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I Just Want to Get to Class

Yesterday I read the post I Just Want to Go for a Walk by avflox on BlogHer, a nice piece explaining a woman’s perspective on being approached by unknown men in a public space, and how some behaviors, no matter how well-intentioned, can come across as annoying at best, creepy and threatening at worst. It finishes off with some advice for men who consider themselves “the good ones,” how to approach a woman without presenting as threatening and entitled. Pretty good stuff, as far as I’m concerned.

And then there were the comments. Several from defensive men, insisting that this sort of profiling is “unfair,” and that though some men may be jerks, it’s unfair to stereotype an entire gender based on the actions of a few. A position I agree with! But rather irrelevant, considering that that isn’t actually what the article was about. It isn’t that women must assume that every man, if given the chance, will assault her. The thing is, any given (singular) man could, and for many women, it is all about calculating risk and keeping herself safe. Because society teaches women that they must be vigilant about preventing rape (instead of teaching men never to rape).

A few years ago, I was studying abroad in France. I had a lateish class, and since it was November and up north, it was more or less pitch black as I headed out of my dorm and towards the campus. As I was walking, a man approached me and asked me what time it was. Since I’m notoriously bad at reading analog watches, I floundered a bit and finally just showed him my wrist. “You don’t speak French?” he asked in English. “No, I do,” I replied in French. “I just can’t tell time.”

But he wanted to practice English with me, so we fell in step. I was kind of annoyed, because really, I had to get to class, but it was a pretty short walk to campus, so I didn’t make a big deal of it. Since it was 2008, and the election results had just been announced, he asked me how I felt about Obama, and stuff like that. We made mild conversation for a minute or so, talking about our respective countries.

And then he said “I want to see you again. Can I come to your bedroom?”

Suddenly everything was on edge. Even though I knew it was probably a quirk of language that the request had come out so creepy, no amount of translation error made the question acceptable. “No,” I said. “No, how about somewhere else, maybe.” I didn’t really want to see him again at all, but I’ve been conditioned to not be so rude as to say so. He persisted. I told him I was usually in the lobby of the dorms, and that we could meet there (open, lots of people, authorities and a phone nearby). He asked for my phone number. I actually started to give it to him— not because I wanted to, but because he’d asked, and I felt obligated. But then I regained a little bit of sense, and told him I didn’t have a pen, or a notebook, and anyway I really had to get to class, maybe we’d see each other later. Then I ran up the stairs.

For about a week I was terrified to go sit in the lobby (the only place in the dorms that had wifi access), for fear that he would be there, and see me, and want to talk. I didn’t ever end up seeing him again, but the possibility always lingered in the back of my mind. It made me nervous and hyperaware. It made me uncomfortable. I don’t think this man had any intention to assault me: no, I do believe that he merely thought I was interesting and wanted to talk to me again. Maybe we could have become good friends. I don’t know. But the moment he failed to respect my right to privacy, that was the end.

So I would implore men who want to talk to women: be respectful. Keep her perspective in mind. You know in your heart that you mean her no harm, but she has no way of knowing that. Go ahead and say hi, but give her space. If she wants to talk to you, let her make that decision on her own. As beautiful as you may think she is, and as much as you may want to get to know her, she doesn’t owe you a moment of her time, and above all it’s important that you respect that.