My Streets, Too: When in Rome

After moving to DC, I learned how some men perceived the Metro as unspoken hyper-masculine “male space,” where their language, tone, word choice, and space dominate the geography of those train cars.

By Courtney Brooks

When we moved to the DC area last year I confess I was looking forward to partaking in the tour-book version DC has to offer – Saturdays at the Smithsonian, potential POTUS sightings, and yes, even the Cherry Blossom Festival. But in order to live like a local, I knew I would have to adapt, or at least act, like a local. I took my “When in Rome” philosophy everywhere with me, especially on the Metro. Despite its bad rap via some clever Twitter handles, I was thrilled to have access to a public transportation system, and was willing to look past a few bumps in the road to reduce my carbon footprint. I was initially warned about crime that happens – namely theft of certain products bearing an infamous fruit-bitten logo – and so, I began watching how others behaved to learn how they interacted with one another while on the train.

I was immediately struck by how people did not interact. Granted, I am from the Appalachian South, and naturally anticipate exchanges with rank strangers, but Metro riders seemed to want to avoid one another altogether. I noticed this was most common among women. It became apparent that the “When in Rome” philosophy had somehow taught women to search for ways to become almost invisible, minimizing their presence on those worn orange seats. Subsequently, I learned how some (certainly not all!) men, perceived the Metro as unspoken hyper-masculine “male space”, where their language, tone, word choice, and space dominate the geography of those train cars.

The curious feminist (yes, I said it) in me came to wonder, how did a public space suddenly become one where, as a female, I was in someone else’s territory? It only took a few observations of men making loud, vulgar remarks toward women or even blessing us all with physical gyrations in a female’s direction at 8:30 in the morning to figure out what was going on – and no one was doing a damn thing about it. One of the problems when you do as in Rome is that you mimic behavior others demonstrate as “normal” or “typical”, so you may quickly adapt to your environment. So when a man stares, pinches, grabs, or grunts at a female, he confidently reinforces his territory and reminds her (and everyone else) that his behavior on the 50.5 miles of the Metro is normal – and acceptable – because no one challenges it.

The culture of the hyper-masculine Metro impedes community and enforces a climate of hostility and hesitancy.

Suddenly my “When in Rome” approach did not seem like such a good idea, especially when blatant sexism was met with silence – not by the victim, but by everyone sitting around the victim. Women’s stifled presence on the Metro is not the result of their acquiescence to public harassment, but instead their defense mechanism when no one offers help. If a daily random sample of a 3.5 million ridership during your commute to work doesn’t result in any intervention when someone publically humiliates or threatens another person, your main goal is not to fit in, but to become unseen. That woman wearing sunglasses leaning against the window is not asleep, but vigilantly scanning the train car for potential offenders. And that man reading his book is probably a decent human being, but he doesn’t interact with female riders to avoid making her feel uncomfortable or being perceived as a creep. The culture of the hyper-masculine Metro impedes community and enforces a climate of hostility and hesitancy.

As someone who’s worked with survivors of violence for years, one of the most common things I hear after an assault is the desire to be invisible when they go out in public – so as not to be a target. Public harassment is no different. Watching someone be harassed or assaulted can be just as terrifying – and as silencing – as if it had happened to you. What’s the solution? Well, it took many Metro rides for that heteronormative, hyper-masculine space to be cultivated, and it will take many more to stabilize a counter-culture where any form of harassment does not inspire women to disappear and bystanders to be silent. Granted, this is not an overnight process…but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Courtney Brooks, a native of central Appalachia, is a violence prevention advocate and trainer. Her current research focuses on violent representations of women in music from Appalachia. She can be contacted via Twitter at @CourtneyEBrooks.

CASS Discussion Questions

  • Given that most men do not harass, but most harassers are men, how do our cultural concepts/ideals of masculinity contribute to street harassment?
  • How does heteronormativity feed into street harassment?
  • What can we do to create healthier, more positive concepts of masculinity?
  • How can we engage the vast majority of men who do not harass as allies?

2 Responses

  1. […] continues to delight and humble me. today I stumbled upon these two things: an article- “My Streets, Too: When In Rome” by Courtney Brooks of Collective Action for Safe Spaces and a poem by Titilope Sonuga called “Take Back The […]

  2. John Bartelloni

    While listening to NPR earlier this week, I heard about a study which revealed that those whose behavior is believed to be deviant are more likely to be a victim of crime than those whose behavior follows the norm. Here is a link to the conversation:

    I was wondering if harassers in public places evaluate their prospective victims in a similar process.