For many women, a common courtesy invites danger

Sarah Marshall probably made a mistake when she was riding on the bus. She said “hello” back to someone who said “hello” to her.

Writing on The Week today, Marshall describes a typical day for many women: a day when they can’t be left alone when trying to go about their business.

“What’s your name?” he said. I told him. He told me his. I shook his hand. I’m almost certain I smiled. I usually do.

Then I put my headphones back in and picked my book up and went back to reading. He continued to stare at me. He waved his hands to get my attention again. He stomped his feet on the bus aisle, I suppose so that, if I couldn’t hear him, I would feel the vibration.

I did hear him, and I did feel the vibration, but I carried on reading. I did not make the conscious decision to ignore him so much as decide that this was simply the best way to end the interaction and keep it from escalating.

The man kept staring at me. He got up and sat down next to me, and leaned toward me to see what I was reading, and when I got up to get off the bus even though it wasn’t quite my stop yet he stood up and waited beside me, still staring, which disturbed me much more, in a way I could not have expected, than his presence in my personal space.

I’m more used to that. The staring, though, suggested some deeper conviction. He had been looking at me for 10 minutes, without looking away, in a way that suggested I had something he needed. Most disturbing of all was how I began to wonder, after getting off the bus, whether I really did.

She wondered whether it was the dress she was wearing because she wore the dress in a bar last year and was assaulted.

… at one point that a man had reached out and started stroking my hair. When I didn’t pay attention to him, he grabbed a handful and pulled.

“Please don’t do that,” I said.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

“You don’t get to touch a woman without her permission,” I said, and left — not the bar, because all my friends were there, but for a different part of the bar, because the hair-puller, a white guy somewhere in his 50s, seemed drunk and maybe in a bad state. I didn’t think he would bother me again. He didn’t.

So maybe, I thought, it wasn’t the dress — and then realized that it couldn’t have been the dress, because, of course, it’s never the dress. Noticing someone’s body is an instinct. Staring at a stranger, touching them, following them, deciding that your interest in a body overrides its owner’s, is a choice.

Marshall was just trying to enjoy the evening with friends. She was just trying to get home on the bus.

The act of minding your own business shouldn’t involve wondering what you did wrong.

What bothered me about being stared at on the bus was not the experience itself so much as my own sense of vulnerability. I said hello and began an encounter I didn’t have the capacity to deal with at that moment; I made contact with someone desperate and then found myself unable to navigate the straits of that desperation safely.

It made me worry about my own capacity to be present in the world and ensure my own safety. It made me feel stupid. It frightened me, in a way these interactions normally don’t, and made me wonder if I was a fatuous child.

I thought about this as I walked the dog in the dark this morning. As usual in my “Groundhog Day” routine, a jogger approached at roughly the same spot a jogger passes us at the same time every day. It’s the same jogger. Every day.

“Good morning,” I said.

She stared straight ahead.