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I was raised in no small part on video games and comic books. And yet, for all the kvetching about violence in the media bringing about the downfall of civilization, I haven’t seen it. What I’ve actually come to notice about my "Grand Theft Auto"-playing generation is that we seem so inured to the world around us that we might as well be watching it through a screen.
So maybe it’s me that’s a little off. I was raised by a mostly stay-at-home dad, who taught me to read with his X-Men and Batman comics. I have a slightly overdeveloped desire to actually be Batman, all the time. I have always been prone to daydreaming about what it would feel like to beat back an attacker or use a grapple hook during my day-to-day errands.
I suppose it follows that when presented with a situation that’s dangerous and vastly abhorrent, I cannot help myself from rushing in and trying to stop it. I am all of 5’2” and look as structurally formidable as an Olsen twin, and yet I cannot quite handle the baby deer freeze that so many women seem to have down pat. This has been presented to me as a stupid way to behave. I can’t see it as anything but the only way to behave.
I have read articles about women being harassed and unaided on trains, about the different catcalls aimed at them on the street, and the rare piece on a man or group of men who do get up and stop harassment and assault. But the only thing I have ever read about a woman taking an aggressive approach to harassment was this wonderfully titled piece. That’s incredibly screwed up.
If you follow the classical rhetoric of things, boys are raised to adhere to ideas of chivalry and strength and girls are raised to cultivate themselves as clean and shiny examples of ladylike-ness. But today we all live in our cell phones, and our headphones, and our computers. We can’t pay attention for shit, and it’s crippling in terms of what it’s doing for real (genderless, hi, it’s 2012, welcome) chivalry.
I was riding the LIRR home one evening during my junior year of college. It was around 10 pm in the middle of the week, so the train was a ghost town. In my car, it was me, a girl around my age, a man in a suit and earbuds, and another man, asleep and also wearing earbuds. I had my headphones in too, and I was listening to Band of Skulls.
A few stops out of Penn Station, another man boarded the train. He looked scuzzy, he was carrying nothing, and he stared at the girl with watery eyes as soon as he boarded. He sat across the aisle from her, and did not turn his gaze from her once.
I turned the volume off on my headphones. Suit-dude was staring so hard at the space above my head I was growing self-conscious for a second, and the sleeping man was stirring. He pulled out a newspaper. Within another stop, the creep had started talking to the girl in front of me, and had moved across the aisle so that he was now sitting on the same three-seater bench as her, with about a foot between them.
I saw her look across at him for a second, and shift toward the window, staring hard at whatever was in her lap. He was smiling through everything, a big and sickly grin, and he kept murmuring things to her that I couldn’t hear. He moved closer to her. I stood slightly and tried to catch Suit-dude’s eye. Nothing. Sleepy man was still reading his paper.
The man put his arm around the girl. He put his nose in her hair, and started kissing the top of her head. I felt the stabbing of nausea that she probably felt to a much, much higher degree. I looked at my bag, and realized I had nothing other than a glass bottle, still mostly full of Snapple, to hit him with if I had to. I chugged it and got up.
I walked up the aisle to the vestibule and turned around. The girl’s eyes swam to me and locked, and I mouthed, “Are you OK?” to her to be sure I wasn’t imagining this shit. She mouthed back “Nonononono.”
I thought of the rabbit I’d found in the park, nursing her babies and frozen to the ground in front of me, vibrating with rolling eyes. I thought of Kitty Genovese. I thought of how to break the bottle on the metal handles attached to the train seats, and how I could try and tackle the man if he came at me. I did not consider the possibility of him being armed. I was thinking of being touched like that, and how I would have tried to rip his eyes out, if I had been in her seat. I was angry with her, and I felt the incredible float of adrenaline I’d only ever felt before after running.
I put myself in between the girl’s seat and the suit’s. He was still oblivious, but he was big, and I figured he would at the very least stand behind me when I started yelling. The girl was crying, and his hands had crawled to her chest. I looked the fucker in the eye, and he was still smiling. She was a doe, and I was instinctively trying to be as scary as my father is when he yells. I brought up my approximation of his voice, and said:
“Get the fuck up.”
He raised his eyebrows at me, and did not move, though his hold slackened. He looked drunk or high, and I gripped the bottle tighter.
“Did you not hear me? I said get the fuck up.”
He squared his shoulders to me and laughed a little bit. I held the bottle out at waist-level. I felt the suit behind me stand up. The other guy in the car was now watching with a passive sort of interest.
“GET UP AND MOVE TO THE BACK OF THE CAR. NOW.”
The man put his hands up, and shifted to the end of the bench. He got up slowly and sat in his original seat across the aisle, the whole while murmuring “What? What?”
“Did you not hear me? GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.”
At this point, an off-duty cop came jogging from the car behind us, having seen what probably looked like a tween threatening people with a bottle and bellowing. He saw what I was yelling at, and the crying girl, and grabbed the groper by the elbow and hoisted him up while asking “What’s going on?!” over and over. The conductor tapped my shoulder and said, “Put the bottle down, hon. We’ve got him.”
I sat in front of the girl, staring icicles at the groper, who’s trying to convince the cop and the conductor that he wasn’t doing anything, that they were old friends. The suit stood up and corroborated my story animatedly (Way to go, dude! ‘Cause you were totally aware for all of that.), and the girl nodded when they asked her if he’d touched her. They kick him off the train at the next stop, where I saw no MTA officers waiting, and no one there to arrest him. He slapped the window of the train as it pulled out. I wanted to get off and actually break the bottle and ram it into his throat, because I was worked up and he’d won in that he’d made her flinch one more time before he was done.
I asked the girl if he’d hurt her at all, and lectured her about screaming, or thrashing or just please doing ANYTHING to stop that from happening again. She nodded still looking bleached, and put her head against the window after calling someone to pick her up.
I told my parents what happened with great exhilaration. I was and still am proud of what I did. My dad called me a moron, and brought up the possibilities of the guy having a gun, or a knife or being enough of a psychopath to lunge at me and knock me down. My mom listened to the whole thing with wide eyes, and reluctantly congratulated me after affirming that I was, indeed, kind of stupid.
The next day, word had spread to the rest of my family and I was presented with knives by my cousin and then-boyfriend. My dad gave me a can of pepper spray. I’ve only ever used the knives for show -- once on a man who decided it was appropriate to put his arm around me in the middle of the street after following me for two blocks asking me to be his friend and come to a bar with him. While pointing the knife at him I asked, with my best crazy eyes, if he still wanted to be my fucking friend. He backed off really, really quickly.
And then again, when a man in a pick-up tried to cajole me in to accepting a ride from him while I was walking home one night. After he blocked my path with the pick-up by turning up a side street in front of me and opening the passenger door, I pointed the knife at him and asked him if he wanted to have his fucking face around his shoulders.
I do not know where this bloodthirsty person comes from. I was raised pretty well, I think, and have not had training in knife-fighting or the occasion to actually stab someone. To the best of my knowledge I’m not related to Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis. But being able to access that corner of aggression when something terrible is happening is something that comes from the core of myself, and it’s something I would never change.
Reading all of these stories about women going dead-possum in the face of harassment, and of women waiting for their attackers to just go away, makes me nearly as angry as when I witness these things in person. They will never just go away if you sit there. Scream. Flail. Act like a fucking lunatic until someone sees you. Go for the eyes, for the balls, for the throat. If you won’t, I will, and one day I will probably get hurt doing it.
There’s an innate biological instinct we have to freeze up, but there’s a societal aspect to it, too. We aren’t raised to fight anyone, which is good, because that means we are no longer Vikings or Mongols. But when people are reluctant to stand up when they see a man trying to put his hands down a woman’s shirt, it makes me feel like I am living in a Margaret Atwood-penned dystopia and I do not like it.
My problem with this is that we let them fucking win. All the time. Every time someone freezes under the spitting, stupid rage or groping hands of a harasser and the rest of the train car holds their collective breath and hopes for a cop to apparate, every time a man says something "noble" after the fact, every time people sit there with their headphones in and sleep through gross injustice, they all win. And we become the crazy ones.