It seems that I keep returning to the topic of harassment, in part because it continues to be present in our culture, and in part because it just keeps happening to me. I’m not particularly special or attractive, I just have the poor luck of being a woman who spends a lot of time in public places. Like, ya know, a lot of people tend to do these days.
In my most recent instance of harassment, though, I managed to keep a level head and defuse the situation in a way that seemed to work, so I thought I’d share a bit about the experience.
I was at a street festival, dressed in my belly dance costume – not that this is a particularly relevant detail, as it wasn’t skimpy (which is totally not a justification for harassment anyway!), plus I was surrounded by other belly dancers so it’s not like I really stood out. There was a large man standing near our group with a woman, and suddenly, he turned toward me and held open his arms, advancing on me. Did he want a hug from a complete stranger? Apparently so.
He advanced. I retreated – or tried to, but there was a tent at my back, so I couldn’t go too far. I knew from previous experience that if I did nothing, or stood there with my arms at my sides, my lack of response could be seen as consent or encouragement (which is totally messed up, but there you go). And yet since he wasn’t doing anything explicitly threatening, it didn’t seem appropriate to react in a way that expressed extreme displeasure or hostility. He was a big guy, though, at least a head taller than me and much wider, so I was afraid of the situation escalating, even though I was in public and surrounded by friends.
When I ran out of room to back up, I held up my hands in front of me, palms facing him, and said something along the lines of, “Um, no hugs please… handshake instead?” And then I stuck out my right hand to him. After a moment, he took it, shook my hand, and then walked away.
I was relieved, frightened, and confused. I felt like by offering an alternative (the handshake instead of a hug), I kept the encounter friendly. It didn’t seem as though I was denying him something rudely, but rather giving him a chance to connect in another way. That, and the fact that I held my arms out in front of me, physically blocking him from coming any closer, seemed to send a pretty clear message: that I was not okay with hugging a stranger, but that I wasn’t totally rejecting him either.
It’s annoying, of course, that women are constantly conditioned and expected to be polite and not reject people, and that by standing up for myself in that way, I risked upsetting this dude. I knew I was in a relatively safe space – but there’s no telling how people will react. I’ve been stalked in public. I’ve been hit in public. Countless women have been called bitches (or worse) for not responding kindly (or at all) to the advances of men in public spaces. I hate having to “play nice” just to avoid a potentially dangerous situation, but my response seemed to be a good compromise wherein I asserted my boundaries and yet offered a friendly alternative to unwanted contact
Could I have done something better? Probably. But in the moment, I feel like I did pretty okay. Within minutes, I was swept up in a circle of friends, and then we were dancing, and I felt safe once more.