I had an interesting journey home tonight. In the Chinese sense. It’s 2.30 – I have literally just reached the sanctuary of my room, and i probably won’t be sleeping for a while yet, despite the fact that at about 20 past 10 I was tired enough to debate breaking up the party. It’d been a lovely evening with two close friends, talking and laughing: at about half 12 we suddenly noticed the time: we all have work tomorrow, so my friend G and I walked to the bus stop. We talked about a party where my friend’s date had worn their ‘lesbian vampires’ tshirt. A passing man said ‘hey, are you lesbians?’
My (genderqueer) friend’s reaction and mine were markedly different. I stiffened, my hackles rose; I went very still and focused on the bus stop sign in front of me. My friend, however, cheerily told the man we were talking about lesbian vampires from a kid’s book series they’d never read but heard good things about, and after a bit of banter, he moved on. When he’d gone, we began exploring our different reactions. I had interpreted his ‘hey are you lesbians?’ comment as a bit sexually inappropriate, and I’d had a bad experience at the same bus stop a few days before when coming home at a similar time from the same friend’s: a man had followed me along the street and talked at me for 30 minutes, refusing to notice hints, and I’d only escaped when the bus had (at length) arrived. I’d found this experience invasive, and I began explaining to my friend all the things I do to minimise the attention I get late at night at bus stops or on public transport: tying up my long hair so it’s less noticeable, taking off my heels if I’m wearing any, wearing a jacket unless it’s unbearably hot, wearing glasses so a) I can see and b) I’m less attractive (older-looking, more serious), walking or standing with head down and hands in pockets, not looking at or responding to people.
My friend was a little surprised. They thought I was afraid of rape. I explained that yes, I was afraid of rape or violence: that’s always the underlying fear. But what you get at bus stops late at night, especially if you are a small and feminine girl – this one, anyway – is the deceptively thin end of rape culture’s abberant wedge: forced social interaction, always with an edge of imagined if not intended threat. People – usually men, often drunk men – come up and talk to you. They often don’t care if you are reading or have headphones on (I turn any actual music off in the early hours anyway, so I can hear what’s going on around me): they just want to talk to you about whatever’s on their mind, and it’s uncomfortable. I pointed out the previous incident, and another my friend hadn’t noticed until i pointe it out: a man had come up behind us, stopped, folded his arms, glared at us intently, then continued on his way. He was high on SOMETHING, and I doubt it was life; but the point is I was physically and mentally hypervigilant, keenly aware of an anxious about what was happening around me. Usually at 1.30 am I’m shattered, and the last thing I want is to make small talk with a stranger; daytime buses are slightly different, but even then I’m not usually dying to interact with anyone. But most of the time in my experience people come up and talk at you, and they expect nice; and you are afraid to tell them you don’t want to talk, or to ignore them, or to be ‘rude’, because any random stranger, particularly any random MALE stranger, could get upset or aggressive, and that could lead to violent or rapey. I am very small, and have breakable osteoporotic bones, and almost everyone is bigger than me regardless of their gender – I am largely unable to defend myself against physical attack with any certainty of success.
So to me, doing what my friend did and inviting interaction is basically asking for trouble. You shut up and keep your head down and do your best to get home without any hassle. They were somewhat bemused: they get much less street hassle than I do, and attribute this largely to their more neutral gender presentation. On the rare occasions they present as more feminine, they noticed a marked increase. The bus still hadn’t come after about 20 minutes, and my friend, who uses a stick for disability reasons, was anxious to sit down. Given the previous topic of conversation, I said I’d prefer to stay upright and mobile, and besides, I could watch for buses – ‘like a meerkat sentry’, said my friend.
I had barely taken up my post opposite my seated friend, when a European man, some six or seven inches taller than me, unable to see my friend from the direction from which he was approaching, walked right up to me, and started a conversation. He asked why I didn’t walk, or some such. (As it happened, I’d walked the 6 miles or so there, and didn’t much fancy doing it again in the early hours, especially as I’d need to walk through Elephant and Castle, which scares me at night.) I looked toward my friend, said ‘and as if to illustrate my POINT!’ and then turned to the man. Mindful of our previous conversation about social coercion in spaces where women are vulnerable, and also mindful of the unusual morally supportive presence of my friend and their stick, I was exasperated and decided to see what wd happen if, for once, I refused to play ball. Refused to make nice. Just told the man straight out I had no interest in talking to him. So I did. I didn’t swear – not yet – I just said I had no interest in talking to him, and could he leave us alone. He was incredulous, and continued trying to talk – about how drunk he was, what a nice drunk he was, why was I being like that. I repeated, several times, that I didn’t want to talk to him, and would he please leave me and my friend alone. He went from incredulous to irate. He called me psycho, crazy bitch, mentally ill. He tried to engage with my friend in solidarity against me and my craziness: they rebuffed him firmly, and soon added their own wish to be left alone. He didn’t listen. He got uptight with them instead. With increasing volume and aggression, he continued to alternately abuse us for rejecting him, offer a selection of mental health diagnoses, and explain to us why our behaviour was unacceptable while his was okay. I told him to fuck off and leave us alone and walked a few paces away; he followed me, expostulating. My friend got to their feet and told him to leave us alone. At one point both parties were shouting ‘I don’t want to talk to you’: when I said ‘Stop then!’ the man said no, and told me if I’d been nice he might’ve left us alone, but since I was such a crazy psycho bitch [ - and then he didn’t finish the sentence.] My friend lifted their stick: he physically threatened them. My friend screamed ‘Leave us alone!’ repeatedly at full volume: he refused to do so and kept shouting about how stupid and mentally ill we were. At that point the wrong bus turned up, but I urged my friend onto it, because I think we’d both reached the end of our tethers; two stops later, I got off, and walked most of the way home, because I was scared he’d be on the right bus if I caught it.
I walked another four miles home, on my bad knee. And I was thinking – wow. I am used to being hassled by guys at bus stops in the early hours. It happens all the time. I do what I can to deflect it, in terms of hiding insofar as I can those characteristics which unmistakeably label me as ‘girl’, but I get it nevertheless – and usually, i am nice, and as distant as I can be, but polite. My body language with Scary Man had been unusual; whereas normally I play girl, hunch into myself, look away, shield with bags and books, I’d had Orange is the New Black on all day, and that’s full of women using the physical language of aggression. So when confronting Scary Man, I made the conscious decision to try that: to stand tall, even though I was still much shorter than he; to push my shoulders back, to walk straight up to him and look him in the eye; to speak directly. It was at that point he started to call me psycho. And I just thought – wow, this is the world we live in. If I’d been a guy, would Scary Man have started a conversation? Would he have refused to take no for an answer? I doubt it. Would he have screamed at a guy – a bigger guy than he – that he was a crazy psycho bitch? I doubt it.
Obviously, a lot of this stuff is intersectional, so let’s assume a guy of my race and colouring. It’s become a cultural truism that women, much more than men, are socialised as carers, socialised to be nice. [obviously these are a million miles from being the only two gender options, and a further million miles from being the only defining factors determining ‘socialisation’ . I would suggest that socialisation for trans folk is probably even more complicated than for cis folk, and am thinking of a male member of my race and class and background, in order to minimise other factors at play.] Many psychologists of gender have written much more articulately about this than can I; I’ll leave a bibliography in comments. But this goes further: here we are reaching Fugitivus’s epistemology-shattering Another Post About Rape, a world in which if a woman tries to enforce boundaries directly – even in a situation, late at night at a bus stop, when any considerate person might think twice about forcing company and conversation, because it’s evidently quite an isolating and vulnerability-provoking situation – *they* are labelled crazy, because women unequivocally and unapologetically drawing boundaries is simply incomprehensible in cultural terms. Women are nice. Women are polite. Women play nice. If I resist forced small-talk interaction, making strangers feel good about themselves as I was taught, I am crazy and should be lectured extensively on the errors of my ways. There is no space for me to refuse. There is no script.
I’m lucky: as a well-educated, presentable, middle-class white girl, I can play nice acceptably if I want. I can do ice queen. I can do apologetic. But all of those involve treating some man’s attempt to engage me in conversation as if it is welcome or appropriate, as if I have no right to those (any) boundaries, and am requesting indulgence in being allowed privacy.
The worst thing is that I’m aware, even now, writing this, that what I’m trying to do is process, and recast what happened into terms that I find acceptable, maybe even useful. Because what really happened out there is that I tried to say no. I tried to draw a line between me and someone else, as directly as I could: using words, body language, eye contact, everything. And nothing I could do could make him listen. Nothing I could do could make him believe in my right to those boundaries. Nothing I could do could make him leave me alone. Nothing I could do could make him accept a no, or back off, or leave me alone.
Now imagine you are me, knowing that, and at a bus stop, late at night. Imagine you are me, and you know that there is nothing you can do, either verbally or physically, to make somebody leave you alone if you want them to. And now think about rape.