I sometimes tell the following story to friends to illustrate the kind of crazies I meet daily taking public transportation in a city like Washington, D.C.:
While in grad school, I often took the Metro (the subway system in DC) to class in the middle of the day, during the oddest of hours. Because of this, there would be times when I was one of few people on a particular car on the train. Normally this would make me happy, because it meant that I’d have a quieter car, and I could get more reading or studying done. One day that all changed, however.
You see, I remember walking onto a car with no one else seated in it. I quickly sat down, opened my book, and went about my business of reading about presidential personalities, once again glad I wouldn’t have any distractions. Anyone who rides the Metro knows that any day someone could decide that they need let the entire train know how musically talented or mostly untalented they are, so a quiet train was pretty much heaven for me. At the very next stop, a guy entered. He seemed regular enough and didn’t cause any alarms to go off in my head, so I went back to reading, paying him no attention. That is until he sat in the seat right beside mine and began speaking to me. “Damn girl, you just like I like ’em,” he said. “I mean, look at you. You’re light skin. Thick. You even got freckles! You don’t know, if you were mine, I’d have you bent over all day, wearing nothing but a thong and heels.”
I tried to ignore him, thinking that ignoring him would make him go away. But he was emboldened by the fact that we were the only ones in that car, and I soon realized that me ignoring him was just making him angry. Plus, by sitting right next to me, he’d blocked me from getting away from him.
“What? You don’t know,” he continued, his voice getting higher. “Girl, I’m a freak! One night with me, I’d have you so turned out. You won’t want to read them damn books anymore.”
“I’m good, thanks,” I tried to explain.
“Yea, I’m not interested. I’d like to just keep reading.”
I kept my voice calm and low, but I tried to still assert a certain amount of seriousness to him. I wanted to convey, “hey, I’m not trying to get irate with you, but I’m not appreciative of what’s happening here.” I’m not entirely sure that he cared.
Soon enough, he let his quest to make me his freak go. But not before letting me know again and again just how much I was missing out on and why I should acquiesce to his wishes. He never left my side, though, until he decided it was time for him to get off the train.
As I mentioned, I’ve told this story before. Yet, it’s very rare that I get real about how I felt in that moment. I don’t speak about the immense amount of fear that overtook me as I sat in that Metro car alone, praying to God that this man wouldn’t find my rejection so worrisome that he would do me bodily harm. Or the relief I felt when another man walked onto the car, followed by another wave of fear that it was now just me and two male strangers on the car.
I don’t speak about how I slowly pulled out a pen from my purse, uncapped it, and was preparing myself to use it as a weapon if need be. I don’t speak about how I never dared get into an empty train car ever again. But I remember it all.
Even before the #yesallwomen hashtag began on Twitter this weekend as a response to Elliot Rodger’s rantings about the women who’d rejected him, I found myself explaining to a male co-worker that it mattered not what women wore — all women were used to experiencing harassing language and attacks from men on a consistent basis. He didn’t understand what I meant. He was firmly in the belief that a woman attracted a certain response based on what she wore or how she carried herself. Or how her body was shaped.
And then I told him my story from above. I explained how I’d worn a black turtleneck that day, with a crewneck sweater on top of it, jeans, pearls, and flats. How there was nothing I wore that day that invited that man to approach me the way he did, but that he still felt he had the right to do so. How that was not the only personal example I could give him, but it was one of my more frightening ones. How I’d managed to make it into a funny experience by now as a way to attempt to forget the fear. But how it had absolutely impacted the way I responded to all men in the future when they approached me by myself. And that I was not alone.
How many women have instantly used the excuse that “I have a boyfriend” when a guy approaches them on the street? Not because said boyfriend, whether real or not, would actually make a difference about your interest, but because it feels safer to say that than to just say, “no, I’m not interested.”
How many women have feared the response they will get when they reject a man, consumed with worry that he’ll take that rejection so personally that he’ll spew hateful things back at you? “Well fuck you too, bitch!” <– How many of us have heard those words in response to our “no”?
How many women have contemplated going to a guy’s house or having a guy come over, but also worried that he might try to overpower you at some point if you don’t do what he thinks you all should be doing?
These are not concerns that men (for the most part) face. But they are what women, all women, face on a very regular basis — the fear that their “no” might cause someone to kill them for it.
I’ve seen many women write their stories in light of this recent tragedy — on blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter, on websites, and more. It’s sparked conversation, and for that, I am grateful. But I still hope that one day the conversation won’t be as needed. That so many women won’t have these universal stories. That a tragedy like what happened this weekend won’t simply reinforce what many women are frightened of every day. And that women won’t have to tell them to get men to understand the dangers all women, #yesallwomen, are presented with regularly.
PS: My deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of those killed this weekend. I pray their loved ones find some sense of peace despite the circumstances.