Two weeks ago I sat in a Starbucks working on my book, when an older man of about sixty with long, slightly balding grey hair sat down next to me and stared hard. It wasn’t a kind gaze, it was an aggressive stare as if he was entitled to look at me and my body as he pleased. If you are a woman, you likely know what kind of look I am talking about. And if you’re not a woman, you might have trouble understanding why a man staring at a woman’s body is so distressing.
In fact, part of me hesitated writing this blog, because ultimately all this man did was aggressively stare at women’s bodies and force conversations. And that might not seem like a big deal, but I assure you it is. It is things like this that happen in everyday society that often escalate to assault and make us feel trapped in public places.
By this point in my life, experience had taught me to keep my head down and ignore him. I pretended not to be aware of his gaze and was glad I already had my headphones in. I knew he wanted my attention and I wasn’t about to indulge him.
In the past, I have had just about every response to sexual harassment. I’ve flipped off offenders, only to have them aggressively follow me for miles. I’ve tried to politely indulge them to not make the situation worse. I’ve run from it, I’ve been silent, I’ve spoken up, but most commonly I ignore it. It seems to be the safest option.
As I sat I kept on making it obvious that I was married, flashing my ring as much as possible in hopes that he would direct his unwelcome gazes elsewhere. After about five minutes, he got the message and moved into a chair diagonal from me, still looking when he wanted to.
Soon, a young, pretty, college student sat in the chair across from me and next to him. He immediately begins to stare at her, and before she could put her headphones in he began to talk with her.
I could tell she felt uncomfortable, but he did not seem to care. She politely answered his questions, trying to get back to her homework. After about 10 minutes or so of forced conversation, she was finally able to get back to her work. He proceeded to look at her chest and her computer screen every 20 seconds or so, and then after another ten minutes forced conversation with her again, claiming that it didn’t look like she was doing homework.
It was unnerving, the way he stared at her. I could tell she felt trapped and I wanted to help her. I just didn’t know how. In the past confrontation just made the situation worse, so I silently resolved I would not leave until he or she did. Just to make sure she was safe. I noticed the woman sitting behind her keeping an eye on the situation too.
Every time she managed to break away from the conversation, he would stare at her body intermittently. I wanted to tell him to stop. I wanted to tell him that I was aware of what he was doing, but I didn’t want to make a scene, and I didn’t want to make the situation worse.
I texted my friend asking her for ideas for how I should handle the situation, she told me to go to the manager. But what would happen then? Would he get kicked out? Would the manager say there was nothing they could do?
I remember facing the same dilemma when I was a teller at a bank. There was a married man of about 60 who would come in and look me up and down telling me I was the sexiest teller there. He was aggressive in the way he did as if he knew I wasn’t going to do anything about it.
We had a policy at our bank that we would close the accounts of customers who sexually harassed us, but I figured that was overkill. I didn’t want him to get angry when they closed his account, and didn’t want to ruin his life by making it public knowledge. So I just would run to another room whenever he came in, watching him look around the room for me as a colleague helped him.
When sexual harassment happens in public, women feel trapped. They don’t want to make a scene, they don’t want to prompt aggression in the harasser, so we always just remove ourselves from the situation.
We leave the coffee shop, we walk quickly past men on the street, we hide in another room, we avoid eye contact because the few times we have confronted the situation has made the situation worse. At least, it has always made it worse for me.
So I sat there, protectively watching, but feeling frozen at the same time. Soon another young woman came and he began to stare and force conversation with her as well. When he left about 10 minutes later, the two women began to talk about how creepy that was. I jumped in and let them know I agreed, but if it made them feel better I was watching and willing to do something if things had escalated.
The woman who had received the brunt of the unwanted attention said it creeped her out and made her feel unsafe, but she also felt bad for him. He was probably lonely, and that led him to his creepiness. If that was the case, he could have a normal conversation without staring at her body, and took social cues that she felt incredibly uncomfortable. There were also about ten other men in the coffee shop he could have chosen to talk to as well.
I thought about this and began to think about why we as women can sometimes victimize the men that harass us. Why did I feel bad about reporting the married man who said wildly inappropriate things? And why did this woman attempt to explain away his behavior by saying he was lonely?
Maybe it’s because we see it done by the perpetrators themselves, Roy Moore after his accusations is painting himself as a victim, many men in power do it all the time.
We all began to share other times when something like this happened. When one of the women was a junior in high school a boy sitting next to her would pull out his penis under her desk and make her look. It traumatized her so she reported it to a teacher, the boy denied it, calling the girl a liar, and nothing was ever done about it.
Before we had finished telling stories, I had to go and run a few errands because we were leaving that next day for Iceland. I told the women I was writing a book about precisely this, gave them my info and left.
On the way home I couldn’t shake how angry I was. Why does this have to be part of our lives? Why are we the ones that have to leave when we are the ones being harassed? How can we make it better? What should I have done differently in that situation?
And thinking about it I don’t have answers in the short-term, to see a change it’s going to take longer.
I don’t know why that man in Starbucks felt entitled to stare and demand conversation. I don’t know why the man at the bank felt it was appropriate to betray his wife and sexually harass a young woman handling his teller transaction, but I do think it has a lot to do with the way men are taught.
You see, based on my interactions with some harassers, it seems they see me as a sex object first, and a person second. Think about cat-callers, men who grab women’s bodies on the street, or either man mentioned above. They don’t think about how I might feel if they yell at me, they see a series of body parts walking down the street.
I think that’s why when some people don’t care about victims of sexual assault, we have to say something like what if that was your sister, mother, girlfriend etc first. We have to find an example of someone they see as a person, to see another woman as a person.
In today’s society, we have taught girls that they can be anything, that we are equal to men, and that we deserve respect, but we fail to teach our boys the same. I was taught that I could be anything I wanted but found that there were many older men who didn’t believe the same.
We need to teach young boys and young girls to respect their counterparts and create safe ways that we can dialogue with one another, and we need to start this young.
In the Netherlands, they start teaching sexual education in Kindergarten (highly recommend reading this article and just thinking about it.) No, they don’t talk about the physical act itself, but they start to talk about crushes, and what those feelings are like and how to respond to those feelings in a healthy manner. They talk about how to respect one another within relationships at a young age.
When I was in kindergarten, a boy showed me his penis. I really didn’t want to see it, but I didn’t know what he was doing until he already did it. He wanted me to touch it and grabbed my hand. I don’t remember if I actually did or not, but I do know it scared me and I didn’t know how to react to the situation. I knew something about it was wrong, but I didn’t know how to talk about it.
If conversations about crushes, relationships, consent, and appropriate relationships had already begun from places of trust. He probably wouldn’t have shown me in the first place, and I would have known how to say no and tell him I felt uncomfortable.
As it was, I didn’t tell anyone and I felt very shameful and pretty confused about what happened.
We need to learn how to have open conversations about the breed vulnerability and honesty and at a young age. If we could learn how to do that, maybe I wouldn’t feel so afraid to confront the man in Starbucks about his behavior made us feel extremely uncomfortable and afraid.
If we taught our boys at a young age how to respect women and healthily process their emotions and desires, maybe we would have less men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken.
As I reflect, I am asking myself how I can seriously and courteously explain sexual harassment and it’s negative effects to the next man that sexually harasses me or another woman, because unfortunately, in the current state of the world, I know it is going to happen again.
What would you do? What would you have done in Starbucks in the scene I described above? How can we create a place where we can share our discomfort and emotions in a way that respects all people involved? I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comments.
Together, we can make this world better for all of us.