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.