I’ve been reading a lot lately, from Twitter and various other sources, about some pretty horrific experiences women have had with over-zealous men in public.
So I thought maybe it was time for me to tell mine.
I was sitting outside the local library on a bench, alone, books in hand as I waited for my mother to finish shopping. A middle aged man walked past and suddenly smiled at me, a cocky and confident smile that he obviously thought was appealing and was anything but.
He slowed as he neared me, and eyed me up and down like a potential prize cow, and finally asked his all-important question: “Hey, how’re you doing?”
I smiled politely but said nothing, not wanting to appear rude but not wanting to engage in conversation either. I was just hoping he’d be satisfied with general acknowledgement and move along. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
“You got some books there? What’ve you been reading?”
What made it even more awkward was that a woman who looked like she might be his mother was standing right next to him. She was looking back and forth between us, not helping but not hindering, just letting her son ‘work his magic’. I flicked my gaze over towards the shopping centre as I still smiled politely, hoping for my mother to suddenly appear like an oasis in a desert.
Dissatisfied with my lack of enthusiasm, the man’s whole demeanour changed. The cocky and confident smile fell away and was replaced instead by a scowl. The awkward pick-up lines were instead replaced with: “What’s your fucking problem, you bitch? You too good to talk to me?”
This was my first encounter of this kind, ever, and quite frankly I was just taken aback by how quickly his attitude had changed. I probably should have put a stop to him at this point, stood up, told him to get the fuck over himself, and walked away. But somehow I was frozen to the spot.
“You’re ugly, aren’t you?” He continued on. “You’re a fat ugly cunt anyway, who’d want you? Hey? Too fucking good to talk to me, you dumb ugly slut.”
His mother, by this stage, had started tugging on his arm to try and get him to move away. She didn’t seem as shocked as I was, but maybe she was used to this. Maybe this was part of their daily shopping ritual. She just seemed annoyed that his abuse of a complete stranger was holding them up.
For my part, I didn’t understand what the Hell was going on. I’d just wanted to sit quietly by myself, maybe read one of my library books, and wait for my mother to finish shopping. Instead I was being asked to engage in conversation with this complete stranger, and being viciously abused because I really didn’t want to.
“Look at you, just sitting there with your fucking books. You’re a smart-mouth bitch I bet. Too fucking smart for your own good. Yeah. No shutting you up and putting your mouth to better use, you dumb cunt.” He continued.
I’ve always thought of myself as stubborn, spirited, and direct. I don’t take crap from people and I always, always say what I’m thinking. But somehow, all of that was taken away in an instant, and I was left sitting with the polite smile frozen on my face and actually thinking: ‘If I sit here and let him get it out of his system, he’ll go away and leave me alone’. To this day, I still don’t understand how that thought process came to be.
Until that moment in my life, I’m ashamed to say that when it came to abused women I’d always thought: ‘So why don’t they just leave? What’s the problem? Why do they put up with that?’. Suddenly I understood. I knew that their thought process when faced with an abusive situation was the same as mine when I was faced with this pathetic middle-aged shouting man.
If I let him get it out of his system, then he’ll leave me alone.
Even more astonishingly, I was letting this asshole get to me. Yes, I was actually starting to feel hurt as he flung at me every negative thought I’d ever had, and that I’m sure most women have had in their life: the thought that they’re fat and unattractive. I’m embarrassed to say that there may have even been a tear in my eye, and that still, still, I was doing absolutely nothing to defend myself.
Eventually this man got tired of calling me every disgusting, derogatory term under the sun and let his mother drag him away.
I still wonder what his reaction would be if he’d been sitting on a bench, quietly waiting for someone, and a gay man had wandered up to him and tried to engage him in conversation. I wonder whether he would find it acceptable to then be subjected to a barrage of abuse just because he’d committed the heinous crime of not being interested.
What was the correct response in this situation, the response that would have kept him happy? Was I supposed to affect interest? Fall backwards off the bench for him with my legs spread just because he’d said hello? Force myself to interact with someone who quite frankly I had no interesting in interacting with?
We all have rights. He has the right to try and engage in conversation with people if he wants to. And I have the right to choose not to engage in conversation if I don’t want to. Clearly he was expecting a different response, a more positive one, and took it pretty personally when I just didn’t want to talk.
I can’t believe that these are things that need to be spelled out, but just for the record, for all of men out there with an urge to shout at a complete stranger, here’s a list of what I’m allowed to do:
1. I’m allowed to sit quietly on a bench.
2. I’m allowed to not want to talk to you.
3. I’m allowed to politely rebuff your advances.
4. I’m allowed to not want my personal space invaded.
5. I’m allowed, if you don’t take a hint, to give an even broader hint that I’m just not interested.
6. I’m allowed to expect to not be verbally abused just for the apparently unforgivable crime of not wanting to talk to a total stranger.
7. I’m allowed to expect to not be verbally abused full stop.
8. I’m allowed to read a book without being accused of being too smart for my own good.
I hope that clears things up.