A few nights ago, I was walking home and a man pretended to recognize me.
I did not really hear him over the sound of the music blaring in my headphones, my attempt at dissuading people from talking to me, but I saw him looking at me and his mouth moving, so I took out one of my headphones. I always take out one of my headphones.
He talked to me, and I planned an escape, choosing to walk into a pharmacy instead of continuing my journey home. I did not want to be followed.
I escaped after refusing to give him my number, which he asked for despite his being 40, and I clearly 19, with a Jansport backpack and dirty sneakers. When I escaped, I wandered into the pharmacy to call my mother, pacing to make sure he did not following me in. He did give up. My mother wondered why I did not just walk away.
“I didn’t want to be rude.”
She immediately understood, went on to tell me that she knows everyone tells girls to be polite, to smile more, to be open and accepting, characteristics that make me extremely approachable. But then she said, “You don’t owe that man anything, though. You do not have to talk to that man.”
I did not have to talk to him. I do not have to, I never do. But I always give in because there is a voice inside me telling me not to be rude, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and maybe he is not trying to pick me up, maybe he really did think he knew me from somewhere, maybe I am just conceited.
Once it was clear he was just hitting on me, though, I still could not bring myself to be rude, because I am scared. I am scared that saying “leave me alone” or ignoring someone will make him angry and then he will grab me. I am afraid of all of the men who talk to me on the street uninvitedly. If I ignore them, will they yell? I hate to be yelled at. If I confront them, will they snap? I hate the threat of being grabbed or shot much more.
My mom and I started talking about why women do not just ignore or confront men, why so many of us give in to keep the peace. Then we started talking about why women do not report their rapists, why they did not “just say no,” why they do not take control of the situation.
Here is your answer: we are terrified. We are raised to be polite or else. My first response is always to entertain a person’s conversation, never to be rude. Our survival instincts are running on overdrive, no longer just fight or flight, because neither is a sure safety net.
But I should have been rude. I should have ignored him because I do not owe him, or any man on the street anything, certainly not a conversation. I am still scared, but all I can do is hope one day we all feel safe enough to just keep walking.
For now, here is my retroactive response to all of the men I’ve met on the street:
I am 19, walking home alone from a class I hate, I am exhausted and feel overwhelmed and lonely.
I do not want to talk to you.
I do not want you to tell me I am gorgeous or sexy, I do not want to tell you my name, and I do not care to know yours.
I do not want to talk to you.
I have somewhere to be. I have people waiting for me at home. I have class. I have a boyfriend. I have many reasons why I do not want to talk to you.
Emma Ragusa is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature.