The first time he gave me the “what up” nod and the wink, I thought it was a mistake. Who would be trying to silently pick up a girl on a Monday night in the grocery store? Maybe he has a twitch? Then he did it again, this time adding an unmistakable leer. Now he was staring, blocking me from leaving the aisle.
As it has happened so many times before, the skin on the back of my neck stood up. My fingers went icy. My stomach retracted, as if recoiling from this man holding his roasted chicken. My mind raced, placing other customers, trying to figure out escape routes, deciding whether I should say something scathing. I continued to stare blankly, trying to look through him.
He did the “what up” one more time, slowly, then wandered on, his eyes trained on me. I breathed in again and tried to ignore him continuing to stare from 20 feet down the aisle as I threw some yogurt in my basket.
The rest of the grocery store trip was quick. I didn’t dally over cereal choices or coffee price considerations. All I wanted to do was get out and not get cornered into a conversation with someone who considers a creepy wink an opening line.
I thought I was home free, until he found me alone in the baking supplies aisle. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, so I quickly turned my attention to my basket, bending into it, literally myself as small as possible. Don’t make a fuss, don’t make eye contact, just let him leave. He came close, brushed against me, whispered something indecipherable in my ear and then moved on, never stopping his stare, now with an angry edge since I wasn’t falling for his amazing seduction skills. It was over. I knew it this time. Whatever he mumbled seemed final. I was relieved. And, for the first time during the whole interaction, livid.
This is not the first time I’ve been sexually harassed in public. When I was 16, pumping gas in my hometown, a man in his fifties drove up in his pick-up truck to tell me that he’ll never understand these guys liking skinny girls. He likes girls with curves…like teenager me.
I moved to LA and got used to occasional shouts from passing cars or the leers from the streets. Old men in my neighborhood would ask why such a beautiful girl doesn’t smile more. Although I never felt in danger, I developed my “Big City Bitch” face, eyes straight ahead and mouth set. Never look lost; always look like you know what you’re doing. Take care of yourself, because no one is going to do it for you.
And now I’m in Texas, the land of really, truly friendly folks, which I generally love! But sometimes, that culture of friendliness changes into something slightly more off-putting. I’ve been grabbed by men twice in the span of one block. Neither grabbed me hard, going for the small of my back or my shoulder, but the intrusion on my personal space rattled me. I have had all kinds of men yell at me from the street, from 20 year old undergrads as I slow down at a stop sign on my bike, to drunk men following me as I walk to my car from happy hour. I know I’m watched more here. I’m not blind, and I’m not stupid. But, apparently, I am public property.
And I can just hear the protests – they’re just being friendly! Get over yourself! It’s a compliment! This is just flirting, not sexual harassment! And to be honest, sometimes I think the same things. I’m not getting aggressively yelled at, like that woman on the LA Metro earlier this year. I haven’t been even close to physically attacked. Why should I complain about this attention?
No. Even if I’m not getting chased down the street, this is still sexual harassment. Every time a man tells me to smile, he’s trying to control me in the smallest way. After all, women are supposed to be pretty and smiling, right? The guys yelling from the street don’t really expect me to talk to them, but they do expect a reaction. And they love the reaction. They love the discomfort. They love that I’ve been left speechless. It’s an imbalance of power where they come out on top.
And I was asking for it, wasn’t I? I mean, I am a woman who dares to go to the grocery store on her own. I was even wearing my sexy super cat sweater! Being fresh off a workout, my hair was wet and I didn’t have make-up on. OBVIOUSLY, I was aching a man’s attention. And even if I was in my grandest evening gown, what does it matter? Sure, maybe I’d get a few more glances as I’d look at bit out of place at H.E.B., but I should be able to still do my shopping without getting cornered. But, because I have to bring my boobs with me wherever I go, I am asking for it. Always.
Gentlemen. Don’t get me wrong. I like you guys. I’m notorious for having male friends (“Mandy and the boys” was how my crew was described during my early twenties). And get this! I even like flirting and dancing and chatting and all that jazz. It’s fun. Really, it is. And hell, if you ask me, I think I’m even a damn good, warm girlfriend. But here’s the difference: those relationships are generally fairly equal. You get as good as you give. I don’t leave feeling as though I’ve been evaluated and used whether I liked it or not. If approached me in a way that didn’t make me feel like a piece of meat, maybe I’d talk to you! Crazy concept, I know.
So what do I do?
Well, if I have kids in the future, I will certainly not only teach my daughters to protect themselves, but I will also teach my sons the ways to approach women. I want them to be empowered enough to not only be good guys themselves, but to not stand by if their friends are being jerks.
And until then, I’ll stop trying to be “nice”. I’ll stop trying to ignore the situation and make myself invisible. I’ll speak up and ask the man to stop staring. I’ll bring attention to the situation. If he wants a reaction, he’ll get one. He better be ready to talk about why he is rudely staring. I’m not letting it go anymore.
I hope the man at the grocery store enjoyed his orange juice and roasted chicken that night. And I hope the next woman you creep on is braver than I and tells you to suck it.
Women out there: How do you deal? Tips?