Street Harassment: The Close Proximity Whisper

13 May

Okay, ladies, I’m sure you’ve all experienced this:

You’re walking down the street doing what you always do which is minding your own goddamn business and going about your day when you see a man walking towards you.  You notice him looking but he says nothing, doesn’t exactly ogle but his eyes linger on you a little too long for optimal comfort.  As he gets closer you brace yourself for the upcoming comment, the kissy noises, that terrible clicking sound.  Nothing.  You think you’re home free but then, just as he passes you he leans in and whispers ever so quietly,

“God bless.”

You can feel his breath on your face and the hair stands up on the back of your neck.  You turn around, angry, but he is already halfway down the block making his way to where ever he is headed.  No one around noticed a thing.  He’s in the clear.

If I had to rate types of non-physical assault style street harassment from one to ten, ten being my least favorite, I think that approach would get the crown.  It is worse than the passing car, the obvious stare, the invitations to go out, the whistles from rooftops.  For me, the close proximity whisper is one of the most invasive forms of harassment.  In the United States, we have such an engrained idea of personal space that when someone invades it there is no ignoring it.  That person made the choice to enter into my space, he knew it would make me uncomfortable and he didn’t care.  The feeling of his breath on my skin only adds insult to injury.  It is one step away from him putting a hand on me.  It is infuriating, disempowering, and disgusting.

The close proximity whisper is something that has been driving me crazy for a long time.  I almost forget that it even happens until one day some dude whispers “smile baby” in my ear and I go through the fucking roof.  But he didn’t touch me and there is no opportunity for a strong worded retort, really. It always takes too long for me to register what has happened and by the time I do my only option is to scream like a banshee at some asshole’s receding back.  The reason I thought of this now is that the other night this happened to me only it was on a crowded train and it was terrible.

So I was with a friend of mine and we were heading to Crown Heights to visit his friend at the bar she works in.  When we got onto the train it was relatively empty but we opted to stand.  I have been standing a lot lately.  It’s a thing.  Anyway, we were standing in the little door alcove on the wrong side of the train (AKA the side the doors open on) so every time we stopped somewhere we would split up; he would stand to one side of the doors and me to the other.  We’d reconvene in the middle once everyone got aboard.  When we stopped at Atlantic Avenue the train got swamped.  We couldn’t meet in the middle again so he stayed to his side and I stayed to mine. Right next to me was a really tall (this is all relative considering I am pushing 5’4″) man somewhere in his late forties if I had to guess.  The second the doors closed he leaned over and, right in my ear whispered,

“Are you a mommy?”

It took me a second to understand what he had said.  It was Mother’s Day after all.  I gave him a small smile and said no and then resumed staring blankly in front of me, my left arm grasping the subway poll, my right hand resting on my left shoulder, as much of a protective stance as I could muster considering I had no room to move.  He leaned forward again,

“You look too young to be a mommy.”

I glanced over at him, raised my eyebrows and did a very slight head nod in an attempt to acknowledge he had said something to me without inviting him to say anything else.  A moment later his hand “slipped” off whatever he was holding and hit me in the chest, landing hard on my breastbone.  I instinctively checked to make sure my necklace didn’t vanish — it hadn’t but it wouldn’t be surprising to me if it had because people just love to steal shit from me — and felt thankful I had the foresight to cover my boobs with my arm.  I glanced over at my friend who had been looking at me protectively, not sure exactly what to do and, I imagined, taking cues from my behavior.  The man apologized.  I shot my eyes up to him without turning my body in his direction.  Then, seconds later, as we approached a stop he put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in much to close and whispered,

“Have a wonderful day.”

He was all up in my space.  He was touching my arm.  I thought maybe he was getting off at that stop and felt a momentary rush of relief but the train doors opened and he made no move to exit.  At that moment my friend called over the heads of the half dozen people in between us and asked if I wanted to get off and walk.

Fuck yes.

We got off the train.  I didn’t look back to see the man’s reaction when he realized that I was traveling with someone and that someone happened to be years younger and much more solid than him.  My friend and I talked about it for a minute, him not knowing the man had touched me because he was unable to see through all the people.  From his vantage point all he could see was some guy whispering in my ear and to him, that was enough to want to get me out of the situation. I put it out of my head for the remainder of the night but now I am thinking about it.  And here is what I am thinking.

It is bad enough to have someone whisper in your ear and keep moving but to have that person violate your personal space and continue to stand there is totally fucked.  It put me in an incredibly uncomfortable situation, one that I could not extricate myself from.  It’s like, there I was, stuck with all these people around me and then this guy who was just toeing the line, seeing how far he could push it.  I was bound, in a way, by the manners we as women have been taught.  I didn’t want to sharply tell him to stop, as I normally would if I could walk away, and then be stuck standing next to him, with the eyes of all the other passengers on me.  I didn’t know what their reactions would be, whether they would support me or think I was a loon.  I mean, all he was doing, really, was talking.  And the first touch could easily have been excused as an accident.  I started feeling like the best course of action was to keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, to not draw attention and maybe it would just stop on its own.  (In my personal experience, this reaction never really has the desired effect.)    I didn’t want to have to defend my reaction to a bunch of people who might not support me and then remain there, shamed.  I thought if I just stood there, more or less unmoving, as nonreactive as possible, he would back off but he didn’t.  He just kept toeing the line, kept inviting me into this seemingly innocent, but incredibly invasive, private conversation that I had absolutely no interest in participating in.

It’s a weird thing, to step out of your own tendencies.  I am pretty outspoken about this sort of thing, normally.  Especially when I am in New York.  That might sound like a weird thing but this is my home, I have lived here for a long time and I know when I should say something and when I shouldn’t.  Before I react strongly to a comment, I note the time of day, where I am, whether or not there are people around. At 4am I keep my mouth shut, but in the afternoon, in a parking lot stuffed with cars, I will say my piece.  I take the shock and awe approach.  I am especially good with words when I am angry and I think that the mouth I have takes casual harassers by surprise.  It gives me the chance to tell them about themselves and march off before they regroup and think long enough to come up with something better than “bitch!” But being stuck in a subway car, pinned in place by the sheer quantity of people, can really make you revert back to socialized habits.

Anyway, a lot of times I think back on things and figure out how I could have handled it differently, better.  There’s always something.  But in this particular case, even with the luxury of space and a few days time, I cannot for the life of me figure out how I could have behaved differently.  I didn’t feel unsafe, really.  What I did feel was the society in which I was raised, one that teaches girls to keep quiet.  I thought about all the times people have told me that it is unsafe for me to speak my mind, that it isn’t worth it.  But I can’t stop thinking about how this guy won. How by not telling him what he was doing, I was complicit in it, I was saying it was okay.  Sure, I got off early, sure, it was clear that I didn’t want to be near him, but I don’t know.  It is very possible that me telling him to back the fuck off, as much as he could considering the circumstances, would have set him off, or would have fallen on deaf ears, but I also could have been the first person to say it and maybe, hopefully, the last person he did it to.

Being a woman is hard.

9 Responses to “Street Harassment: The Close Proximity Whisper”

  1. CJ René May 13, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    uuuugh. i’m all tense from reading this. i’m going to mentally kick him in the junk.

    • FranklyRebekah May 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

      That’s what I should have done only for realz

      • CJ René May 13, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

        or stomp on his foot! it was totally an accident. you know how those subway rides can be. just throw people all over the place.

      • FranklyRebekah May 13, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

        It’s so true. See? This is why I need you by my side at all times.

      • CJ René May 13, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

        Okay! (So sick of DC but not ready again for NYC)

  2. Debbie May 14, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

    Amen sister. The other day I was walking into the house in my sweaty soccer clothes and some truck drove by. They honked at me, but they had replaced their regular horn with the sound of a cat call. One, when would it EVER be appropriate to use that horn and two, think about how into “hitting on” women you would have to be to make that move. I think you should start taking Krav Maga classes. Show these creepy mofos what’s what.

    • FranklyRebekah May 14, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

      Good lord. To add to your comment: what if you are driving along and someone comes out of a driveway without looking and you have to honk at them and that shit comes out?! I mean, really? If someone honked at me with that and I was driving I would probably get angry/distracted and drive straight into a tree. Also, who the hell makes and installs that shit? And finally…it sucks that that happened to you. Fuck those guys.

      Krav Maga. I must research this.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Woman from Street Harassment Video Receives Rape Threats, No One is Surprised | franklyrebekah - October 30, 2014

    […] be able to call people on their bullshit and tell people that there is nothing complimentary about having a man whisper in your ear as you walk down the street on your way to mail your cable bill, or have some assholes in a pick up […]

  2. The 4:45 am Compliment | franklyrebekah - May 3, 2015

    […] I have written about all kinds of times when I have been cat called, street harassed, spit on and the likes by men in New York City. As a bartender, I get my fair share of nonsense when I am at work also. […]

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