The space we take up by our bodies is an element of the sacred. As we move from bed in waking, through our houses and then out into the world, if any of that movement places a woman in close proximity with a man or men, she might do well to observe how the male presence may modify her behavior, from adjusting orientation, position, and flow.
I was in Sicily for four weeks, and as I lived about 15 km from the town center, I took the bus. There is no on-the-minute bus schedule for my stop, but I could calculate when the bus would depart from the station and how long it might take to get to where I lived. Sometimes if felt like the bus just wouldn’t come.
Standing at the bus stop, I had to decide on what stance to take; I discovered I must be strategic and experimental. Cars that drive along that street sometimes slow down while the male driver turned his head to catch a glance, sometimes they honked for reasons I was not quite sure of – were they saying “hello”? Honking startles me and I do not think affectionately toward it. And at least once a day, one of the cars with a man inside would stop and invite me in for a ride. As the bus to town turned a 10-minute drive into a 45-minute one, and as it was the rainy season, sometimes accepted a ride. But after a couple of minimally uncomfortable experiences, decided men were not just being helpful or kind without an agenda.
The men weren’t always asking to be nice, to put some good karma out into the world. Some of them wanted an exchange. Out of dozens of unsolicited men (again, I was at a designated bus stop happy to wait until the bus arrived – I was not ever trying to hitchhike), only one woman stopped. This might be because women feel at risk while men do not feel threatened by a petite girl in their car. So I began to realized I needed to turn my body so that the men slowing down might not see my face or catch eye contact. Perhaps accidental eye contact was the invitation I did not want to give, but was giving anyway from their perspective. Sometimes I needed to frantically wave my hands and shake my head “no” – helpful men can be quite assertive.
What I wanted was to stand grounded and strong, like a normal human being executing a mundane task: waiting for a bus. I wanted to arrive at my destination without have to “thank” a guy who felt I now owed him something even though I hadn’t actually asked for anything. I wanted to not feel fear that a gaze or body or car or energy was going to violate my space. I feel this on the street as well. I have heard men say girls on the street seem to look away or cast their eyes down when approaching them to pass alongside. I guess that means other girls besides me do it, trying hard to avoid “inviting” interest, this our daily navigation in public spaces. I am more worried about a guy deciding he likes me than getting mugged. I wonder if guys know exactly what they are doing and what is happening.
Dr. Rachel Hewitt, Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newcastle University in the U.K., has recently tweeted some of the findings of her research on gender and social spaces:
In 1975, some researchers concluded that ‘social power is the ability to move others, spatially or otherwise’; and that these sex-based differences in pedestrian behavior clearly mapped a vast differential of social power. In short, men stamp their power onto public space. [. . .] Women know all this, that walking through a city involves constant negotiation to avoid conflict with men. That we’re constantly making ourselves smaller, less obtrusive, less confrontational, more invisible. Men: can you imagine what it’s like to live like this? [. . .] It sends a message to women that public space is owned by men. It makes our experiences of living in the world a lot more stressful and scary. It makes the experience of walking for women – which is what I’m interested in – a lot less about pleasure and a lot more about fear.
What happens when women have to hide, divert, adjust our bodily orientations to go unnoticed in hopes of going unharmed or just unbothered with? My body gets smaller because I want it to. I recently came across a passage early in The Bell Jar when the character Esther narrates “I’m five feet ten in my stocking feet, and when I am with little men I stoop over a bit and slouch my hips, one up and one down, so I’ll look shorter.” All the reasons we adjust for men to make them feel a certain way, to avoid certain reactions. . . I cower and contort because attention can be dangerous or at least lead to something unwanted. I should mention, I take the bus in the bright, sunny day. This isn’t about feeling unsafe during the night. It’s about 10:00 am in the day.
Stopstreetharassment.org gives statistics on women around the world and their challenges navigating the streets. The percentages are high. For instance, in a survey of 2,000 women in the U.S., 65% had experienced street harassment. In the U.K., 64%. Canada, over 80%. Afghanistan, 93%. Egypt, 99.3%. See “The Prevalence of Street Harassment” for more countries and to investigate the sources.
Is offering a woman a ride at a bus stop harassment? I’m going to say “yes” at the moment due to my own and others’ experience. It would not be if we lived in a world where men were not ever conditioned or socialized to be entitled or aggressive. If all men thought about how their actions or behaviors might make a woman feel, and we all took care of each other and were careful about not harming one another, then it would not be. But most women have had bad experiences. We can’t predict who is one of the “nice” ones who do not want anything in return. Unless we’re waving you down and asking for a ride, you don’t need to ask us unsolicited. What do you think? This is just my concluding thoughts based on my experiences. I welcome conversation and anyone who wants to add another perspective or more nuance to my perspective.
Part II coming tomorrow…
Elisabeth S., Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches online composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a chapbook of poetry and traveling through Iceland, Spain, and Ireland.
9 thoughts on “Navigating Social Space as Power-Struggle, Pt. 1 by Elisabeth S.”
The worst thing about this is not that you have to have your guard up so much of the time. The worst thing is that when you are enjoying yourself and your walk in public space and not thinking about being harrassed, and someone reminds you that your private space is not private. I too have been harrassed for being in public while female. I was also bullied a lot as a teenager about my height–yes, “how’s the weather up there ?” is bullying. It is only a few times a year now, but it still hurts when I overhear someone say to another in Greek “look a 2 meter tall woman” assuming of course that as a blonde I do not understand Greek. When I say I am not 2 meters (six foot six) and I don’t appreciate being talked about of course they say, “but I wish I was tall like you.” Believe me, they wouldn’t!
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Absolutely that is a sign of bullying. Such comments posed as innocent also such as “how old are you?” (asked with a hint of incredulity as if they knew and wanted to share the shock at a woman looking younger than she is, as if already that would be a compliment) or “take off your sunglasses” or “smile” – honestly, I want to be a peaceful person, but it’s hard not to at least give them an annoyed look.
When I was a young woman, I felt hunted. I have a vivid memory of a deserted city street at dawn and a man following me in his car as I walked. When I shook my head, refusing to get in the car, he snarled, “You f**king b*tch, I’ll break both your legs!” Fortunately, he drove on instead, but the memory of the terror I felt has never faded.
I recently heard political commentator Bill Mahler going on a rant against women who, in his view, did not acknowledge the difference in degree between a cat call and a rape. Of course there is a difference in degree,but what he failed to acknowledge is there is not much difference in kind. The message is the same: you don’t have the right to take up space. You are not safe.
As an older woman, I am now mostly invisible in public space. This invisibility, negligibility of older women is another form of discrimination men consciously or unconsciously practice towards women, which can affect them in the workplace. Since I am largely indifferent to the male gaze and my work is not dependent on men, invisibility doesn’t bother me. I like the greater sense of freedom and security with which I can now walk down the street. But I can see that it is the other side of the coin.
Thanks for addressing this subject that affects all women. I look forward to part two.
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I am so sorry. The description of “hunted” is really apt. We should all write poems about this. If I do, I’ll put a footnote giving you credit for the idea. That is tragic, what he said to you, it is sickly violent. This is exactly why sometimes I feel compelled to twist the truth of my rejection just a bit to avoid the lashing out of some men’s insecurity and entitlement. I feel I have to appease them.
Yes, the side of the coin, the invisibility of women once we reach a certain age, I can see the freedom in that, but also of course as you mention it is oppressive and signaling of sort of the same problem: objectification of women, some women, through the hetero male gaze.
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The hunted… oh I remember so well – that and fearing to take up space… because although I couldn’t articulate it MEN OWNED PUBLIC SPACE. Not much has changed, Even in my seventies there are men that “gaze”… the difference now is that I am repulsed. And in my opinion the men who look at you like you were a piece of meat know it…
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I remember being in Rome and with a group of women. I stopped to buy a souvenir and the fellow grabbed and kissed me while saying “thank you! thank you!” The other women in my group had walked on. Now I live with other seniors. One of the women here was harassed by one of the men. Many of us gathered and put a stop to it – women and men. The men told him to stop, the women told her “call, we’ll come”. We need to stand with each other.
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Incredible. It’s so similar to what happened to me in Sicily that I didn’t go into detail about, one of the experiences that made me more vigilant an on guard. I was accepting a ride from someone and before I could get out of the car, he also grabbed me and kissed me while saying “you’re so beautiful! lovely!” What a piece of shit such words are in the moment of force and violation. I had someone help me. The woman who was my host in Italy came to the gate and stood there and he let me go. I don’t know what he would have ventured to do if she hadn’t showed up, not budging. It was embarrassing for her to see me in that position, but I was incredibly thankful she did.
This is such an important post. Thank you.
I remember learning years ago about women looking down and to the side, and moving aside for men on sidewalks. I started forcing myself to keep my eyes straight ahead, and it was SO HARD. I could literally feel the men’s eyes on me confused by my non submissive signals. I was playing rugby twenty years ago, and I started to drop my center of gravity a bit and ground myself strongly when men walked toward me and wouldn’t move aside on sidewalks. I sent a lot of men flying, and one of them spilled his coffee all over himself and his coworkers’ nice suits. All because I did not Make Way for the Penises. Even at middle age with crazy gray hair and pleasantly plump, zero makeup, casual clothing, I can’t escape street harassment. I can tell I’m a lot more invisible, but nonetheless, I have traded in all my submissive body language for dominant body language, and I think that – as a plump, middle aged women- drives a lot of men crazy. They tell me to smile, etc. because I’m almost glaring as I walk down city streets. Good thing for my blood pressure I’m not in the city much, but honestly, the thing that hurts the most is how I’m having to break this news, gently and gradually, to my daughters. What a dystopian nightmare we live in, for so many reasons. Thanks for posting.