By Emily Joy Allison-Hearn
A couple of Saturdays ago I had to throw a shopping cart in between me and man who was angry at me because I did not flirt with him.
He was staring at me in the aisle at the grocery store and it made me uncomfortable. He asked me about the box of soup that I was scrutinizing. Because it was Saturday morning, and because I hadn’t had coffee yet, and because I have autonomy and I don’t have to have a conversation with anybody that makes me uncomfortable, I didn’t respond. I went back to what I was doing, which was standing inoffensively and reading the ingredients on a box of soup, in the same clothes I slept in and no makeup.
The man walked behind me as I was standing there, and slowly but forcefully said, “Okay, sorry, Jesus! Honey you never had a chance in HELL anyway, I’ve got a girlfriend that makes you look like a DOG!!” The man was in his 50s at least.
I lost it.
“Excuse me?!” I said. I was shaking violently as I turned to the three grocery store employees who were staring, mouths wide open, at me and the man, and asked them if they heard that. When I engaged the employees, the man exploded and started trying to justify his actions, shouting that he was “just trying to start a conversation with me” and “isn’t that right, sweetie, tell ’em!” After the third time that he said he was “just trying to start a conversation with me,” I shouted, “I didn’t want to have a conversation with you!”
This was apparently my unforgivable sin, and the man started coming directly at me, hands raised. There was a shopping cart behind me. I threw it in between our bodies. I don’t know what would have happened if the shopping cart hadn’t been there. If the employees hadn’t been there. The man stormed off and left the store before security could find him. He didn’t see me burst into tears. The employees did.
All this because I didn’t respond when he asked me about a box of soup.
I’ve been derided, insulted, threatened, mocked and more all for responding to men’s advances in a way they deem “insufficient.” Every woman has. I remember once when I was a manager at a restaurant, there was a man in the dining room drunkenly harassing a female customer because she wouldn’t talk to him and didn’t want to flirt with him. When I went to go tell him that he needed to leave, he very loudly insisted that he was going to “rape both of y’all” all the way out the door.
Last summer in Chicago I was having a conversation with a male friend of mine, who is black, about the intersection of street harassment and race: how we perceive what is happening based on the race and sometimes also the assumed class of the cat-caller. It’s an interesting conversation to be sure. I was telling my friend a story about what had happened on the L train on the way over. “So for example,” I said, “on the way over here, this douchebag starts talking to me on the train and asking me what I was writing in my notebook—” “Woah woah woah,” my friend interrupted. “Why would you just automatically assume that he was a douchebag? I talk to girls on the train sometimes, and that doesn’t make me a douchebag.” And this is what I explained to him.
Literally every kind of man hurts women.
White men hurt women.
Black men hurt women.
Poor men hurt women.
Rich men hurt women.
Old men hurt women.
Young men hurt women.
Married men hurt women.
Single men hurt women.
Every type of man hurts women.
In terms of working on being a less racist person as a woman, your goal is to basically to train yourself to be equally afraid of all types of men. Because not being afraid at all is not an option. If a man talks to you in public, on the train, at a bar, at the grocery store, there is no way to tell whether or not he wants to hurt you just by looking at him, because every type of man hurts women.
So if you want to talk to a girl in public, I can’t stop you. But you should be aware that for her own safety she is absolutely assuming that you want to bring her harm, and your first priority, if you choose to engage with her, is proving to her that you do not.
I’m not trying to be unreasonable. I usually don’t react as strongly or as disdainfully if a man sitting next to me at a bar strikes up a conversation, because that is more expected. You meet people at bars; you make friends at bars. But you don’t tend to make friends on the train, or in a parking lot late at night, or in the soup aisle at the grocery store on Saturday morning.
And this is what I wish men knew. I wish they knew that I do not have laser-vision Good Guy Goggles. I can’t tell based on what you look like or what you say. I, and almost every other woman in the world, automatically assume that you want to hurt me if you speak to me—even if, in your mind, you’re “just being nice” or “just trying to start a conversation.” We don’t know that. And too many other men in the soup aisle at the grocery store have proven that it isn’t safe to assume the best.
If you see me alone in public, I will be looking at my phone. I will have my headphones in, even if I’m not listening to anything. I will be reading a book, a menu, anything to look busy and unavailable. I will fake a phone call. I have before. I will keep my eyes locked straight ahead, being careful not to glance your way lest you take it as a signal that I want you to tell me how you think I look today. And if you still insist on talking to me, I may respond. I may smile for my own safety. I may flip you off if I’m reasonably certain you won’t come after me. But don’t be surprised if I say nothing at all.
Emily Joy Allison-Hearn is a spoken word poet, freelance writer, blogger, and co-founder of The Flawless Project. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband #TwitterlessBilly and only two cats, which she feels is not nearly enough. More of her writing and poetry can be found on her website, and she can be booked for your school/church/conference/festival/open mic/coffee shop/poetry slam/special event here.