Matt and I went in to London last weekend to see a show in the West End. When the play let out we walked through Leicester Square toward the underground station to get the train home, stopping at a shop so Matt could grab a coffee for the trip.
I waited outside because the shop was teeny-tiny, texting with Bridget to double check that everything was good at home and to let her know that we were heading to the train.
As I stood alone outside the shop, head down, focused on the phone in my hand, a man came up and got right in my space, directly in front of me, basically forcing me to look up. I gave a small smile initially, because I don’t immediately assume people’s intentions are bad and maybe he needed directions or something.
He said hi and I said hi. And then he just started talking at me. It became obvious that he didn’t need help, he was just there to speak to me. I was not interested, so I forced another tight-lipped smile and did my best to make it clear through my body language that I didn’t want to continue the conversation. Multiple times I said “no thanks”, shook my head, indicated I was not interested in speaking to him.
He stood right in front of me though, right in my personal space, talking at me. He wasn’t drunk or unkempt. He was well-dressed, coherent, aware of what he was doing.
Then he took a clear plastic bottle out of his pocket and motioned toward me with it, and I immediately and clearly said, “I don’t know what that is, don’t put that on me or near me.”
I wasn’t loud but I wasn’t quiet.
“Oh,” he replied, laughing like we were in on a joke together, “this is just anti-bacterial stuff,” and he put it on his hands and rubbed it in and offered his hand to shake mine.
“I don’t know what that is,” I repeated. “Don’t touch me please.”
He laughed again. I was not smiling. “Do not touch me” I repeated when he stuck his hand out to shake again.
He took the bottle back out of his pocket to show me that it was anti-bacterial gel. “In case you’re dirty,” he said to me, a grin on his face.
I am not even sure what facial expression I made at that unbelievable statement. In my head I was screaming “get the absolute fuck away from me”, but my face mustn’t have matched my thoughts, because he repeated himself, like it was cute and I was supposed to laugh and immediately want to then shake his hand.
“In case you’re dirty, for when we shake hands,” he said again.
“DO. NOT. TOUCH. ME.” I said again. Still not loud, but loud enough and clear enough that my feelings were unmistakable.
Still, he stood in my face. Right in my face, hand outstretched.
I flicked my eyes up over his shoulder to where Matt stood in the coffee shop and made eye contact with my husband. The man turned around to follow my gaze and saw Matt and — boom, he was gone instantly. Disappeared.
Matt raised his eyebrows at me and mouthed “Are you okay?”.
I nodded and grimaced and rolled my eyes. I was fine. I had never been scared or intimidated, I had just been annoyed and frustrated. And now I was PISSED.
I had made it crystal clear through my body language and my words that I did not want that man to talk to me or touch me. I was not quiet or shy or apologetic. I was vocal and clear and adamant. It’s taken me a long time to get to a point in my life where I am not apologetic or conciliatory in a situation like that. But I’m there now, and I won’t feel badly about saying I want to be left alone.
But this guy did not care. He was unfazed by the fact that I wasn’t interested and didn’t want to be engaged by him. Not one thing I said mattered to him. The word “no” did not matter to him.
My husband standing 15 feet away, though, without making a sound or a face or a move, was enough to make him leave.
I am still irate about it, nearly a week later. Anger actually seems like my permanent emotion these days. Why wasn’t it enough that I had said no? What else could I have done to make him go away?
I know the answer to those questions already: that guy was going to keep trying to engage me until I gave in and went along. I would have had to have made a scene, actually yelled or screamed at him or physically moved away in order to make him stop.
I don’t know what his ultimate intentions were, but it doesn’t matter. My intention was to be left alone. It pisses me off that my clear expressions that I wanted him to go away weren’t enough; that Matt’s presence, though, was a deterrent.
My wishes didn’t matter, but my husband’s did.
I wasn’t assaulted. I wasn’t abused. Nothing truly bad happened to me. It certainly was not the first or even the tenth or probably even the hundredth time in my life that something like that has happened. It definitely wasn’t the worst.
But I am so goddamned tired of it.
There are very few men who have ever been in the position I was in, faced with a harasser who will not leave you alone despite your very clear statements that you want to be left alone, a harasser who is bigger and stronger than you, and who you cannot make stop on your own. This is not a concern that exists within the consciousness of most men.
And sadly, there’s probably not a woman alive who hasn’t been in that position at least once, probably more than that. We have all learned to be on the lookout for inevitable harassment: we walk in groups, accompany each other to the ladies’ room, carry our keys between our clenched fingers, and we’re relieved when it’s just words and not physical actions that we have to deal with.
I am tired of feeling like I am crazy for my strong reactions when men say stuff like “not all men” or when they question what rights, exactly, women don’t have. I didn’t even have the right to stand quietly alone outside a coffee shop texting my daughter without being molested by some creep who wouldn’t stop bothering me even when I told him to.
I’m lucky to have a husband who knows why that pisses me off and who understands why, although I’m grateful his presence scared that asshole off, I am angry to my core that it was Matt who made him leave and not me.
I’m grateful that Matt doesn’t say stupid stuff like “I’ll protect you” when something like this happens. That he knows I don’t want to HAVE to be protected. I just want to be treated with respect and not have to rely on someone else to have that happen.
I don’t have answers, just anger. I don’t have a better response for next time this happens, except maybe to go right ahead and make a big scene instead of hoping that my words alone will be enough to stop someone.
I just want things to be different. I’m done being apologetic or conciliatory or allowing for excuses. I won’t be quiet. I won’t even be loud. I will be deafening.
Things have to change.
I will no longer accept the things I cannot change, I will change the things I cannot accept.
Photo creds to my brilliant friend J. Hayhurst. From the Boston Women’s March, January 2017.