“This was a lose-lose situation”

Location: Pentagon Metro station
Time:  Morning Rush Hour (5am-9:30am)

I used to take the metro into work every morning, and there was a brief period of time, maybe about a week or so, when I was being harassed/stalked by a fellow commuter. One thing that really bothered me about it was that for the whole time it was going on, it was pretty clear this guy had no idea of the amount of anxiety his very existence was causing me.

Pentagon City Metro Station. Imagia via flikr user blakespot

I was 23 at the time, and he looked to be about 50, a business suit-wearing type. It started one morning while I was reading a book (I try to avoid talking to other commuters if at all possible, maybe partially due to my worry that stuff like this will happen if I don’t look preoccupied enough, so I’m usually reading a book or have headphones on, or both). This guy is sitting across from me, and as my eyes randomly flick upwards, I notice he is staring at me. That one moment of mutual eye contact was enough for him. “Is that a good book?” he asks. “Yes,” I answer. That’s why I’m reading it, and you’re actually interrupting, I want to add, but ingrained politeness prevents me. Now that we’ve exchanged words, he feels that I am “interested,” I suppose, and tries to continue the conversation. We are in a silent, crowded, enclosed metro car. I am too well-trained to be so rude as to ignore him outright when I am being directly addressed in public, and he is polite and friendly enough, so I continue a somewhat terse conversation, answering his questions and listening to him talk about books. He transfers before I do and tells me goodbye and that it was good to talk to me. I don’t think much of it, as it wasn’t really necessarily an unpleasant experience, and I don’t really expect to have it happen again. But, the next morning, he finds me on the platform. “Good morning!” he says, as he enters the train car with me. Oh no, I think, a sinking feeling in my stomach. I am less polite than the day before, making “mm” sounds to his inane comments and trying to avoid eye contact. He doesn’t get it. He either cannot read or is totally ignoring my physical cues of being uncomfortable and not wanting to be a part of the conversation. I still feel too awkward, though, to say anything directly to him, with so many ears to listen. And no one speaks up for me, either. I don’t really expect them to; compared to the obscene ramblings of some drug addict, this seems like something easy to put up with, I suppose. After that second meeting, he gives me his card right before getting off the train. I don’t have a chance to tell him I don’t want it before he’s gone. For about a week after that, every morning commute becomes filled with anxiety and paranoia, of my trying to move quickly, stand in the most crowded places, keep an eye out for him, and when I do see him, to try not to make eye contact, to switch cars before he can make his way over, to get on a different car if I see him on the platform. One morning, he catches me unawares. “Hey, I haven’t seen you in awhile. Have you been avoiding me? You never gave me a call.” This time I didn’t care who was listening, I was so mad that my obvious avoidance apparently did absolutely nothing to deter him. “That’s probably because you’re old enough to be my father, and I’m in no way interested in you. Please stop trying to talk to me anymore.” He seems genuinely taken aback, but if it was that I would say something like that to him so loudly in front of the rest of the suits in the train car, or that I actually wasn’t ever interested, I was never sure. He apologizes, but then adds, “If you weren’t interested, you should have just said so from the beginning.” This is to make sure I know that this whole ordeal has been self-inflicted, by my not turning him down more clearly, of course.

This whole incident has bothered me a lot since it happened. We are raised to be polite to people who are polite to us. We are not well-taught what to do when something makes us uncomfortable but we’re not sure why. This was a lose-lose situation because if I had told him to fuck off just for asking about a book, I would have been a crazy, rude bitch. There are also other dynamics at play, especially how all of this was enacted in public, where it is perceived that other people are listening, and in an enclosed space, such that we cannot simply leave if we are uncomfortable. Men do not necessarily think this way, when they start a conversation with us. Although there was no actual assault here, I feel strongly that this was certainly a kind of harassment I’m sure many, many women also go through, and don’t really talk about because they’re not sure if it “counts,” or if they’re making “too big a deal out of it.” In the end, my harasser was harmless. But what if, once turned down definitively, he did get more threatening, verbally or physically? I would still have to take that route to work every morning and potentially risk running into him. These are the options women must weigh when they finally do decide to speak up about how someone’s actions are making them feel, and I hate it.

Submitted on 7/14/12 by “AT”

If you experience or have experienced sexual harassment on the DC Metro system:
Please consider reporting to Metro Transit Police; www.wmata.com/harassment, on Twitter at @WMATAharassment, or 202-962-2121.

Do you have a personal experience with gender-based public sexual harassment or assault? Submit your story to help raise awareness about the pervasiveness and harmful effects of street harassment. All submissions are posted anonymously unless otherwise specified.