When I was eighteen, I was walking downtown toward a corner store. I was a block or two away from my dad’s apartment, and I was just looking to buy a ramen noodle bowl to fill with hot water and eat for lunch. As I was standing and waiting at a crosswalk for the light to allow me to walk, an older man approached me from behind.
In broad daylight, this man began soliciting me for sex, making vulgar noises, and sticking his grey tongue out of his mouth; he rubbed his index finger and thumb together—a universal sign for money—and asked me to come with him. With cars barrelling down the street in front of me, and this man standing behind me, I froze.
As women, we’re taught to be gentle, and kind regardless of the situation: keep your head down and your skirt low-cut, don’t ask for anything with your legs, your eyes, or your clothing. We’re taught that when a man approaches you, (regardless of how vulgar or aggressive he is) you take his advances as a compliment, and if you’re not interested, slither away from the situation as delicately as possible as to spare the man’s feelings… After all, it took a great deal of bravery for them to approach you in the first place!
When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me that if anyone grabbed me, to jam my fingers as far as I could up their nose. “You can wash your hands after you’re safe,” she’d coo. My mom used to tell me to fight like hell, scream bloody murder, and bite one of his fingers off if you have to.
Standing at that crosswalk at eighteen, and in basically every other situation that I’ve been in along these lines, I heeded society’s advice and I was polite. As this man was soliciting me, I quietly said “No thank you,” and “Sorry, I have to go” as kindly as possible, hoping I could just go on with my day and wash the stink of terror off of myself later. Then, the man grabbed my wrist. The light changed for me to walk and I said “Sorry, please, I have to go,”. Luckily, another man—a cyclist—rode up beside us. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, and the man let me go and turned back around, leaving quickly.
This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time that I’d be solicited by a man on the street, in a bus, or at my University. I have been in more than one situation in my lifetime as a woman where I’ve felt threatened and afraid for my well-being because a man deemed it necessary and appropriate to approach me sexually.
I’m calling myself out here, but every single time something like this has happened, I’ve defaulted into being polite, and it’s never gotten me out of the situation. Every time it happens, it’s terrible, and frightening, and leaves me completely shaken, and I’m sure if you’re a woman or a feminine presenting person reading this, you know the exact feeling. You try to do everything right in the situation; you follow this misogynist politeness protocol, and it doesn’t work, because when you’re victimized it’s always the aggressor’s fault, and politeness is not a shield to protect women, it’s a way to blame women for their own harassment.
Women are approached on the street and harassed or solicited sexually daily in Canada, the United States, and around the world. It is not uncommon for these encounters to turn violent if they don’t go the way the attacker had planned. One study suggests that out of a pool of almost 1000 women, 99% of them report having endured street harassment, 75% say they’ve been followed by a stranger in public, and 27% report having experienced a violent assault. In another article written by Jessica Valenti entitled ‘Rejection Killings’ Need to be Tracked she says:
“Tiarah Poyau was a 22-year-old graduate student and aspiring accountant when she told a man at a dance party to “get off” after he started to grind on her. His response was to shoot her in the face. Iowa college student Mollie Tibbets was killed by a man she told to leave her alone when he approached her while she was jogging. A Detroit mother of three was killed because she refused to give a stranger her phone number. A New York woman had her neck slashed when she declined her attacker’s offer for a date.”
When faced with statistics and stories such as these, it becomes apparent that women and their politeness are not the issues here; the issue is the men who are choosing to victimize these women. It’s clear that it is not how the woman chooses to remove herself from the situation that is the problem, but the idea that a woman would have the audacity to say no to a man in the first place. Violence against women for exercising their right to say no is happening right now, and no amount of “thank you’s” and smiling and eye contact will make that go away.
This is why women and feminists such as myself find issues with and take great offense to “why don’t you just be polite to the men who hit on you?”. Firstly, if I’m at a bar, or a coffee shop, or a dating website, and someone kindly offers to buy me a drink or to take me on a date, I’m happy to be kind and say “Oh, no thank you.” Or “yes please!” and if I say no and they take that as their queue to leave politely, perfect. But those are not the situations that “just be polite” people are talking about. I’ll give you an example:
One week at work I was “hit on” twice. The first guy came in, I served him, he was very polite and he left; about an hour later I got a call on the work phone and it was him, he said “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but I bought this, this, and this, and I thought you were cute. I was wondering if you wanted my number.”
I told him politely no thank you, and that although I’m flattered, I have a boyfriend. He laughed on the other end and said “Okay, have a good day!” and that was the last I heard of him.
Later in the week, I had a guy come into my workplace; asked me if I’m a “naughty girl” and if he could use the bathroom to masturbate. I told him absolutely not and then after he left I pulled the security footage to put his picture in the ‘banned customers’ folder on the work computer.
See the difference between the two situations? One was a respectful, consent-based conversation that didn’t cross any boundaries, the second was sexual harassment. The rhetoric that you need to be nice to every guy who “hits on” you seem to be an all-encompassing umbrella that really means “You’re a woman, so shut up and take the compliment.”
The problem here is not the woman, but the aggression that is being shown by the men. If you’re coming up to me with the intention to sexually harass me, you’re already being incredibly impolite and menacing, so all bets are off. It’s funny how the manners code only applies to women being harassed and not the men who are harassing them.
The advice that I need to hear right now that maybe other women do too is this: women’s safety is far more important than men’s feelings. If you’re being harassed on the street, politeness may be your first instinct, but ultimately, you want to get yourself out of the situation as quickly as possible and that doesn’t always happen when you add in time for niceties. Get people’s attention around you, make a scene, yell, be as rude and as unladylike as possible.
If you see a fellow woman in this situation, go up to them, pretend you know them, ask if they want to walk home together, solidarity works.
And if you’re a man, be a good one. Don’t harass women, don’t follow them home, don’t approach them inappropriately—and if you don’t know how to approach them without being inappropriate, don’t approach them at all. Expect better from yourself and your friends.
Stay safe out there, you don’t owe anyone anything, least of all politeness when you’re made to feel afraid.