I live ensconced in privilege. I am white, I am well-educated, I got that education without accruing major debt, I have a supportive family and access to the healthcare I need. I grew up in a wonderful feminist household that gave me the confidence necessary to navigate a sexist world and the conviction that I do not deserve any less on account of my gender. I am not afraid to speak my mind. I don’t put up with being talked down to. I can jumpstart my car and open stuck jar lids and I find the idea of “needing a man” around for anything ridiculous. But every once in a while, I am forced to remember that none of these things – not my privilege, not my mind, not my willfulness – protects me from the men who think they are entitled to my attention and my body.
Friday night, I was at a bar I frequent, a place where the staff is lovely and I’ll always run into friends (yes, it’s basically a southern, grad-school-y version of Cheers). I was there with my friend Liz, and the two of us were thoroughly grossed out when we heard a man with a heavy southern accent refer to the bartender as “WOMAN!” when demanding a refill. She put him in his place, telling him he could call her by her name, which was not, in fact, “woman,” and that furthermore you don’t get anyone’s attention by shouting at them that way. A few minutes later, my friend and I became aware of a tall, lanky blonde man leaning over the back of my friend’s chair. I leaned forward and quietly asked the bartender if this was the offending shouter.
“How’d you guess?”
We tried ignoring him, to no avail. Then, trying to be lighthearted, I told him jokingly that he’d stolen my armrest and tried to extend my arm over the back of my friend’s chair. He didn’t budge. He said something to us about how pretty we were. Okay, buddy. Liz announced she was meeting her date in fifteen minutes. Nothing. I told him, keeping my voice light, that we were just there to hang out with each other and didn’t really want to talk to anyone else (I use this line a lot in bars with mixed success). He was clearly drunk; his responses were strange and disconnected. He asked us what grade we were in.
Without looking at him, I respond “Grade? We’re not twelve.”
“Shuuuure you are!”
I don’t respond. He leans towards me.
“An’ if I were you, I’d be happy, I’d be meta meta happy!”
“Yeah, you’re not using that word right.” All politeness is gone from my voice. Liz, meanwhile, is frozen in her discomfort. He moves from her chair to stand facing me, a few feet away. I look directly at him.
“Please go away.”
“Y’all are real pretty, you know that?”
“Please. Go. Away.”
He continues to leer.
“Look, I’ve tried asking nicely. We are uncomfortable. Leave us alone.”
“You with her?” What was he even asking?
“My friend and I are both uncomfortable. Leave us alone.”
I wish I could remember his exact phrasing here, but next he says something like
“No, no you just don’t understand with that tiny brain of yers. Tiny, tiny brain. We have a word for that…”
He walks towards me, hand outstretched as if to pet me on the head. Like a little dog. I am reactive; I react.
“Don’t you dare fucking touch me.”
He’s moving in, his body closing the space between us; instinctively, I put up my hands and push him away. Now he looks mad. How dare I defend myself? How dare I not sit back and let him do as he will?
Right then, another bartender is beside me, pushing him away. He stands between us and asks the man to leave. Two other servers flank him; he leaves, but apparently stays out on the porch until the servers force him out all together. I sit there catching my breath. My friend texts her boyfriend, who’s at a bar half a block away. After allowing what feels like enough time, we walk to meet him, arm in arm, relieved, for once, to be walking through the usual throng of pastel-clad undergrads.
We were okay, and in the end this was just an unpleasant encounter. But it was an unpleasant encounter that, for a moment, had the potential to be so much worse, and, scarier for me, it was an unpleasant encounter that grew out of a much more ordinary one, that of a slightly clueless man hitting on a couple of girls who just want to be left alone. This moment was emblematic of that Margaret Atwood truism – men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.
As soon as Liz and I were inside the next bar – one with a bouncer, I noted – I called for a cab, and made her walk me out and watch me get in. I came home and began to pace; the fear was gone, and now I was just angry.
Because of this one man and his clear entitlement, his clear feeling that he deserves whatever he wants, that women exist to serve him beer and be flattered by his attention, that women who say “no” to him are in need of a lesson, my night was cut short. I had to remember that I am small, that whatever strengths I have are not enough to make up for my lack of physical strength, my inability to defend myself from this boor. I had to watch these older white men, men who’ve never given me any trouble before, laugh over the whole exchange, wink at me after the harasser had been kicked out and I sat there pale and angry, like it’d all been some cutesy misunderstanding. Oh you, harassing women! So silly!
But at least I could afford to take that cab. At least I was in a place with people who know me and care for me, people who’d make sure that someone threatening me got off the premises ASAP. If I’d had to walk home, if I had been somewhere else where people didn’t know me, if I looked different. If I were black, if I were trans. It might have been a different story, I’m all too aware.
And if that tall, perfectly Anglican-looking man had been black or brown? Would those older white men have sat back and laughed, or would they too have sprung into action?
I got home safely. I texted my friends, I locked my door, I made popcorn and watched Buffy kick some ass. I slept well. I’m fine, and I am aware of the many factors – including luck – that kept me, and keep me, fine. But I am also aware today of how vulnerable I am, how men who believe they are entitled to me are and will always be a constant threat, how, lucky as I am to have the resources I do, those resources are something I always need to keep in mind, to strategize. When I walk alone I carry my keys in my hand like iron knuckles; I haven’t met a woman who doesn’t know how to do this. Our mothers taught us, and if things don’t change or don’t change enough, we’ll have to teach our daughters. Class, race, sexuality, gender-identity; all of these things work to make some women at much higher risk than others. All of these work, too, to let some men get away with their entitlement, to have their threats dismissed with a “boys will be boys.”
But none of us get to escape this constant threat of violence. For some of us, it never emerges from the background noise of our lives; for others, it is not a threat but a daily reality. For all of us, it is there, costing us in small ways and large – costing us our time, our money, our mental health, our physical wellbeing, our lives. There are men who believe they own us, men who believe we owe them, men who will not hesitate to use their bodies against ours. And there are times, like last night, where I am reminded of this, where it emerges from the background and looks me in the eye and tries to put me in my place, and there are times, like last night, where I do not know how to live in a world that does this.