bystander apathy. He was aware that something seemed unsettling in a situation, and he acted intuitively. He made eye contact, he asked me a question, he looked back for confirmation. This person makes me excited for how Hollaback! Toronto — and a greater awareness of the prevalence of street harassment in general — can change this city for the better.
And to the man in the purple sweater: I will probably never see you again, but thank you, stranger.