I was on the Broad Street Line heading north a few weeks ago, my belly full of tacos and my heart happy from walking around South Philly all evening, when I saw her.
A young woman around my age was listening to music and appeared to be scrolling through her phone when a guy sitting across the aisle motioned for her to take her headphones out. He waved to get her attention and when she didn’t comply, he moved to sit right next to her.
I couldn’t hear his words exactly, but did hear him calling her “baby girl.”
He talked at her for a while as she avoided him—she’s practiced this maneuver before.
“Do you know how pretty you would be if you just smiled?”
I locked eyes with her, trying to send the message that I’d help out if she needed it.
But just as artfully as she ignored him, she shut him down. She told him it wasn’t her job to be visually appealing to subway riders and that he was disrespecting her by invading her space. She calmly got off at the next stop and he moved on to the next girl.
I answered my boyfriend’s questioning face with a nod– yeah, that happens for women. Far, far too often. It’s the way things are.
Later that week I was standing in line for food with a friend when a guy cut right in front of us. We told him the line started a few people behind, but he said he needed to stand where he was for a very particular, important reason: to hit on the girl waiting in front of us.
She was polite enough at first, but after a few minutes, she shut him down, clearly not interested. He threw his hands up, offended and stunned his conquest hadn’t panned out.
While waiting for our ice cream and waffles, my friend and I talked about the line between flirting and harassment, and that what we just witnessed could have crossed it if it went any further. While we chatted about how weird and intrusive what we witnessed was, it didn’t seem new or out of place.
Every day women are harassed and catcalled—and sometimes beaten when they’re not receptive. Essays, articles and groups are formed and focused on the idea that those on the receiving end of it should either ignore it, shut it down or try to educate those doing the harassing. This has become so much of a phenomenon that a Tumblr site was created called “When Women Refuse,” a collection of news stories and personal accounts of turning down a date or an attempt at flirting that led to dangerous consequences.
Some say it’s “just flirting” and that whoever is on the receiving end should be flattered, but even that simplification feels creepy.
Even when I was young, I was a “no-nonsense woman,” my mom would say—I once slapped another kindergartner for trying to kiss me on the school bus home, for which she gave me a congratulatory high five.
But dating tips from magazines and TV shows early on told me to give someone a fake number or stand up someone who asked me on a date rather than turn them down. Even Aziz Ansari’s recent show, “Master of None,” deals with a plotline where a female friend is followed home by a guy who she turns down at a bar. When she tells the gang about it, the men in the group can’t believe it’s a regular occurrence.
The last time I went out dancing with friends, I turned down a man who asked me to dance. He asked if I was sure, and I told him with certainty that I was.
“Why didn’t you tell him you had a boyfriend?” my friend asked.
Because a boyfriend shouldn’t be the reason they respect my answer, I told her.
It wasn’t her fault, I thought. A girl probably told her to use that trick by a girl who used it before her.
I don’t know if these ideals were ingrained in me because I grew up in a house with all women, but I wasn’t exposed to some of the gender-based hierarchy that I see in some of my friends.
Plenty of people operate with this understanding, which I believe is the problem. It’s possible that the hard-to-define nature of street harassment and the line where unwanted flirting goes sour means people are left blurring those lines in their head.
The best I can do, I’ve concluded, is help those who see or experience forms of harassment to understand that while many accept this intrusiveness and disrespect onto others’ personal space as “the norm” or “just the way it is,” it is far from acceptable.
Paige Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @By_paigegross.