CW: street harassment / let me know if this should be CW for other things
The summer often makes me feel increasingly vulnerable, no that’s not quite it. Men on the street make me feel this way every summer. Not only with their glances and comments about clothing and my body, but with unwanted conversations, and sexual advances that I turn down, and sometimes narrowly escaped from. Last summer, I was getting off the subway around 12am, sober, scantily clad (not that it should be relevant), and a guy on the sidewalk tries to flirt with me, asks me if I want to get a drink or something, I turn him down. I hate that I’m so polite as I say no, but I’m careful not to make him angry. He gets angry anyway, accusing me of being a racist for not wanting to go with him. He then offers to walk me home, again I turn him down, I step back, away from the sidewalk, as I think about getting back inside the subway station. Then I notice the car, and a second guy with the car they parked beside me start yelling. I make them leave first, horrified that if I wasn’t paying attention I likely would have ended up in that car. I’ve had several encounters with men in the city, where I’m careful to be polite, apologetic when saying no, because I see the anger in their bodies.
Something about summer seems to bring out this extra layer of entitlement in men. Last week, an older guy was trying to pick me up, I’m clearly not interested in talking to him, but he keeps going, even though I’m not even looking at him or responding as he speaks. I leave the space, because I don’t want to interact with him. I a female presenting person is present, I must want to respond, I must care about whatever you are saying.
Fast-forward to Saturday, I’m tired, sitting in Trinity Bellwoods Park near the sidewalk on Queen. I was walking to Kensington, and wanted to stop and enjoy the nice day with my book. I’ve read a page or two, when I make eye contact with someone on the sidewalk who is coming towards me. A man, maybe 45, 50 or so proclaims “you like to read, me too” and sits beside me, too close for a stranger. “Yes” I say, as I move over. This happened 3 days ago, so I can’t remember our conversation word for word, but it went something like this:
Guy digs in bag, “I need to show you what I’m reading, Jack Kerouac.”
Unprompted, he opens the book and reads me a few pages. I was in a good mood, and decided that I could talk to this man for a few minutes about books. It seemed that he struggled with mental health or addictions issues, and at times seemed really aware of what was going on, and other times less so. I’m not using this as an excuse for his actions though. Regardless, I didn’t really mind the initial conversation. I asked him what else he likes to read, and then I mentioned I was a writer. He was a bit put off that I didn’t worship the same white male authors as heroes, and when I mentioned a few Canadian women when he asked about my favorite authors. He told me it was his first time in Toronto, he was American and visiting a friend who was in the hospital in Toronto. That explains the Southern accent I thought. He moved into my personal space again, this time I moved back further.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked. By this point I was a bit on edge. When he was talking about books he mentioned liking authors that supported fascism, and I was starting to feel like this conversation should be finished. But, it was a nice day, I wanted to sit in the park, and I didn’t feel like leaving another space because of a guy. If I got up and started walking would he try to continue the conversation? Whatever—I decided to give him a brief explanation as to why I’m not a believer. Having absurd conversations on the street with strangers is within the scope of what my life entails.
He seemed a bit perplexed, almost offended, when I said I didn’t believe in God, but he said he could respect that. He reached out and tried to touch my arm. I loudly said “don’t touch me” he froze and retracted his arm. In a different situation I would have let in slide, but I felt like things were about to escalate with him and I didn’t want him to think I was okay being touched.
“You’re pretty” he stated.
“That’s inappropriate” I replied. I was thinking more by this time about how to get out of this situation. He signed, seeming put off that I didn’t accept his “compliment.”
“Do you hate yourself?” he then asked.
“No, do you?”
“Yes…” I wasn’t listening by this point, I wasn’t comfortable, and needed out.
“That’s too bad” I responded.
“Why, why is it too bad?”
“I just meant it’s too bad that you can’t like certain elements of yourself and dislike other aspects…” ohh I shouldn’t have tried to respond.
“I just like kissing and hugging people. I say life’s too short not to kiss everyone.” He looked at me, waiting to see how I’d respond to this. “DON’T TOUCH ME.” I repeated. Yes, I was still sitting, hesitant to stand and make him angry or leave the crowded park.
“Why not, you don’t like being touched? That’s weird.”
I felt trapped, but decided to try and make this a potential teaching moment. “I only let my friends touch me, if they ask for permission, and I don’t let strangers touch me” not exactly true for me, but most concise answer I could give in this context. I let some people touch me yes, but that doesn’t mean you get my permission.
“I don’t understand why people don’t want touched” he responded his voice getting louder, frustrated.
“Different people have different boundaries, and part of respecting those boundaries is respecting if they do or don’t want touched. I like when people give me space. You can never assume someone wants you to touch them, you need to ask.”
“I can tell you are complicated girl.”
He looked at me, waiting for a response, “why’s that?” I allowed.
“Well you don’t like to be touched.”
I pulled out my phone and started scrolling. I figured maybe he’d realize the conversation was done and get bored and leave on his own.
“Who you talking to?” I’d just responded to a friend I was texting before this guy arrived.
“Oh just replying to my boyfriend, I’m supposed to meet him later.” I’ve never used the boyfriend line before, yet this guy seemed like he would respect the notion that I was someone else’s property, before he accepted the fact that I wasn’t into him.
“Oh, you have a boyfriend?!” his voice was getting louder, angry.
“Well—what’s his name then?”
“James.” I don’t know anyone named James, but plan to use that name for a character sometime. The fact that my “boyfriend” had a name seemed to make him enough of a real person for this guy.
“I better go, before he beats me up” he started to look around nervously, like my imaginary boyfriend was lurking in the bushes.
But he wasn’t quite done talking to me. “See, it’s called having a conversation, it’s not that difficult is it?!” he spat as he stood to go.
“Well—tell me this, does he at least have a BIG COCK?”
“That’s not appropriate, bye.”
“Does he at least have a BIG COCK?”
“Does he at least have a BIG COCK?” he yelled a third time as he continued to look for my boyfriend as he huffed off.
I don’t mind respectful conversations on the street or subway, strange interactions are fine and most of the encounters I have with people in this city are okay or rewarding. I’m okay chatting with people with different mental states or degrees of sobriety, as long as they don’t invade my space, try to touch me, or talk about things that I’ve specified are off limits. I honestly think with this guy, his invasion was more about male privilege than mental health.
Yet, this person took my responding to them as an invitation for more and refused to respect my no, not leaving until he feared some guy coming after him, perhaps because he knew he was out of line.
There’s still 2 months left of summer, I hope this was my last encounter like this, but who knows. I refuse to insist someone escorts me everywhere, I will continue to do things alone at times, like sit in parks and at beaches, and I’m likely to continue to chat with strangers. It’s important to remember that you don’t owe anyone a conversation, or any other unwanted interactions.