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Last week, I shared a story – and my personal reaction to that story – about the experience of a friend. Amelia is one of my very oldest friends, dating back more than 20 years, and I left any identifying information out of that post in case she felt she wanted to stay out of the conversation entirely. Her experience prompted quite a range of reactions, and over the weekend she decided to chime in, and to write a full response from her perspective. We’re sharing her piece here because the conversation is a valuable one, because we should always be willing to question our own truths, and because her experience is equally valid – please keep this in mind and be respectful in any comments. Thank you so much, Amelia! –Kate
I choose to Hollaback! a different way.
My friend Kate was kind enough to protect my anonymity in her initial post, but I’m generally an open book, as my story makes clear, and the guy in the pick-up maneuver in question is now a confirmed NO in the boyfriend department so there’s no reason to distance myself from last week’s post. In fact, I welcome the opportunity to share my side of the story and encourage the Hollaback! audience to perhaps take a different approach. My experience, especially after Kate chose to share it with the universe, has been the subject of a lot of thoughts and soul-searching on my part and so I’ve chosen to collect those thoughts in this post and see where the Hollaback! adventure takes me next. I’m looking forward to becoming a part of your community.
I do feel the need to start this by identifying myself as an ally. Partially out of loyalty to my friend, but also because I support it and find it interesting, I have been following Hollaback! Boston’s online presence and recently donated to the Pride fundraiser. I am one of you (although I do not live in Boston). A man has no right to look at you, say something to you, or touch you in any way without your permission, which you furthermore have the right to revoke at any time. And I do recognize how seemingly mild comments and behaviors are a part of a larger broken system whereby women are still (mind-bogglingly enough) seen as objects, weaker or lesser in some way, and thus become victims of harassment and violence, along with lower pay and a host of other less violent but equally unjust circumstances. Please try remember these things if you get very frustrated or disgusted by what I’m about to say. I think it will result in a more meaningful conversation moving forward.
First I’ll give you the full play-by-play.
Picture this: I’m sitting on a bench smack dab in the center of my university campus, in front of my office building where many people I know and trust are toiling away in the name of academia. It is a sunny 2pm on a Tuesday. I am reading my Twitter feed while waiting for my male friend to come meet me to go to lunch. He is expected to approach at any moment.
-Rather than my friend, a tall, dark, handsome-ish young man (henceforth TDH-ish) carrying a backpack and wearing sunglasses approaches the bench. TDH-ish says, “Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
-It’s not, so I say “no.” My overstuffed backpack is on the bench between us.
-He sits down. I go back to Twitter (@ameliajane).
-TDH-ish: “I’m sorry, actually, can I borrow your phone?”
-I look at him incredulously because who borrows cell phones on a college campus in this day in age? Don’t we all have them already?
-He says, “I know, I’m sorry, it’s just mine died. It will just be a second.”
-Now remember, he’s cute-ish, so I open the door for him a bit, perhaps, by saying (after noting his accent) “It’s not going to be long distance, is it?” I’ve been accused of being naturally flirtatious. I guess I can’t help myself.
-TDH-ish: “No, no, and it will just take a minute.” I decide I’m zooming in on the part of the world he’s from. I give him my phone. If I were in a bind and needed a phone because mine were dead/lost/stolen I’d like to think people would help me out.
-TDH-ish dials. His pocket starts ringing. He hands my phone back to me and says, “I’m so sorry, I’m already late for a meeting so I have to run, but now I have your number.”
– I say, “Nice to meet you, my name is Amelia.” TDH-ish puts out his hand to shake mine and says, “Hi, Amelia, I’m TDH-ish. Have a lovely afternoon.”
-An hour later, presumably when he finished his meeting, he texted me and after a few exchanges correcting the spelling of my name and questioning the veracity of his we decided to meet for coffee the next day.
So now my thoughts on this:
I don’t think what happened to me was street harassment.
I don’t even think it should be put under the same umbrella term. I think we are doing ourselves a disservice if we do that. I was actually sort of irritated that it was Kate’s reaction to label it as such. I sent the text to my girlfriends as a funny tidbit of “haha, isn’t it funny that this guy did this in this way? Isn’t it fun that I’m just recently back ‘out there’ on the dating scene and this is how I come across a dude? Lol” to break up the monotony of our days. I think it is essential for everyone to understand that I didn’t feel uncomfortable. At all. I didn’t feel bothered or threatened or creeped out. This may because I missed the memo about talking to strangers as a child and I make a regular habit of talking to anyone and everyone. It may be because I was raised in a small town and that’s how we do things. It may be because I travel alone a lot. More on that later. My point is, as Marléne pointed out, it’s MY choice to feel harassed or not. Not yours. Not his. And I don’t think this was harassment. He tread lightly, I didn’t shut him down. The “forceful” taking of my number I guess is the only place it might even come close to harassment, but how invasive is it, really, to have someone’s cell number? I mean, if I don’t want to talk to him, I don’t answer. That’s easy enough.
On the subject of being handsome…
Britni tweeted me the other day:
— Britni (@hopefiending) May 18, 2013
I will repeat and elaborate my answer here. I texted my girls and my sister right away and retold the story to my friends because it was a “hey look at me” moment. My sister’s response: “OMG! Like a movie!” and another friend said she’d probably sleep with him. To each her own.
If you don’t appreciate positive attention for your outward appearance from someone of the gender you generally go for who you also find to be outwardly pleasing, quite frankly, I think you’re either messed up or lying. Since he was tall, kind of cute, the type I usually go for and had a foreign accent (I study languages and linguistics, so I live for that), I tallied this in the win column. Also, I hadn’t showered that morning and was wearing men’s jeans. Bonus points. Get it, grrl. I realize that this is playing into an age-old issue within the feminist movement about whether reclaiming your own sexual power as a woman is feminism, or just feels like feminism but really reinforces patriarchal standards of beauty and sexuality by giving them what they want. I choose to see it as powerful. Then again I am also an unabashed Beyoncé fan, so judge away.
If he hadn’t been borderline handsome, I probably wouldn’t have bragged about it. Kate would never have received that text and none of you would have your opportunity to reflect. (FYI: Discovering that I was now open to such evaluations from my fellow feisty females of the Hollaback! crowd was more intimidating to me than the pick-up itself.) But I still would have let him sit down. The seat wasn’t taken. And I still would have let him borrow my phone if he had asked politely and didn’t appear to have a flesh-eating disease on his hands. I pride myself on being a kind person that believes in the good in others. I think if more people believed that, more people would be more good. I also like to collect interesting friends and experiences.
On meeting new people…
This brings me to perhaps my biggest personal concern about Kate’s reaction to this experience. She is lucky to be in a long-term relationship with a highly evolved man who respects and adores her. Some of us haven’t found that yet. I furthermore live in a small, college town where the most common way that people meet people of the opposite sex is at frat parties or in the seedy darkness of the one local nightclub. At 27 and almost done with a PhD, it feels a little gauche and not particularly productive to try and find a partner that way. Most of them are 21 and very drunk and we’re just on different planets. So if I assume that every man that approaches me in booze-free, daylight contexts, no matter how politely he does so, is bad or dangerous or is seeking to use his male superiority to victimize me, how exactly am I supposed to meet people? I know my power. I know my risks. I’m not giving him my social security number or my home address or even my last name. At the first feeling of discomfort I will disappear from his universe (in fact, I sort of already have). In this particular situation I am not at risk because I’m not letting myself be put there. I, too, have power, and I am using it.
Subsequent retellings of this story over beers with friends and colleagues and even other dates have yielded myriad replies. Men tend to either think it’s a really clever thing they wish they had the balls to try or that I’m ridiculous for falling for it. One particularly enlightened man friend I shared the story with immediately said, “What a dick move!” with a genuine look of disgust on his face. His reaction was so strong and so from the gut that he pushed me the closest to reconsidering my initial feelings about it. But on second reflection after we talked a bit more he, too, recognized that I wasn’t bothered by it and that was ok. Most women actually go more the way of Kate or Sabine and say, “euw euw euw creepy creepy creepy.” A couple expressed jealousy at my having handled it without nerves or fear.
So when do we Hollaback! and why?
I think this is where my real contribution, my real point in writing this somewhat lengthy response, comes in. Is your negative reaction to this quite benign act of flattery reinforcing the harassment rather than undermining it? I met TDH-ish for coffee the next day after “the pick-up.” He was very polite. Respectful. Did all the things I like in a potential mate in the early phases of dating, like asking me interesting questions, really listening to the answers, and at the end of the first date inviting me to go out again instead of playing that wait-to-call game for 3 days. Our conversation was only so-so and sans sunglasses and with more time to look at him it turns out he doesn’t inspire any butterflies in me, so I’ve passed on date #2, but I have no regrets about having met him once. I certainly am not avoiding him because he’s creepy. (And I’ve had every reason to convince myself that he is, what with all this Hollaback! dialogue I’ve been involved in this week.) I suppose I could apologize to the other women in the world who will be creeped out by this move the next time he tries it for having encouraged his “bad” behavior, but I don’t think it’s so bad. As a matter of fact, as I’m writing my response I’m realizing that when done in an appropriate way, as TDH-ish did, it’s a behavior that may merit celebration.
I do feel a bit guilty about having been placed here among people who are truly being insulted and violated by words and actions on the streets of Boston. I think that while the work you all do every day is valuable and important, you must not let it cloud your perspective to the extreme. Viewing everything through a filter of harassment is a terrible way to live. Being predisposed to perceive any unknown man who approaches as an aggressor probably won’t make any of them want to improve the patriarchal society in which we now live, it will just make them feel like they can’t win. And it certainly won’t make you feel better. The purpose of a holla! as I see it is to reclaim your strength, your rights, your sexuality if you so choose. It is to feel safe and comfortable, but also confident and hot when you wanna be.
I see my choice to be kind and welcoming to TDH-ish as a holla-ing back in its own right. I learned more about TDH-ish through his pick-up and our subsequent coffee than I could have reliably gleaned from less confrontational methods of meeting a total stranger. He’s ballsy. He’s clever. He has good taste. I don’t want to date him because I don’t feel that *spark* or whatever, but I wouldn’t be averse to being his friend because he seems to be genuinely not a bad guy. He’s new in town and he was looking for a way to meet people. So I chose to say, “Thank you for approaching me in a respectful way. Thank you for recognizing my beauty. Thank you for being more creative and forthright than just grinding up on me in a club or shooting me an anonymous message on OkCupid. Thank you for making me smile in the middle of a boring, busy day. Thank you for putting yourself out there in a world where women are sometimes so standoffish in an attempt to adjust gender roles that it’s hard for even a good guy to catch a break.” Our society needs not only to recognize the bad so that it can be wiped out, but also to recognize the good so that it can be proliferated. So to all the good, if unorthodox, men out there – Holla!
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