Recently (the day of the picture above), I was in a cafe with a two-year-old girl. An older man walked in just after we did and sat near us, smiling at us. He asked some kind of friendly question—I don’t remember exactly what—about what we were up to today or something along those lines. I answered politely and then went back to getting the little girl settled with her snack. It was fine up until that point, but the man kept sitting and smiling at me and seemed constantly on the edge of saying something or asking me another question. I am used to people paying attention when I have a super adorable kid with me, but then their attention is usually on the child and their antics, and it’s pretty clear when they’re trying to talk to me that it’s going to be questions and comments like, “Is she yours?” “How old is she?” “She is too cute!”—you know, generally non-threatening, polite comments with an obvious reason for the interaction.
When I got up to take the little girl with me to the bathroom, the man asked, “You leaving already?” and made as if to stand up. He asked as if we were old friends or something, and I was thrown off a bit by his manner and the fact that he seemed as if he were going to..what?…hug me goodbye? Shake my hand? See us out? Follow us? I smiled and mumbled something about the bathroom, and made sure to lock the door behind us. When we came out, the guy was sitting there, watching for us/me. I thanked the baristas and headed for the door, feeling really uncomfortable, and the guy rushed up to open the door for me, presumably since I was pushing a stroller, and I thanked him and thought that would be that. But he really did follow us out! And then he was trying to talk to me and ask if we lived nearby, and at that point I was really getting nervous so I cut him off and hurriedly said, “Thanks again! Have a nice day!” praying he wouldn’t follow us. And the thing is, he was actually going to! He started trying to walk next to us even after I clearly said a final goodbye, and only fell back when I started practically running across the crosswalk. I was really freaked out. I mean, the guy had gone in, bought a coffee, and then sat at the nearest available table to us—no book, nothing to do, just sitting and trying to command my attention while I’m obviously interested in nothing but the toddler in my care, and then FOLLOWED ME ONTO THE STREET WHILE I AM PUSHING A CHILD IN A STROLLER AND PANICKING BECAUSE I AM AFRAID HE IS GOING TO FOLLOW US HOME.
Some people have rolled their eyes when I have told them about this. They have argued that the man meant no harm. I’m sure he thought he meant no harm. He was just trying to get what he wanted…maybe some company, maybe a chance to help a stranger and ‘be a gentleman,’ maybe a date with a girl at least forty years younger than he is…who knows? The thing is, it doesn’t matter what his intent was. Even if he meant no harm, he did harm by never stopping to think that his attentions might be unwanted, to question whether my social cues (which I thought were pretty damn obvious) implied that I would rather be left alone, to consider that there are a lot of men in the world that would take advantage of a young woman pushing a stroller—and many of those men would hold the door for her and act like a ‘gentleman.’ There is no way for me to tell the difference between someone acting like a helpful stranger and someone who is a helpful stranger. As a matter of fact, what it really comes down to is that plenty of rapists, male abusers, and generally men who hate women really are helpful strangers in a lot of cases. Just because a guy follows you home uninvited and perhaps sexually harasses or assaults you doesn’t mean he won’t hold the door open for you on another occasion. Being polite and being a predator are not mutually exclusive…in fact, these qualities often go together, because the best predators are the ones that know how to make you trust them.
I wanted to have some kind of powerful conclusion to this, but thinking about it honestly just makes me so upset and angry and afraid that I can’t wind down enough to conclude anything. And maybe that’s powerful in its own way: there is no conclusion to this problem because the problem has been in no way concluded. I will continue to be harassed, whether I am alone, with my male partner, with a group of friends, or with a child in a stroller. I exist in a state of vulnerability because of sexism, and I exist in a state of fear because men who don’t mean me any harm insist on acting just like the men who do.
my friends are powerful. You all should follow this beautiful person and share your stories of street harassment.