In September 2011, while sitting at the bus stop on the corner of Aurora and University in Midway, a middle-aged woman walked up to where I was sitting and propositioned me for sex. I was dressed well that day: I was wearing a pink checked shirt, a royal-blue polka dot tie – half-Windsor knot, of course – and a dark-gray cardigan with black toggles. I liked dressing up before work those days, when I worked as a cook. One thing a lot of people don’t consider about cooks is that it’s a physically-demanding job, one that requires working around and above hot surfaces and lifting heavy loads, all at a brisk pace and for hours at a time. Cooks are always sweaty and gross at the end of their shift. If they want to feel comfortable and confident in their appearance it has to come at the start of the day.
To be clear, she didn’t seem out of the ordinary as she approached. She was about 5’4, I’d say, wore gaudy turquoise sunglasses and carried herself in a distinctly hen-like fashion, but none of that struck me as peculiar. (When I’ve told this story in the past, people often ask me if she was a drug addict. I have no way of knowing, but she didn’t conform to my stereotype of such a person.) She gazed down from my face to my feet and back up and said, “Mmm!” in a nasally alto. “I could use you.”
“Uhm… for what?”
“Sex. Do you live around here?”
I’m not used to dealing with people who are being so direct. Even the Mormons that I meet ask for my name before they wax on about Joseph Smith. “And to think I just got dressed.”
She chuckled and changed the subject to the weather.
This who exchange has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about the ongoing discussion of catcalling, street harassment, and how men and women think about these issues. I have plenty of thoughts about those things, and about how threatened and uncomfortable some women are made to feel by complete strangers. It just occurs to me that it’s almost impossible for me to relate, despite having multiple experiences that could be defined as street harassment. And that’s because I don’t feel threatened. When it happens to me, I think it’s funny.
I’m not saying it’s funny in general. I worry sometimes for certain friends when they have to walk alone in downtown Minneapolis. And I certainly don’t laugh when the women in my life share their experiences with me. It’s not funny that it happens to other people. It’s funny when it happens to me.
Every time I think I’ve come to an informed opinion on these things, I have to stop and remember that I can’t really empathize. I’ve never felt afraid or vulnerable out in public, and I’ve never thought that I could be in danger (even though there have been times that I really, really should have felt like I was in danger). I’m a tall, stocky, physically-imposing dude. I have the luxury of being snarky when someone walks up to me and asks for sex. And I never have to fear physical reprisal for doing so. Even men tend to give me a wide berth when they see my lumberjack beard.
That’s not to say I feel my opinion has no merit. I may even end up sharing it soon. It’s necessary, though, to contextualize my experience and acknowledge how it differs from what women experience. Having an opinion is all well and good. But any opinion that feels alien to what people actually experience on a day-to-day level is worthless at best.