It’s exhausting to be angry. It’s particularly exhausting to be angry over things you can’t change. But nothing changes if nobody speaks.
This morning, I caught this article in The Guardian. Her story bears a striking similarity to something that happened to me a while back. 25 years back, give or take six months. I was living in Boston, walking home from the grocery store on a frigid night. I had a friend coming by for breakfast the next day, and I had stopped for raspberries. Off-season raspberries, if bought more than 12 hours in advance, often became fuzzy, I had found; hence the evening journey.
I walked in the city a lot, and it was a point of pride for me that I was always aware of my surroundings. I made good, safe choices about where and when I walked. This night the streets were not crowded, but neither were they deserted – it was dark, past commuting time, but not all that late. As I headed down the sidewalk, I saw a homeless man walking toward me, pushing a cart full of his belongings. I had never been harrassed by a homeless person, but my Safe Choice filter suggested I might be better off crossing the street to get away from him.
On the other side of the street, in the distance, I saw three men in business suits, running. Well of course they are running, I thought; it’s freezing out, and they have no coats. Figuring they would be hurrying to their destination and paying no attention to me, I crossed the street, hugging the edge of the sidewalk and leaving the majority of the walking area to them.
As they passed me each of them, in turn, smacked me on the ass.
I did speak up. I turned and yelled something articulate like “Fuck you, assholes!” There was laughter. They disappeared. I went home.
And I was so, so angry.
I wished furiously I’d had a way to make them stop and listen to me, to stand still and really hear what I was saying. I would have explained to them, in a clear and friendly way, that you do not put your hands on people without their permission. Ever.
Eventually, of course, I swallowed my anger, because what else could I do? I thought about that homeless man, and how I should have understood he wasn’t a threat. I worried that I’d hurt his feelings by crossing the street. I thought about the last man of the three in suits, whose swing at me was more of a glancing blow; he hadn’t had his heart in it, obviously, and was probably just a young guy following the lead of his friends. I thought about how I shouldn’t have bothered going to the store at that hour, that breakfast wasn’t really so important.
I thought of all the ways I could have kept it from happening. Because somehow it was my own fault for being there to begin with, in the evening on a public, populated street, heading home after buying food. For trying to run an errand. For being a woman.
Most of the men I know would never do what those men did. Most of the men I know are reading this, and are horrified at the behavior of those men. Most of the women reading this are having the same reaction I did to that Guardian article: “Oh, yeah, something like that happened to me.”
It’s so much easier to say nothing. It’s so much easier to let other women speak, or to think that my stories, because they are not as horrific as some of the ones I have read, aren’t worth adding to the chorus. But it’s not the specific stories that are the point. The chorus itself is the point. Being born female means at some point in your life you become a public figure, someone strangers feel they have a right to judge and comment on and – yes, sometimes – touch. You are ugly, you are pretty, you are fat, you are thin, you are young, you are old – and everyone feels they have a right to express their opinion on these facts about you.
None of this is new. What happened to me happend 25 years ago. I remember my rage at those men, but it’s not immediate anymore.
But now I have a daughter, and I have to figure out what to teach her. I want the world we live in to be different, and telling her “this is how it is, suck it up” isn’t going to do that. How do I tell her be brave, but be safe? How do I tell her to make a change, but don’t get hurt while you’re doing it? How do I tell her be yourself, but keep your eyes open?
How do I do that myself?
This is not the worst story I have, but it’s the worst one I’ll tell in public.