"Does harassing women make you feel good about yourself?"
I was sitting in a fairly full subway car on my commute to nannying, when I noticed five guys laughing and making crude gestures towards a girl whose back was turned. They were outlining her curvy figure and making sexually inappropriate facial expressions to one another, and after some egging on, the leader leaned his head over her shoulder and began to whisper in her ear. She ignored him and kept her eyes forward on the subway door. All of his friends began to laugh at him for being rejected. Even though she had her headphones in, I’m sure she could hear them talking and joking about her.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I made eye contact with one of the friends, glared at him, and shook my head as if to say, “What the heck? Stop!” but his eyes glazed over and he didn't acknowledge me. Meanwhile, the leader bent over the girl’s shoulder two or three more times. It seemed like the longer she stayed frozen in place, the more determined he was to get a reaction.
I looked around the subway car — there were a couple hipsters, a young man in a business suit, a middle-aged man, and an elderly woman. Occasionally each one would glance up briefly, then go back to their phone or book or whatever. All of them knew what was going on, but they were completely disengaged. There are so many crazy people and occurrences on the subway, you have to distance yourself in order to protect yourself.
The girl looked scared and uncomfortable. He had her cornered, and who knows how long she had to stay on the train before her stop? My heart was starting to race. I couldn’t just sit there, I couldn’t handle it.
“Does harassing women make you feel good about yourself?” I yelled.
The leader turned around towards me, surprised, “wait, what?"
“Does harassing women make you feel good about yourself?” I asked again. Loud, slow, and clear. I learned in a self-defense class that you can seem more intimidating if you raise your voice. Heat went to my face, and I was starting to shake with anger. Shoot. I didn’t think about what to say next...
And then, out of nowhere, he started yelling obscenities. It’s kind of a blur to me now, but I do remember him waving his arms and telling me how big his genitals were (in less polite terms). He wanted to seem big. He wanted to show off to his friends. I was so surprised, I started to laugh! A horrified laugh. A “GET ME OUT OF HERE” laugh.
“There's no harassment going on here! You're laughing. You have a ring on your finger, you did it right. But she, she's not married." (he was pointing to my $10 costume ring, but hey, I wasn’t about to tell him I'm unmarried!)
He turned towards the girl again, "Am I harassing you?” But she was still frozen and facing forward. “See?! No one's harassing anybody. I can do whatever the hell I want.”
He went back to whispering over her shoulder, and I heard her say meekly, “There’s no point. I have a boyfriend. I’m not interested.” The guy and his friends started laughing again, because now they had gotten her to talk.
“She doesn't want you to talk to her. Leave her alone.” I was forceful and articulate despite my thumping heart, but he started yelling over me again about how tough he was.
I looked around the car for some sort of support, but every single person had their eyes glued to the floor. No one would back me up! I was in utter disbelief.
“Just. Stop. Just. Stop. Just. Stop."
Despite being incredibly close to tears, I made my voice sound calm and in control.
The subway slowed to a stop, and the girl bolted out the moment the doors opened.
“Oh look, it’s your lucky day,” he said to her. "This is my stop too. Maybe I can still convince you.” He followed her off the train, and the doors shut behind them. Almost immediately, tears started running down my cheeks.
I was completely alone.
I sat defeated, completely alone in my frustration and helplessness.
A moment later, an elderly woman stood up and began to walk towards the door in preparation for the next stop. She paused in front of me and held my gaze. She made no move to say anything, but we looked at one another for what felt like a full minute.
I'm not quite sure if she thought I was out of my mind, if she felt sorry for me, or heck, maybe she was just zoning out while trying to keep her balance as the subway slowed to a stop. But I'd like to think that in her silence she was trying to tell me that she understood. That we were united. That even though she didn't speak up, she was glad that I had. That she was scared for us, but hopeful too.
To learn more about how you can help end street harassment, visit ihollaback.org.
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