A ranty, funny, dead-serious intersectional feminist blog.

Punch Drunk: Sid’s Story

This is from my friend Sid, who has experienced a lot of street harassment in the years I’ve known her. The most recent incident was different, and Sid asked me to let her tell you about it.

The Lost CorrespondentI’ve been working on different versions of this same blog post for maybe a month. Part of it is that I’ve never felt that I blog particularly well—I start them, I stop them, I never know what to do with them. Most of it, however, is that this blog stemmed from wanting to express an experience I had and to express how such a simple thing could terrify me so deeply—but when I started actually writing the post, I found that just bringing the experience back into my reality long enough to write about it was nearly impossible.

The event I’m referencing was my most intimate experience with harassment. Now, harassment can take all kinds of forms. It can be as simple as someone excessively staring at you or as complex as someone coordinating their actions around yours (this gets the extra label, “stalking”). For someone on the receiving end, the line between what is and isn’t harassment can feel fuzzier than it is, specifically because we’re trained to be tolerant and polite—particularly women—to a startlingly detrimental degree.

My experience was just a couple of weeks ago. I tried several times to write the story down, but was startled by the degree to which I found it difficult. I could start, but before I got very far, this wave of despair would wash over me and I would be unable to finish. Finally, I got the bare bones of the story down, which is below for context.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that I’m presently recovering from a significant injury which has left me more physically vulnerable than I’ve ever been. As someone who is fairly strong and also trained in martial arts, this feeling of physical inferiority is still new to me, and part of what made the experience below so terrifying.

This event started as many of my less upsetting stories do—at the bus stop. Our antagonist was an older man who was the kind of drunk you just can’t achieve in a single afternoon. He asked if I was a “working girl” on a street notorious for prostitution, then apologized for being “so bold” while going on to explain how women just excite men, and so on.

creepy guy on busFrom there, he cycled between trying to save me from a life I don’t lead and getting angry that I wouldn’t offer something I don’t sell. Once we got on the bus, I made every effort to be as far from him as possible, but once the bus started moving, he came and found me.

He continued the cycle for some time as I stared at my phone, his voice escalating until he was yelling at me on this crowded bus. I wondered if the folks around us thought we were together. I sat as far into my seat as my body would physically go while he was halfway out of his, knees almost constantly touching mine. At one point, I said in a clear, firm voice that I wanted him to stop touching me, and he yelled something else in Drunk. Eventually I noticed out of the corner of my eye (the only time I’d looked at him was to tell him to stop) that he was very slowly punching at the air about five inches from my face. When the doors next opened, I got off the bus and walked all the way home.

I’ve told the story several times in person, and when I do, I can make light of it. “He says this through a thirty-year drunk,” I usually explain, as I describe the slur that comes from not a lot of drinking, but from a long time of drinking, and my audience laughs and I laugh and we all laugh because it’s in the past and oh ho ho, what a funny tale it is. It sure is good fun to talk about the crazy shit that happens on the bus, lawl.

But it wasn’t funny. It was some scary shit. I wouldn’t call it the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me, but it was a new kind of terror. It was a much more intimate kind of terror. Invasive. And maybe most importantly—intimidating. Whether or not he was aware that he was trying to intimidate me (or aware of the date or where he was), he absolutely was. Yelling at someone in public is a form of intimidation—it hopes to quiet the other person into submission and agreement. Miming that you are punching a complete stranger is a threat, plain and simple, which is another form of intimidation. He wanted me to talk to him—and perhaps quite a bit more—and he was doing everything he could to manipulate the situation toward that outcome.

In my case, I didn’t take advantage of any of the ways I could have reported this man. I was too concerned with getting to a safe place for it to have even crossed my mind. Too often, though, even when harassment is reported, nothing—or not enough—is done about it. The recent events at Readercon are a great example of this.

If you’re not familiar with the Readercon debacle, this page makes it easy to follow. The very first post, by Genevieve Valentine, sums up her experience at the science fiction convention a few weeks ago, where another attendee harassed her, later hugged her from behind without invitation, and finally, supposedly seeing the error of his ways, followed her around the rest of the con so that he could apologize to her. She wanted him to go away. He refused to go away until she would hear his apology, thus nullifying the apology he insisted was so sincere.

According to Readercon’s own policy, they have zero tolerance for harassment of any kind, and harassers will simply be banned from the convention. Forever. In the case of Ms. Valentine’s harasser, however, the ban was a bit shorter than forever—rather, it was for two years. The board of directors stated that this leniency had been afforded because he was so sorry. (“You may not have been willing to hear his apology,” I imagine them saying, “but we’re so much more reasonable.”)

Before continuing, it is absolutely worth noting that Readercon has since come out with a full apology and has banned the gentleman in question for life, as per their original policy. (It’s quite a good apology, in my book.)

One of the biggest problems with the original verdict (and there are many) is that this tells harassers, “It’s okay to keep doing whatever you want, whenever you want because all you have to do at the end of the day is act really apologetic (you needn’t even genuinely feel it, but make us believe it), and you’ll be off the hook.” The even bigger problem? This gives them even more of a reason to turn an apology into harassment. It makes harassers feel even more justified in cornering you away from people long enough to make you understand how sorry they are.

The most important part of Ms. Valentine’s post might be that harassers lose the right to choose how they apologize. “You have forfeited the right,” she points out, “to unburden yourself by apologizing to [a woman] until she forgives you, assuring her that you have learned things until she praises you.” With my experience above, I definitely got the sense that the drunk man was offended when I chose not to acknowledge his slurred apology for being “so bold” as to ask if my body was for sale—and further when I chose not to acknowledge anything else he tried to say to me. He started yelling as a method of getting me to acknowledge him.

I had a boyfriend who would use this same tactic. I would need space from an argument, so I would walk away, but he would need to fix things in that moment and why wasn’t I listening to him? He would grab me and hold me still, pressing his face against mine in an attempt to get me to hear him. He would chase me down the street—literally—yelling and crying the whole time. Because he was going to apologize to me whether or not I felt threatened by his method of apology. (I hope I needn’t mention that the relationship didn’t last.)

Too often, we’re made to feel unreasonable if we won’t listen to drunken, crying, or insistent apologies—many delivered in the same manner as the behavior they are supposedly decrying! “If you won’t listen to my apology,” we’re told, “then you’re just a bitch. You don’t even deserve my apology.” No. What we deserve is to be left alone if that’s what we’ve asked for. What we deserve is to be treated as full human beings and not tools you use to feel better about yourself. To quote Ms. Valentine: “If a woman has indicated you are unwelcome […] your apology is YOU, VANISHING.”

But the accusations make us second-guess ourselves—and they’re supposed to. The whole point of the outbursts and the cries of bitch and the exasperated fine! is to make us feel as though we’ve made the wrong choice. You can call it manipulation or social engineering or whatever you want, but it amounts to the same thing. The harasser begins to lose control of the situation and so takes to base tactics we all learned on the playground. (“If you don’t agree with me, then you’re a doody-head!” or “The louder I get, the righter I am!”) The truth is, of course, that it’s the harassers, not the harassees, who should be second-guessing—or more likely, reevaluating—their actions.

One of the best lines that has come out of the Readercon fiasco and the flurry of posts that followed is from science fiction author Ann Leckie:

If you really think anti-harassment rules bar flirting, you’ve got an idea of what constitutes flirting that really needs some re-evaluation. I mean, if someone said, “Hey, we should outlaw rape,” and the guy standing next to you said, “But that’s the same thing as saying people can’t have sex!” you wouldn’t say, “Wow, good point!”

In this post, Ann makes several points about how, even after everyone makes sure the harassee didn’t “send the wrong signals” (which in itself is condescending and demeaning), the attitude is still very poor poor harasser. “Did you have to be so mean?” That’s the question I always expect whenever I tell this kind of story, and the question too many women do get when they tell a story in which they stood up for themselves.

I even feel it myself. One late night, as I was waiting for the bus by my old apartment, a gentleman walked up to me (and when I say “walked up,” I mean the dude got really close, and I really don’t like people that close—especially strangers, especially late at night) and he said, “Do you think if a man does not desire a woman, that makes him gay?” Fairly certain he wasn’t actually looking for intellectual discourse, I said I didn’t know and took several steps away from him. He took this to mean that I wanted to continue our conversation over here, and followed. He started saying something else—I don’t know what it was because I honestly wasn’t listening, but he sure wasn’t asking for directions. I said, very loudly and clearly, “I need you to stop talking to me right now.”

He wandered off—which I had hoped, but not expected, he would do—and the first thought through my brain was, “Man, that was so rude of me.” Not: Why are you approaching women in the dark talking about desire? Not: Good job, Sid! Congrats! But: Oh no, I might have hurt the poor feelings of a man who was aggressively hitting on me late at night. Why is that my first reaction? Why do I expect people to tell me I’m ridiculous for being upset over some drunk guy yelling at me on the bus?

It’s a trap, this cycle of second-guessing—of either assuming or being led to assume that our reaction is somehow unreasonable or unjustified—and that’s what harassers depend on. That you’ll accept their apologies and then feel guilty for having any thoughts on the issue that don’t coincide with their own. Even well-meaning people can perpetuate the cycle of doubt and leave you unsure of what to do. I’m extremely fortunate that everyone in my social circle to whom I’ve ever told a harassment story has encouraged me to report it when applicable—or at least helped me see that I was, in fact, being reasonable.

I know that I need to hear this from time to time, so I’ll say it here: No matter your experience, harassment is harassment—whether someone’s stalking you around a convention or pretending to punch you on a bus. If you feel threatened, it’s harassment. If you’ve asked someone to stop a behavior directed at you and it continues, it’s harassment. If anyone at any time is trying control any aspect of your person or personhood, it’s harassment.

street harassment cardI can’t cover the full spectrum of what constitutes harassment in a single blog post, but you can feel it in your gut, and it’s so important to not ignore that. When I read or hear about other people’s experiences with harassment, it reminds me that mine weren’t imaginary—that what I perceived to be harassment really was. Even if you misjudge a situation, following your instinct will keep you safe. Your safety is not worth a wary courtesy—and the only people who would appreciate sacrificing your safety for a courtesy are the same people who would leap to take advantage of that.

The more we can each become confident in our own evaluation of a situation, the more we can collectively send out the message that harassment is not okay, and not something a woman—or anyone—should just get over or resign herself to expect.

Read Sid’s other MMAS articles in Sid’s Stuff. Follow her at @SeeSidWrite.

14 responses

  1. Pingback: Article Index | See Sid Write

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  3. Fran Stewart

    Re: people not acting when they see something going on, there are several well-known psychological factors. First, the Bystander Effect: in general, the more bystanders (and, I believe, the greater density of bystanders) present at a crisis, the less likely anyone is to step in and help. You have to do three things to step in.

    First, you have to notice it’s occurring. On a bus, it’s noisy, and you probably brought something to do to keep your mind occupied. Plus, most folks pretend not to notice other people’s conversations, so even when things happen that catch your attention you have to override your default politeness filter and pay attention to the situation, which can be a tricky mode switch.

    Second, you have to interpret what’s going on as a crisis. Again, the bus is noisy, so it’s hard to be sure. Then there’s the politeness thing again. If you get caught eavesdropping on something you’re not welcome in, you might hurt people’s feelings or be humiliated in public. Plus, if nobody else is staring or shaking their heads or otherwise reacting, it’s easy to second-guess yourself.

    Finally, you have to decide to act. What if you’re wrong? You’ll embarrass yourself, maybe even start a fight! Better be sure, and that’s hard to do per #2. Then there’s “diffusion of responsibility”–in a large group, except for people specifically ASSIGNED to do something, people are reluctant to take charge of things. Once someone DOES take charge, it often punctures the bubble and people will act. Until then, everyone waits around for someone “trained for these things” to pop up.

    It’s hard to overcome all this stuff. Famously hard. One of the things I’m most grateful for is my emergency training in the Scouts when I was a kid–I’ve built up a bias towards acting when something happens. In an emergency, doing something (almost anything) is usually better than doing nothing. But it’s HARD. I still freeze up sometimes.

    The best we can do is let go of the “Why didn’t I?” and remember the next time we see something that it’s okay to act. You can wear down those in-built reactions. Permit yourself to ask the driver next time, or to ask people if things are okay. Kicking yourself for not stepping in is less likely to get you energized to act the next time, though. :)


    September 12, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    • Excellent points, Fran. Thank you.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:43 pm

  4. Leah

    Great guest post!

    “Man, that was so rude of me.” Not: Why are you approaching women in the dark talking about desire? Not: Good job, Sid! Congrats! But: Oh no, I might have hurt the poor feelings of a man who was aggressively hitting on me late at night. Why is that my first reaction? Why do I expect people to tell me I’m ridiculous for being upset over some drunk guy yelling at me on the bus?

    Because we grow up in a world of people telling us to lighten up when usually the thing we need to “lighten up” (sexism, racism, etc.) about is pretty serious. Good on you for telling the old man in the last story to get away from you.

    August 30, 2012 at 2:21 am

    • This is the best blog post I have seen yet on street harassment. I’ve seen many things on how its wrong, how it ought to change, why it is wrong, etc. And all these things are important…

      But I feel disappointed, rarely I have come across such an honest description of how it feels.

      Because, well, street harassment has changed my life: tears, anger, depression, etc. (I ride the bus to college) And all this time I was questioning why nobody else felt as strongly about this, I was thinking I was oversensitive and paranoid. Its hard to heal from this, when it happens on a daily basis. I have to continuously reevaluate myself on how I am going to let it effect me: in the few minutes I have before class when I have finally gotten to a safe place (which school has become less and less so) and when I get home, I feel so mentally exhausted that I can’t jump to my homework right away like I told myself I would. I have to think every day how to be safe.

      But everyday I manage to find happiness, I am becoming a stronger person because even though I doubt myself sometimes, I don’t amount what I think is happening to “nothing”. I have some many things to deal with in life, like who I am going to become one day. I really wish I didn’t have to deal with this, too. I guess this is what people call oppression.

      Thank you for your wonderful post, I will definitely be following this blog in the future.

      September 11, 2012 at 4:12 am

      • seesidwrite

        Thank you for this comment. I’m very late replying, but yes, the simple act of getting to work or school can feel like such a chore…chore isn’t even really a strong enough word. During a particularly bad week, it’s enough to make you want to just work from home, skip class, or beg someone for a ride.

        More than once, I’ve thought of wearing something cute to work (maybe a nice work-appropriate summer dress), but then immediately thought to myself, “Oh, but do I want to deal with the bus? Maybe I could change there…”

        One night when I lived in my old apartment, I wanted to go to the store after dark, and I had a tank top on. I caught sight of myself on the way out the door and thought to myself, “Oh…but do I feel safe enough to go to the store in a tank top?”

        I shouldn’t have to ask myself questions like that.

        So this is a really long-winded way of saying that yes, street harassment is madness and while I’m sorry that you have to go through it, I’m glad that you found something helpful here.

        November 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

    • Super late on this, but thank you for the kind words. And yeah, you make a really good point–we’re trained to lighten up and calm down about the things that bother us…because they don’t bother the people calming us down (or because they were trained that way as well, and just never stopped to question it).

      November 16, 2012 at 7:52 am

  5. The other upsetting thing about this is simply that nobody else was willing to intervene. First of all, the bus driver should be at least somewhat aware of what’s going on on the bus, but if the driver either does not notice or is refusing to notice, any rider reporting a situation to the driver will result in the driver contacting metro or seattle police, pulling over. You should not have been the person getting off that bus.

    Obviously, dealing with a potentially violent drunk is scary, and it is simply not very smart to intervene in other people’s altercations. But there are safe ways to get the job done.

    (I once did the stupid thing, when a drunk who sounds an awful lot like your drunk, was trying to hit on some teen age girls at a bus stop. I ran interference, and for a little while I was pretty sure there was going to be a fight about it. I had no idea whether the guy had a knife or something. In retrospect, I don’t know that I should have done it. Maybe I should just have called 911. But the point remains: how can you *not* do something???)

    On the flip side of this conversation, I do think there is a blurry line between “aggressively charming” and sexual harassment. I have seen women accept, enjoy, and end up with guys who are coming on in a way that I would otherwise have considered somewhere between “very poor taste” and sexual harassment. (Context is important too: bus stops provide a very different context from friendly social situations!)

    Anyway, I do think there is a little bit of different strokes here: one man’s gentlemanly ways may perhaps be too nuanced for some women, or indicate totally incompatible interests. In that sense, I suppose, we self-select for the partners we deserve. That said, even if there is any kind of grey area in the art of flirtation, there is NEVER a grey area as defined by the no-means-no principle. Someone who persists after there is any indication that attention is unwanted has crossed a totally non-grey line, and everyone in the presence of such behavior should enforce the social norm by whatever means possible. Such behavior is indefensible.

    August 23, 2012 at 12:55 am

    • seesidwrite

      So to address your first point about why no one did anything…while part of me wants to agree with you, I can’t actually fault the other folks on the bus. There have been so many times where I’ve seen something happen and just been frozen, not knowing what to do. When you say, “Someone could tell the driver,” it sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, but it wouldn’t previously have even occurred to me. When I see people fighting in the street, my first instinct is to call the police, but I never think of this on the bus. Why? Maybe because it’s moving? I’m not sure. (Note that I’ll think of it now, probably.) I also have a tendency to think of exactly the right thing to do…five minutes after it matters.

      About that line between aggressive flirting and harassment: you’re right when you mention context. To take my example above of the man who approached me asking, “If a man does not desire a woman, does that make him gay?” Now, if someone had asked me that at a party…admittedly, I’d still think it was a bizarre question, but I would assume this person was looking for some sort of intellectual discourse on the topic–or at least, that’s the direction I would take it. If this immediately moved to sexual comments, then I can see your point of how that might work for someone, but if you’re going to go the aggressive route, then you need to be even more attuned to the reaction you’re getting (not you personally, but people). Aggressive *and* oblivious quickly turns into something ugly.

      And while I see your point and partly agree with you, I can’t help seeing how easy it is to go from “but that’s just their style” and “but they’re just socially awkward/oblivious” to a combination that leads us all the way back to, “Why do you have to be so mean? You just don’t understand him.”

      This is where it starts to feel sticky to me. I keep having different things to continue with at this point, and they all contradict each other. But what I can boil it down to is this:
      1. Being aggressive is a style, sure.
      2. Being oblivious *is not an excuse.*

      I think that second one is the really important one. One of the biggest defenses is, “Oh, he’s just socially awkward (often used to mean ‘oblivious’), so cut him a break.” And while that’s fine if you merely talk to me long after I’ve switched from real words to “uh-huh”s, it does not give you a pass to back me into a corner or assume that I want you to touch me if I flinch away from you.

      August 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm

      • Hey, Sid,

        I have to agree with you 100% on the point that “Being oblivious is not an excuse.”

        I guess I always see things in shades of grey. Oh, wait, that phrase has now been totally burned. In gradations of color. But while there may be some people who are genuinely oblivious, and there may be some people who use the pretense of obliviousness as cover for bad behavior, and while there is probably a lot of murky ground in between, in NO CASE is it an excuse. The genuinely oblivious person needs to learn. Hand. Stove. Learn. Everyone else just deserves the pain. So, yes. Agree.

        Re: Other people on the bus. I don’t necessarily fault them as individuals. These kinds of things are really distressing and can create a lot of should-I or should-I-not paralysis. Which sucks. And is upsetting. It shouldn’t be that way. We should all be empowered to react intelligently and sharply when we see injustice or something that looks or smells wrong. But we don’t. And like you say, all too often we don’t even think of the right thing to do until 5 minutes after it matters. This has happened to me many times and I hate, hate, hate it.

        August 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

  6. We’ve had an issue in Seattle recently where a guy was repeatedly harassing women in a certain West Seattle neighborhood, particularly at a certain store (I’m guessing he shops there). One of them took to the local neighborhood blog to relate her experience and warn others, at which point several other women chimed in with stories of similar experiences with this same guy.

    Despite which, several other commenters–all men–trotted out the same litany of excuses that you always hear about in cases like this: he’s just being friendly, he’s just awkward, he’s probably lonely, blah blah blah.

    The right of women–of all people–to shop for groceries in public without having to run a gauntlet of unwelcome attention apparently occurred to none of them.

    I’m still pissed.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    • Yes! This is a big part of the problem–the fact that so many people, most of them men, seem inclined to apologize for these harassers. Thank you for the opening to link to this excellent article (and fascinating comments section), which discusses the problem in detail in the context of social circles. What should women do when the men in their lives won’t condemn the harassing behavior of a male member of their group? Lay down the law, that’s what.


      August 22, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    • seesidwrite

      Thanks for making this point. And that’s the thing: He’s just being friendly? My friends don’t make me so uncomfortable that I need to find a way to leave the area. Or if they do, that’s how I stop calling them friends.

      Awkwardness is forgivable to a point, but that point is before I indicate that I want you to go away. After that, we’ve got a problem.

      As far as lonely…I get wanting to reach out for human contact, but that doesn’t mean you can…well, *reach* out for human *contact.* I have encountered plenty a chatterbox at the bus stop, but they aren’t the ones who leave me looking for exit strategies.

      I get that some people aren’t good at reading social signals, but that’s not an excuse to *invent* invitation signals that aren’t there.

      August 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm

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