Do you know how many times a man has done something to me that I didn’t want him to do– even something as “little” as sitting next to me on a park bench and imposing his conversation on me– without me knowing how to say no or tell him to go away, because I was afraid of “hurting his feelings.” Like literally afraid to say anything that would upset him because I was afraid of him reacting badly. Boyfriend, stranger, there are different tactics involved but it’s about trickery and getting power over another person, against their will or by silencing them into submission out of fear.
Louis CK, like a lot of men, abused his power.
I posted the above on facebook and it has received a generally positive response, but there has been some of the usual victim blaming that we commonly see whenever topics like this come up. That’s not really abuse, why didn’t they just walk away, why didn’t they just say no, are you equating men attempting to talk to you on a park bench with sexual harassment? This is such a lazy line of thinking, but really it is part of the fabric of our society to dismiss women’s feelings and for men to abuse their power.
Regarding the park bench. I was 19 years old. It was a sunny day in Philadelphia and I decided to walk to Rittenhouse Square to read the book I was reading at the time for a few hours before I had to go to work. I found an unoccupied park bench and sat down and took the book I was reading at the time out of my bag. I enjoy reading in public because it’s a change of scenery and being in a different environment to do something, like read a book or work on a piece of writing, kind of gives me the extra oomph to make use of the time and not dawdle. When I’m at home I procrastinate too much, I start cleaning or I take a nap or something when I mean to be working. But I can’t do those things when I’m sitting in a park.
Anyway, I was on the bench by myself for maybe 30 minutes when a man approached my bench and sat down next to me. He was an older man and I didn’t pay him any mind, I just kept reading my book, fully engaged with the text and wanting to read as much as I could before having to go to work where I would stand for seven hours checking out people’s groceries and making small talk. I am a person who loves silence and quiet time, so that’s what I was trying to do in my time before clocking in. Then the guy started talking to me. He asked me what book I was reading and then proceeded to talk a lot about himself and his romantic interests in women. I was confused and felt frozen and was very creeped out by the whole interaction.
At first I tried just nodding my head in response to whatever he said and go back to reading, but he couldn’t take a hint and he wouldn’t leave me alone. He realized that he had a captive audience and he was making full use of it. He told me a lot of personal, uncomfortable details about himself, and I, as a 19 year old girl who has been conditioned by society to not rattle anyone’s cage and just accept and try to politely defuse the situation, wasn’t exactly sure what to say or do. I felt paralyzed. I was super uncomfortable with the conversation and I did not talk back. I wanted to be left alone but I didn’t know how to express it. He was older than me. He was bigger than me. I was supposed to be respectful.
I still think about this day and wish I had said, “can you please leave me alone, I’m reading” as I would if this had happened to me yesterday. These days I am more likely to speak up when a man is making me uncomfortable, but still there are times when I feel fearful and try to play it safe and get out of the situation stealthily, even if it does leave some lasting negative imprint on me.
Eventually, after an hour or more of listening to this guy, I had to go to work, so I got up and left. I was so angry. I was angry at him for wasting my time, angry that I subjected myself to listening to a bunch of boring stories about his sex life and whatever else garbage he talked about instead of getting to read the book that I was reading at the time, angry that I had to go to work and felt shaken, tight from anxiety, but mostly angry at myself for not just walking away. I still wonder why I didn’t just get up and walk away sooner, but something about his demeanour made me feel unsafe. Even though we were in a public space full of other people, I was afraid of angering him or making him feel foolish.
Some time later, maybe a year or maybe it was just a few months later, or maybe these two incidents happened around the same time, but one day when I was at work, checking people’s groceries out and making small talk, a commotion was heard outside and cop cars arrived. A woman was beaten to death outside of our store by a man who she went to school with. He had feelings for her which she did not return, and after being rejected he followed her and battered her to death. Because she rejected him. Women fear for their lives, men fear rejection. This is literally ingrained in our society, it’s in the jokes that get made. Dismissing women, treating women as less than human, controlling women, hurting women, killing women, it’s all part of the same power structure and ignoring the smaller occurrences make treating the larger incidents more difficult. When we don’t believe women, when we dismiss their trauma, it’s feeding into this power structure.
So to conclude, no, I do not equate a man attempting to talk to me on a park bench with sexual harassment, but they are both acts of misogyny, casual or forced, they both perpetuate the same social illness. I offered you the park bench story because it is an example of one of the small ways the power structure is abused by men every day.