on bus stops, boundaries, and bad things i learn late at night

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.

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About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Likes rabbits, old houses with big windows and John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. Needs more sleep.
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13 Responses to on bus stops, boundaries, and bad things i learn late at night

  1. Gia says:

    It is always rather fascinating to read about the methods different people use in such scenarios such the ‘Night Bus Of Doom’ and ‘Walking Home Down Dodgy Street In High Heels’! Oh, I know them so well! I feel very much that fear is as well-founded as it is self-perptuating, and in order to control any less-than-gentle interchange with forward members of the opposite sex one must own (PWN!) that interchange. Fundamentally, I do everything I can to not present as a ‘victim’: it goes without saying that some are drawn to feminine weakness in the worst possible ways. i employ confident body language devoid of flirtation; verbal ownership of conversations; humour as a tool of deflection and misdirection in said conversations; the hard demeanor of someone who will in fact f**k them up if they try anything. But as you say, physicality has a lot to do with this… I am taller than average for a girl. And despite being slim, I am strong of body. It helps. You have my sympathy in dealing with such thugs – it is exhausting having to manage the unpredictability and escalation of such base behaviours in others. I am sorry you had such a nasty night 😦

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    • Jay says:

      There seems to be substantial variation in how women experience street harassment, and it seems like an interesting territory to explore in order to perhaps get a better understanding of the gender dynamics behind it. Because I feel, reading this, that it’s almost as unfamiliar to me as it probably is to many men reading this post.

      I may be in a similar position to Gia above – 5’7″. Fairly fit, athletic-looking, and in particular big shoulders. Decent case of Resting Bitch Face – perfectly alright looking, but certainly not pretty. And a tomboy-ish physical demeanour where I never really learnt how to be delicate and ladylike, and *did* learn to take up space physically, verbally and interpersonally. (I fear all this also makes me much less attractive and desirable, so there are definitely downsides. But the right to the city is good.)

      And somehow this physicality sees me go almost entirely un-hassled – late at night, cycling, and so on. Ultimately I’m equally vulnerable of course – what you say about “nothing you can do, either verbally or physically, to make somebody leave you alone if you want them to” is still very true. Boundaries are denied to women as a class. But the frequency of that threat = or that feeling of immediate threat – is vastly reduced, I think that’s the substantive difference.

      It’s weird how easily this difference is attained, in some ways. That I or the friends you mention can attain this perception of androgyny or “more neutral gender presentation” – even while in my cases wearing some make-up, and sometimes dresses, and having a body type that while not ideal (not delicate), still essentially conforms to gender dictat. I’ve also seen some mention from older women on becoming “invisible” to cat-calls, which seems related.

      It suggests femininity as something extremely elusive and only bestowed (from the outside) on a minority of women… While it’s deeply regressive that femininity is this *thing* defined vis-a-vis attractiveness to men (and not an identity we can entirely own or claim ourselves), there’s also something in a way radical that femininity is so decentred from the actual set of female persons. The gender binary is always-already socially disbelieved?

      (Tentative and partly-formed thoughts)

      *

      “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.”

      I had some interesting discussions with a then-boyfriend about the scale of men’s violence against other men that seems to be quite invisible to many women – or was to me, for one. Weird stuff around the power play around just ordering a drink at a bar, or being looked at funny on the street. The ex seemed to get particular shit because people took exception to his face – quite literally being told “You have a provocative face.” Scary Man might not have started the same conversation, but I think it could be quite possible that he would have refused to take no for an answer (“You looking at me?!”) and got abusive towards a man nonetheless.

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  2. dbx27 says:

    I am about to tell a story that will probably be familiar to a lot of people who grew up with cats.

    When I was little, I really, REALLY loved our family cat, and wanted to play with her All. The. Time. Unsurprisingly, the cat did not always want to play with six-year-old me! Sometimes she would run away and climb a tree, or hide in the thorny bushes where I couldn’t reach her, and I would sit outside the bush for hours waiting for her to come out. Sometimes, if I managed to be fast enough to catch her, she would turn around and bite or scratch me until I let her go.

    And I would think, stupid cat. Doesn’t she know I just want to pat her? Patting is nice! She’d enjoy it if she just stayed still and let me stroke her!

    And I would think, mean cat. It isn’t fair, doesn’t she know how much I want to play with her? It’s not fair!

    And I would think, crazy cat. Why is she so angry and nasty to me when I just want to be nice to her?

    Sometimes, although it embarrasses me to admit it now, I would keep chasing after the cat even when I knew she was trying to get away from me, because if I could just get her to STOP, she’d surely come around and let me play with her!

    And then… after a few bloody scratches and a little bit of growing up… I realised that the cat was a living creature with a mind of her own, and that if she didn’t want to be patted, that meant that IT WAS NOT THE RIGHT TIME TO PAT THE CAT. I learned that if she moved away from me or indicated that she wasn’t interested in playing, it was better to let her go. I learned that I grabbed her and forced her to be patted, neither of us would really enjoy ourselves. And I learned that if I stayed still and waited quietly, or did something that interested the cat, she would come to me of her own accord. And then there would be real, unforced patting and playing, and it would be nice. That the cat was not being mean, the cat was not being crazy, the cat had a right to choose the time and place that she would interact with me, and that if I got hurt for disrespecting her wishes, it was my own fault.

    And I grew up to become a person who is very, very good with animals, because I learned to respect them and not treat them like toys which are there for my amusement.

    With the help of a wonderful short-tempered big black-and-white moggy cat, I figured this lesson out between the ages of six and seven years old. I am saddened and baffled and bewildered by how many adult men still struggle with the same concept.

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  3. Evelyn says:

    I’m sorry that happened to you. How awful. There’s nothing wrong (although sometimes it’s awkward) with trying to engage another person in conversation, even a stranger, but when the other person wants to disengage, then … you disengage. And with that particular situation—late night, bus stop, larger male, smaller female—really any sensible man would know how the situation most likely feels to the woman and proceed appropriately, i.e., a reassuring smile, silence, appropriate distance, with maybe a tiny bit of unthreatening small talk.

    I find it interesting that every man I’ve known who has been clearly aware of that particular male-female dichotomy and taken pains to respect it has always treated me as an equal otherwise. I remember once not wanting to catch a ride home from work with an older, slightly patronizing coworker (who was plenty smart and should have known better) who gave me the slight creeps for some reason, deciding to wait instead on my other male coworker who never gave me any cause for alarm. I was nice about it, but the older coworker (in my earshot) complained about my refusal of a ride home. He was clearly offended. (I can actually see him doing what your accoster did if he’d been drunk.) At the time I just politely reiterated my stance, but current me probably would have said, “You do realize, don’t you, that you don’t have to intend to be threatening for the other person to feel threatened? Maybe if that’s a reaction you get a lot, you should change your approach.”

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  4. Rose says:

    I had a sort of similar experience the other week. I was coming out of my station with my sister and these guys started shouting over to us – I couldn’t here it all as I was trying desperately to ignore them but I heard them say something about really feeling they could ‘do the one in the purple dress [my sister]’. At first we tried ignoring them and walking away from them (difficult as it was uphill and they were walking fast). That didn’t stop them though. As it wasn’t that late and I wasn’t alone I decided to argue back with them, shouting at them that it wasn’t acceptable to talk to us like that and to leave us the hell alone (I can’t remember the actual words, just that I was really angry). They continued and followed us when we crossed the road. My sister actually told me off and said I had no right to do that, implying I had made the situation worse.
    I have a tiny hope though, that the more women react like men like that in a more combative way, perhaps men will start to think twice about talking like that to women like that. It’s not easy I know, and I would probably not have done it if I was alone and it was late and I felt unsafe. It is an uphill struggle but I just hope that the more that happens, the less men will think they can get away with it.

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  5. johnnie says:

    i am old and trans and 6 feet tall and weigh about 185 pounds. i’m white. i run and bike and assume i look like a tall, good looking sissified man. inside i feel like a small woman, girl. i have never felt my size. i wear studs in both ears. my breasts are out a bit now and i’ve started wearing sports bras. not sure of the look i want to cultivate. probably something andro. but i wear girls’ clothes, just not dresses. woman can tell, seems, more than men. but i get looks from men. i get stares from them. i generally avoid eye contact, though i do get lots of smiles from women. they sit by me, start conversations, smile, nod, seem to relax. i ride my bike a lot around NYC — i live in East Harlem. i feel safer on my bike than i do in the subway. i feel as safe in my community as anywhere. a sissified gay man was shot in the face and killed some months ago in the west village, as ya’ll probably know a gentrified lgbtq mecca. i think more about anti-gay harassment than anti-woman, though it’s similar: straight homophobs – transphobs feel threatened. while i don’t spend time out late at night in the city, i am still cautiously afraid. i could say i have it better than trans people of color, not matter their stature, but i am still afraid. just a note on approaching women at night on the street, anywhere. as a man, when i looked and presented like a man, even a sissified one, i knew not to approach women alone at night and would even cross the street to avoid close contact. I knew that i presented, at least from a distance, as a tall white man. even now, i still might present that way, even though my intended presentation, at least to me, is more andro, as i said.

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  6. KD says:

    I’m a bus rider, too. And I am always on edge knowing I will probably have to fend off yet another forced interaction as described here. I’m sick of it. I try to avoid taking bus after dark, which of course, I should not have to do. The saddest part is no one intervenes to help me out. They just look the other way. The part about presenting feminine is also accurate; when I dress down and/or frumpy, I get less attention than when I dress/act more feminine and/or present as more friendly.
    I’ve also had the experience of a group of obviously partying guys follow me from a bus stop at night in their car hooting and hollering [and laughing], so upsetting me I ran up to a nearby house and banged on the door crying and asking to use the phone to call a friend to pick me up. Only to be told they didin’t have a phone and not letting me come inside. [Buy a female voice.] The guys, however, seem to think this was all funny. I still get pissed whenever I think about it.

    Thank you so much for this post!

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  7. KD says:

    Forgot to mention this in my previous comment: innapropriate questions. I wish I had a buck for every time a guy has started chatting me up and [within 5 minutes–usually 5 seconds] begun peppering me with questions about where I am coming from/going to, whether I have a boyfriend/husband/children, why I don’t have a boyfriend/husband/children, not to mention a host of other things that are none of their business. One guy, firing questions at me so fast my head was spinning so much I was barely able to think, managed to get me to disclose where I was really headed after I gave him a different answer several questions earlier, taking glee in pointing out the contradicition in what I had said–as if I’d done something wrong. [REALLY?]. That’s when I realized I was still feeling obligated to be nice–damn it! But I also resolved to do next time what I should have done in the first place–refused to answer. Period. But of course, that leaves fear he will get angry and behave in a frightening way…..

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  8. Lauren says:

    I am a 5’7″ white female, and I totally understand your fear. I had an experience on a night bus that put me off travelling late for months. I was with a male friend, though that was not particularly helpful as he is quite effeminate, and worries more than I do about strangers talking to us. We were at the back of the bus, lower deck, and a thin guy, black, probably in his early to mid 30s was spitting on the floor a few seats along from us. As much as i wanted to say omething I kept quiet, only pulling subtle faces at my friend, until he spat directly on my leg. It was a warm night, and I was wearing thin leggings, so it wasn’t my bare leg, but I could still feel it on my skin. I looked at it, then at the guy, but as he looked kind of drunk/high/something I still said nothing. However, he saw me look at him, and started getting lairy, shouting at me “What? You got a problem?!” at which point I couldn’t say nothing “Actually yeah, you just spat on me” he obviously already knew, and didn’t care, I’ll spare you the details of the ‘conversation’ and just say that it escalated very quickly, him getting louder and ruder, me asking to be left alone, until he finally smacked my phone out of my hands, which shattered all over the floor, and I lost my temper a bit. Stood up to look him directly in the eyes, shouted at him, a lot of swearing involved, saying how breaking my phone was completely uncalled for, possibly calling him a c*nt (though I don’t really remember, I was just so angry) Bad move. He pushed me back down onto my seat, Grabbed a handful of my hair, and slammed my head against the window, everything went blurry and speckled with black, and by the time I could stand, he had got off the bus and was banging on the window next to me calling me a stupid bitch, and telling me to watch my back. There were 6 other people on the lower deck. 7 if you include the bus driver, and at least 4 on the top deck. No one did anything. At this point in my life, I was 19. I am now 23, and I’m still worried that I might bump into him again.

    What I’ve learned over the years, no one cares. You have to defend yourself, cos no one else will step in and do it for you. I’m just grateful that my friend wasn’t hurt in all this.

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