Last night, I stepped off the train at Hamline rather than my typical home base of Lexington. I had a craving for some Milk Duds, and I figured walking the mile home from Target with temperatures dropping would compensate for the caloric burden. My hoodie was up and I had earbuds in (“The Funeral,” by Band of Horses was playing at that moment, which isn’t relevant to the story or for symbolic purposes, but some people like those details so there you go). I’d wager that after dark, wearing an expression of sweets-induced determination under my hoodie, I look pretty intimidating.
Looking past The Vitamin Shoppe and the Noodles & Co., I saw a young woman walking my way. She seemed agitated. Her arms were crossed over her torso like a running back cradling a football, and her inner eyebrows were running almost vertically up her forehead. Two paces behind her, she was being followed by a man of about twenty. He was wearing dark blue pants and a suede coat and his eyes didn’t seem to move off of the back of her head. Instinctively, I pulled out my earbuds.
“Nice talking to you,” I heard her say with a quivering voice. “Have a nice night.”
She turned abruptly to cross the street, and he kept stride behind her. So I crossed the street too. On the far side, she turned again to walk in my direction, and he stayed two steps behind her. I stood on the corner, trying to come up with some plan on the fly to intervene if necessary. When she got about ten feet away, her pursuer made eye contact with me. I gave him the harshest glare I could muster and shook my head with slow and absurd exaggeration. He stopped in his tracks and turned around. She kept walking north on Hamline, and I stood where I was to make sure he didn’t double back.
I want to defend men, I really do. Whenever I see a video like this one, where a woman walks silently through New York for hours while men mercilessly hit on and harass her, roughly a hundred protests and objections come to mind. I think, “Would you be upset with a three-year old for saying what these men say? Why are we choosing to see them in a negative light rather than a neutral one?” I want to mention the racist overtones: how the video showed only black and Latino men. I am almost desperate to discuss the broader cultural differences involved, such as how in places like Cuba catcalling is a celebrated part of the day-to-day experience. As Chen Lizra notes in her TED Talk, “In Cuba I found a very unique combination of things that I haven’t found yet anywhere else in the world. Cubans interact on the streets every day as if they’re playing the game of rumba. They keep a tension, a sexy tension, always alive.”
But those considerations all seem so shallow when I can’t even walk from the train station to the grocery store without encountering a terrifying display of sexual entitlement. So it doesn’t much matter if there are ten decent guys for every one that will do such a thing. It doesn’t matter if there are a hundred. What matters is that it’s impossible to differentiate at a glance between the good ones and the men who don’t know their boundaries. Of course we can have the conversation about what constitutes respectful behavior. But until women can feel safe in public, it will seem like we are having the wrong conversation.