Whose bodies?: On public harassment and victim blaming

(Originally posted on tumblr, here.)

A few weeks ago a man approached me while I was downtown waiting for the bus. We both had just exited the 150, which runs from my campus and the Veteran’s hospital (both in La Jolla) to downtown San Diego. I was listening to music on my phone as I usually do, sunglasses on, unsmiling. I was not mad or unhappy in any way, just keeping to myself. The man walked up to me and waved his hand in my line of vision, smiling.

“Hey lady!”

I smiled back, and then looked down at my phone.

“Lady!” He motioned for me to take off my earplugs.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“You should smile more often, you’re awfully pretty!”

“Thanks,” I said, again looking back down at my phone.

“But I saw you on the bus though. You know what the problem with people is these days? You people don’t interact. You don’t smile! You just listen to your music and tune out the rest of the world! You should talk to people, honey, c’mon.”

I sighed. He went on. I smiled. I even agreed with him. I did and said anything I could think to do or say to indicate (politely) that the discussion was over and I didn’t want to talk anymore. But he was oblivious, or just didn’t care. I was basically stuck there, with all the women near me silent (probably thankful that they were not the subject of this dude’s tirade), wishing I could just tell him to shove it and walk away. I didn’t say anything like that though; it wouldn’t be polite. He eventually walked away and I chalked it up to a minor annoyance.

On the bus ride home that annoyance grew. I thought about what it means to be female-bodied in public, to be fat in public, to be any number of things in public that indicate to others that you and your body are available for comment. People feel entitled to my attention, and that makes me angry. Too often, people feel entitled to my body, and that makes me really fucking angry.

Yesterday, my good friend Kyla was groped while she was getting on the bus.

I struggle with telling this story because part of me wants to paint a picture for you, to describe what Kyla looks like, how she usually acts in public, her femme style, what she was wearing yesterday. But I also know that these kinds of descriptions can be problematic, because they ultimately lend themselves to narratives about rape culture that lead to victim blaming. If Kyla was acting loud or taking too much space and wearing revealing or otherwise vibrant attire, she would be blamed for the sexual assault she experienced. If she weren’t—if she were wearing, say, a long skirt and a baggy cat sweater—then my fear is that the description would be read as an example of how Kyla really didn’t *deserve* to be assaulted (which is ridiculous because obviously no one deserves to be assaulted).

Anyway, Kyla was groped. Against her will. And someone else saw it happen.

When both Kyla and her groper exited the bus, he tried to approach her.

She looked at him and said “if you ever touch me again I will kill you.”

The man immediately started yelling and making a scene. “WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA! I did not GROPE you I was STRETCHING. DON’T THREATEN ME. Oh my god, someone get the cops this girl just threatened to kill me!”

He wailed his arms around until a disgruntled bus driver came to see what was wrong. The bus driver got the attention of a nearby police officer. The man told his side of the story first. (He was simply stretching, and later a crazy lady told him she was going to murder him.)

Kyla attempted to explain that she was sexually assaulted, but when she pointed to the other passenger who had witnessed the grope, he just shrugged and said, unhelpfully, “I don’t know, he could have been stretching I guess.”

Kyla was so frustrated she felt like crying, so angry she couldn’t see straight.

“You look like a nice girl,” the cop said, as if to be helpful. “But nice girls shouldn’t threaten people.”

Then, the police officer proceeded to ask the groper if he would like to press charges against Kyla. 

Yes, you heard that right: the verbal threat of a woman is more powerful, more dangerous, and more criminal than the actual physical assault committed against her.

When the groper “kindly” refused to, the cop left them with the following friendly advice: (to the groper) “you should be careful when you’re ‘stretching’ from now on” and (to Kyla) “you should be more careful when you enter the bus.”

This was, unfortunately, the second time that day that Kyla had been touched against her will by a man on a bus (the first guy felt her leg as he told her he liked ‘natural’ women like her).

Words cannot adequately describe the fucked up mix of anger and resignation I felt upon hearing Kyla’s story. Walking from my office on campus to the nearby bus stop, I listened as Kyla tearfully asked me “is it that I’m a woman? That I’m femme? That I’m fat? Why do people think that my body belongs to them?”

I was at a loss for words, because even though I know a dozen reasons why this kind of thing happens—why people feel entitled to the bodies of others, why a man thinks it’s okay to tell a woman she should smile, why we gawk at people whose bodies are different from ours and giggle about them in whispers with our friends—it doesn’t change the pain we feel. We might understand why it happens, but that doesn’t make the wound less deep.

And even if we are well-versed in how oppression operates and all the fucked up -isms in the world that assert the dominance of some over others, we internalize this shit. We internalize the idea that our bodies are not fully ours. We internalize the ‘rules’ for embodiment-in-public, and we internalize victim blaming. We blame ourselves, we blame each other. When I first received the text from Kyla that some guy had slid his hand down her ass to her thighs, for a brief moment I felt myself thinking “well, Kyla *does* dress to be noticed.”

Can you fucking believe that? She is one of my very best friends, and for a moment even *I*, a radical feminist and part-time misandrist, blamed her for being groped.

What the fucking fuck.

There is a pretty popular adage in anti-rape activism work that most of you have probably heard: “instead of teaching women how not to be raped, we need to teach men not to rape”. Part of this re-education needs to include an intersectional understanding of the entitlement people feel towards marginalized bodies who dare to live in public. Part of it needs to focus on victim blaming—understanding it and ending it. We need to teach ourselves best practices for un-internalizing (externalizing?) this shit, and we need to support each other when we feel shame anyway. If we feel up to it, if we have the spoons, we can participate in activist projects. We can tell our stories.

And while I absolutely understand that sexual assault shouldn’t be conflated with general harassment (just as we should not conflate racially-based harassment with sexually-based harassment, etc. and so on) I think it’s important to acknowledge that this shit is related and, for many of us who live in bodies that are marginalized across several different axes, these experiences can’t be neatly separated out.

I was thinking about all of this while I was on my own journey home yesterday. I got off the 150 at Old Town Transit Center and found myself at the very same stop Kyla had been at only three hours earlier.

I saw a familiar smiling face.

“Hey lady!”

I looked away, hellbent on not engaging him.

He walked right up to me and laid a hand on my shoulder as if we were old friends. “Hey lady! Do you remember me? Come on, just give me a smile!”

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