Monday, June 08, 2015

Dangerous Interactions: What Would You Have Done?

We were walking south, towards the hotel friends were staying at, looking forward to having our morning after wedding breakfast with them. We saw it happening from a long way off. A young woman was standing, right at the corner, it looked like she had just crossed the crosswalk and stopped. She was looking down at her phone, texting madly away. She had earbuds in her ears. She was in the world, but not the world she was in.

Across from her, at the corner of a building, slightly in the shade, were a group of four young men, around the same age as the woman standing texting. They were staring at her and making sexual gestures towards her. When there was no response they started making rude comments about what they'd do to her. The taunts were vulgar and violent. She didn't hear them. She didn't see them. She just stood there, texting.

They saw us approaching and standing on the other side of the sidewalk. How they categorized us, I don't know, as old, as irrelevant, as fellow 'men' I couldn't guess. What I do know is they didn't stop. It was light out, it was morning, it was a public street corner. I thought she was probably safe from them.

But I know that rape and sexual violence (to which she was already being subjected) don't confine themselves to the dark.


Of course.

Probably safe isn't safe enough.

As we crossed the crosswalk I said to the young men 'Just stop it for God's sake.' They looked at me, laughed and continued. Even with a small admonishment from a stranger, they didn't stop. I felt the danger meter rise. They don't care if people see them, they don't care if other's disapprove.

I made the decision.

I approached her, to the catcalls of the young men. Calling out to her didn't work because she had the buds in her ear. The music was playing loudly, I could hear it as it leaked out and filled the space around her. So I tapped her on the shoulder.

She reacted with a start and pulled away from me, yelling at me, "Don't fucking touch me."

I started to try to explain that I thought she needed to get out of the range of the boys, who were hooting and hollering at me now. Calling me a 'perv'. She didn't hear me or them. The music was too loud.

She glared at me as if I was an offender and stomped off, jaywalking to the other side of the street and continuing to head south.

It felt awful being treated as if I wanted to harm her when all I wanted to do was warn her.

But I'm beginning to think I should have left well enough alone. That what I did might be more traumatizing than what they did outside her notice.

I comfort myself by thinking that I'd done what I believe people should do, the opposite of ignoring it, taking action.

For better or worse, I did what I did.

My story of what happened and why I touched her shoulder will be much different than hers. I will be a fat, ugly, cripple who dared touch her shoulder. I will be the creep in her story.

It feels awful.

But, in the end, I suppose I don't care.

My heart tells me that she was in danger. My mind agrees. Action was my only option.

But I'm wondering what you think. What would you have done? Please feel free to give me advice or criticize my action.


Susan said...

You have to try....

Anonymous said...

I applaud your bravery in confronting the young men and in warning the woman. I always believe in doing the "right" thing even if it is not received well or does not benefit me. In this instance it was the right thing that was done - controlling the other actors is not the responsibility of the person doing the right thing.
Jamie Lynn

Anonymous said...

I would never second guess you! You knew the situation - and the alternatives - that woman was putting herself in harm's way - both with the earbuds and in assuming that she was safe until you "touched" her (incidentally in a correct, public, way).

CapriUni said...

I agree with Jamie Lynn. However icky it feels to have the woman misunderstand, and misdirect her anger onto you, her reaction is not your responsibility. And however unpleasant, you did alert her to the world outside her ear buds, and maybe, therefore, kept her a little bit safer (Also, the violence of her reaction is a clue to me that maybe she's already been victimized, and therefore especially vulnerable to the young men's threats).

clairesmum said...

It is a risk, to do the right thing as you understand it, knowing that your action may be rebuffed or misunderstood. Your awareness of social violence and its' role as a precursor to physical violence is very well developed, so you will see it more clearly than many others do. while her initial reaction was negative, her understanding of what happened may change over time...none of us has a crystal ball into the minds of others....I like to think I would have done what you did, but I don't know that I would have been brave enough.

Marna Nightingale said...

I'm sorry. I think you did the wrong thing. Not in confronting them, which was awesome and more men should do, even more fiercely, but in confronting her. Partly, though not entirely, because I will bet you that you are completely and utterly wrong about her awareness level.

You're assuming that her headphones meant she was unaware that street harrassment happens and is dangerous, and I promise you, she's not. No woman in Toronto is ever unaware of street harrassment.

What I take from her reaction to you is that she was aware, if not of those particular men, though even there I have strong doubts, that men were going to be harrassing her. That's what the earphones are *for*. That's why we wear them. We wear them to carve out a little zone of peace, because there's nothing else we can do, day-to-day, about street harassment, and our senses are always tuned to noticing it.

And you blew right through her boundaries, because you wanted to help.

You came up and touched her, and you're also a man. There were men behind her, harrassing her, and a man came up behind her and touched her. And, well, she didn't give you the benefit of the doubt. She raised Hell and told you not to touch her.

And I don't think she should have done anything else. How was she supposed to know you were on her side, not theirs? I've had men who are very unlike you - but not visually unlike you - come up to me like that. The other guys made them brave, not disgusted, and they came up and played the Nice Guy role and scored themselves an interaction that I wasn't allowed to leave without them getting angry.

You know that little gesture people make when they want you to take your headphones off? I can't see that gesture without feeling angry and afraid.

I hate to jump on you for this and at the same time I don't, because I know you know better. You just didn't apply that knowledge in this context.

Eileen said...

I would have approached her as well but I recognise that her response to me might have been different to how she responded to you. But I probably would have been open to abuse from the other youngster. Isn't it a sad indictment of our society that trying to help someone brings such retribution.

Ron Arnold said...

I'm guessing she was utterly oblivious to the boneheads - and maybe that's by design. I've found that people who shrink their world do so purposefully - if you're unaware of things - they don't exist right?

I agree with your actions and your intentions. Her context (both immediate and 'big-wide') didn't take any of that into account.

It was what it was -

I hope she's not subject to any too harsh lessons in small world context in her future . . . .

Liz said...

I have to agree with Marna. I would bet she heard them, and had already heard too much. She had her phone in her hand, she had probably upped that volume right out to drown out the jerks who felt free to comment on her. It might not be the best way to deal with street harrassment, or even the safest. She made herself less aware that you were there, and less aware that you were a possible ally. But this is a technique I have used myself, just drown them out and try to ignore. You are betting that if you don't engage, and you don't seem to notice them, then they will get bored. Maybe she was still hoping it wouldn't completely influence her day too.

That being said, I do think her reaction was a little over the top. She didn't just step away or just state clearly that she didn't want to be touched. I still like to think that politeness and a cautious benefit of the doubt could have been applied. But if she was already feeling vulnerable that might not have been in her mind.

I think you did the right thing to stand up to those men, and the right thing in trying to make sure she was safe. I would not start the interaction with touching though, even just the shoulder. If she has the space and the choice of whether she wants to engage with you, then she might have responded differently. Maybe you wouldn't have gotten her attention, but maybe thats ok too. You think she might have seen you as insignificant and beneath her notice (and maybe she did, maybe she is a jerk too... who knows!), but she might have also seen you as a large and intimidating man with expectations. And that might have been what changed her reaction and provoked her behaviour.

Unknown said...

It sounds like she was 100% ready to stand up for herself. She didn't react with fear. She acted with fury. As Marna Nightingale says, she knew the young men were there, and was ready to repel them. You just got caught in the crossfire.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I am learning from this conversation. I wonder, though, for those of you who think I shouldn't have done what I did. What should I have done instead. Just speaking to the youth, which didn't work, and going ahead seems wrong to me. So suggestions of alternatives would be helpful.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Marna. I used to have that stuff happen when I was younger and lived in a city. I wore headphones to avoid interacting but I always, always knew what was up.

And I think you should have stayed out of it. I know it feels better to take action than to do nothing, but giving more attention and weight to those guys just makes it worse. Ending catcalling and nasty talk on the street is going to be a long, long, long battle, and most days I'm just not up for it. Forcing me into an interaction over it would have made me angry.

I also don't necessarily agree that she was in much actual danger. Broad daylight, a busy's just not likely. And even if they did start to approach her, she'd probably have a plan for that too. Run into a store or something. I think you have to trust that not every person needs you to save them. And that sometimes by interfering, you actually undermine.

Anonymous said...

I think she wouldn't have noticed them until it was too late if they had decided - a distinct possibility since they were being ignored - to get closer to her.

It is idiotic to block your ability to hear danger approaching.

The only thing you might have done differently was to go around to the front of her and wait until she noticed you were there - or you accomplished your purpose, and she moved away from danger.

Just because she thought she could handle any danger doesn't mean she could handle four guys, guys who might have been very scary if she confronted them.

For the rest - how public the place was, and whether they would have tried anything - I'll have to trust your judgment, which I would expect to be good.

My two cents worth.


H.ellen said...

I'm really surprised at the number of people who think Dave did wrong or that he should have done nothing. I believe that if he'd written that he'd just walked by and didn't do anything people would have ripped him apart for not doing something. Everything I'm reading about bullying encourages people to take action and not just be a passive observer. What if she didn't notice them, what if they did assault her, to think that this isn't a possibility is, in my mind, denial at it''s very worst.

Marna Nightingale said...

What I think Dave should have done: watched the men. Kept an eye on the situation, been ready to help or call for help IF things escalated, taken pictures of the men with his phone if he felt he could do so without endangering himself.

Refrained from taking any action which assumed that the woman would automatically extend him the benefit of the doubt, or that required her to do so.

There's nothing wrong with catching a harassment victim's eye and letting them know you have their back, but if you have to chase them and grab them to do it, well, you're chasing and grabbing a harassment victim. I honestly don't know how y'all expect that to go, but I, like the woman, would have reacted in a loud, angry, attention-getting way first and maybe asked questions later.

Being loud and uncompromisingly difficult to mess with when grabbed is the best defence, and you only get one best chance to do it, and that's as soon as it starts, before they get a more solid grip on you.

I'm not arguing that the young woman's decision was the best possible choice. I'm not arguing it wasn't, either.

I am refusing to argue about the validity of her choice AT ALL, because I refuse to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking. I refuse to victim blame. I absolutely refuse to call her stupid or careless for not being afraid enough to suit you all while being a chick on a sidewalk. I refuse to say that she should constantly be expected to expose herself to the abuse of anyone who wants to yell at her just so she could be 'environmentally aware' enough to suit you all.

Here's the thing: many of you are talking about this as if it was an unusual, singular, terrible event in this woman's life, because it was in Dave's. And it's not. Street harassment is unbelievably common. It is part of the ordinary soundtrack of the lives of most female-identified people who are past puberty and live in urban areas. If we were consciously aware of it all the time we couldn't function.

We don't even know that there was any sound coming through her headphones, guys. This is a thing women do, sometimes.

We put in headphones in in the hopes that people will believe we can't hear them and leave us the fuck alone to walk down the sidewalk in peace. And we leave the sound off in case they don't, and so we don't get hit by streetcars. This is incredibly common among women who walk or roll or bike or run a lot. We teach it to each other.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I want to make it clear that I did not, DID NOT, grab the woman. I simply touched her on the shoulder. I get that touch is touch and it's valid that she reacted and didn't appreciate that touch, but for clarity, I didn't grab her. I also want to make it clear that it wasn't a busy street, though I may have portrayed it that way, it was Sunday morning, early, there were very few people out and very little traffic. That added to my sense that I should do something. I am glad this discussion happened as it's making me think and rethink my intervention. But. I didn't grab her.

Anonymous said...

I was going to write a what I think but Marna has said so much so eloquently instead. *Not* noticing street harassment makes it possible for me to continue to go out in places where street harassment is directed at me. I find it really unhelpful when people point out to me what is going on around me and I didn't notice. He said this, they were laughing and pointing, someone over there is staring. I don't notice, as in don't register, on purpose. I believe it's possible to not notice until presented with a situation where there is action you can take to make yourself safer. Just like you might not notice the grass tickling your arm but you do notice a bee on your arm.
I usually don't feel safe to confront perpetrators with words. But I do feel ok to stop, and stare with a hard look on my face. I have noticed what you have done. It is not ok. I think young people are often looking for responses that are containing of their behaviour, as adolescents they want boundaries to push against as they test out their identities.
I think of Paddington Bear doing the hard stare. “he stands up for things, he’s not afraid of going straight to the top and giving them a hard stare” quoting from

Marna Nightingale said...

Dave, sorry for not reading you more carefully. A touch is not a grab.

Marna Nightingale said...

And I really want to show you my appreciation, Dave, because I feel like that hasn't come through. I'm glad and grateful that you cared enough to notice, to involve yourself, to post about it, to engage with comments, to want to get it right.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Marna, and all who commented, this is the reason I love the blog community that Rolling Around in My Head has been lucky to establish. The discussions are frank but respectful. People listen and discuss and debate and disagree but they do so carefully. Opinions are best understood when there is no desire to hurt. Thanks again everyone, I've had and will continue to have much to think about.

Antonia Lederhos Chandler said...

I admire you for confronting the perpetrators. I believe that the only reason you would touch
a woman whom you consider to be a stranger on the shoulder would be:

1. You felt she was in danger.
2. She demonstrated no awareness of this danger.
3. You wanted to warn her, in order to make her as safe as possible. If she were your
daughter, niece or mother, you would have wanted a passerby with good motives to
have warned her.
4. You had tried getting her attention in other ways: a) Talking to her and b) motioning
at her.

I'm assuming you took all of these things into consideration in making your decision to act,
and that you approached her from in front, not from behind, when you touched her shoulder.

This is my understanding of what you did. And I feel that you did the right thing.

What she does with your gift is up to her. You took that chance -- for better or for worse --
when you did what you considered to be the right thing.

Purpletta said...

Wow, this is a hard one, Dave! Here's my two cents...

Our instincts are the most we have in most situations; when it comes to critically important decisions we have to go with what our instincts tell us. Many of us have heightened responses to just hearing these types of situations, often based on our own histories and traumas. But our instincts have developed over time to protect us and in some cases to protect others too. Reading your story, I think you did what your instincts told you at the time you needed to do to increase the likelihood of safety for someone who whether she was aware of it at the time or not was being victimized. Had there been another way to get her attention, certainly I am sure you would have used it. However while her reaction to you was strong and harsh, and possibly not surprisingly so, I don't see an adult tapping another adult on the shoulder in a well-lit public place as inappropriate. I say that while also acknowledging that my reaction may well have been similar to hers - my sensitivities to unexpected touch is heightened and that response has helped protect me and likely in other situations it has helped protect the young lady you spoke with. But that doesn't mean that all unsolicited touch is inherently bad or that the person initiating the touch is inherently wrong. (Someone reached out an arm to steady me the other day when I was losing my balance & the reality is that is so uncomfortable to me that I probably would have preferred to fall... but the stranger standing near me who saw me wobble and reached out to hold my arm had no way of knowing that and based on the information he had he was doing the 'right' thing.)

I don't know a 'better' solution than the one you came up with in the moment. And there are several additional factors in your description that support your rationale for intervening...
- If something ** had happened, it sounds like the number of people around to intervene was limited. There were you and Joe, and the young woman. But when matched with four young men, in an urgent situation it would have worried me not to have additional back-up.
- Sad as it is, the daylight doesn't mean safety.
- The men not backing down when you made your presence known would definitely have increased my level of sensitivity also.
- From your description the young lady appeared to have crossed the street, then stopped to text. From her positioning it didn't sound like she 'needed' to continue to stay where she was, if she felt uncomfortable. If that is the case then the fact that she continued to stand there would suggest that she * may not have been aware of the men's comments.
- What you describe from the men is far worse than 'cat calls.' You note they were vulgar and violent. You note they were stating things they would 'do' to her. These are serious threats and I don't think there is ever a circumstance in which someone should stand by and not react to one person threatening another.
- You mention that you could hear the music too from her earbuds, that it was very loud. This suggests that at the least she was actually listening to music and wasn't using them as a 'prop.'

I don't think intervening to talk with a stranger or to alert her to potential danger or to tell a stranger you have her back is akin to trying to overstep your role in order to 'save' her. I think our world would be safer if we all similarly looked out for one another. And if bullies and perpetrators would know that we all are united in safety and in preventing victimization.

I am sorry that she was startled and presumably uncomfortable with you tapping her on the shoulder & am sorry she left possibly thinking you were a creep. But I for one am grateful you were there and spoke up...and I hope you would do it again.

Mary said...

I completely agree with Marna.

I understand your stated wish for a positive suggestion of what a man like himself "should do" in that scenario, but the first and most important thing to do is respect the victim.

If the victim has put up defences - effective defences, that *were* protecting her from the verbal violence the yobs were trying to subject her to, that were enabling her to keep her dignity, and that were allowing her to deny them the satisfaction of a response to their catcalling, and depending on who and what she was texting, may also have been a way of maintaining contact or letting someone she trusts know what was happening and where exactly she was - then it's not on to override that and demand that she take her defences down and give the whole situation including *you* a response in order to enable you to feel like A Good Person Who Did Something.

The problem behaviour is not that of the woman. The problem behaviour is that of the men who were harassing her. You positively did what you could about that behaviour - you expressed your disapproval while remaining mindful of your own safety, intervening with them rather than with her. That was enough, and more than many would bother to do. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with those who thought you should have intervened in telling the men to stop it - which you did. Further, I agree with those who said you should NOT have approached the woman and touched her. Where she stopped and what she was doing was her choice. By interfering you implied that you know better. Plus, if concentrating on a visual with a background of loud music, a touch from someone you didn't see would scare the cr*p out of you. And what is the go-to reaction of fear? Anger. The source of the problem, the rude men, should have been the only "check" IF needed. I feel this time your heart over-ruled your head. You don't like being touched, even in a friendly manner. You don't like other assuming you need help when you are quite capable. You don't like interference in your system and ways (like the many door sagas). The men were trying to get a rise out of her. You managed to. So yes, you would be the villain in her story even though based on motive you are a hero.

CapriUni said...

As for what might have been a better course of action (good to keep in mind for next time) --

I remember reading an online comic / info-graphic for why men often don't believe that catcalling and social violence against women is real. One point made was that the men who engage in that behavior think:

A) that they are entitled to space, and women are not. So women out on their own in that space are also something they're entitled to.


B) If the woman is with a man, then she must somehow be part of his "territory." And they don't want to challenge another man for something he "owns."

The point of the comic was that that's why some men don't believe social violence against women is all that bad -- because when they're there, it doesn't happen.

So maybe next time, if you and/or Joe encounter something like this, you could just go and stand near the woman -- not talking to her, or touching her -- but just being with her, as if she were someone you know, that would be effective.

Maybe? Thoughts?

Motorized Pariah said...

I think you nailed it when you said that you will probably be the "creep" and her version of the story, and that doesn't feel very good. On the other hand, it would feel worse to read about a tragic sexual assault in the newspaper the next day. He did what was right.

BTW, watch the wedding video, good stuff!

Unknown said...

@CapriUni - Absolutely not. A man just coming and standing (or in Dave's case, sitting) near me, while other men were catcalling me, would Freak. Me. Out. I understand the logic, and perhaps in some cases it might be effective in deterring catcallers, but it would make the woman feel just as victimized. Women have the right to that space. Alone. Without a man, even a well meaning man, showing possession of them.

@Dave - If the young men were as violent as your instinct told you, then were you afraid for your own safety? Anything you did towards them could have put yourself in danger. Perhaps the best thing you could do was to take a picture, or film their behaviour, and call the police.

As for what is the "right" thing for you to do... I'm not sure.

I never talk to a male friend about street harassment without completely shocking them. They know it goes on. They've seen some of the youtube videos. What they don't know is that it's a thing that happens so often that it's almost background noise to us. "Has it happened to you?" "Yes." "When?" "Um... always. Every time I go out and don't have a man with me." And the man (husband, father, brother, friend... I've had this conversation with them all) stares in disbelief, then tries to make sense of it, then perhaps doesn't believe it, or minimizes it, or wants me to point out who is doing it, or hugs me and wishes the world didn't suck...

I don't have the answers. But I think more men need to listen to women and learn what sort of world we inhabit.

Ettina said...

You may not like her reaction, but you accomplished your purpose anyway. I'm sure after being unexpectedly touched by a stranger, she'd be more alert to potential danger from other people for awhile.

Sometimes you can end up helping someone even though they thought you were harming them. It's like when people step in to help a wild animal in trouble - because they can't communicate their intentions, most of the time the animal thinks they're attacking. But they might still save the animal's life.

It would have been better if you could have helped her without alarming her or making her think badly of you, but if your assessment of the danger of that situation was correct, what happened is still much better than what could have happened.

Anonymous said...

I think it was brave of you, and a very refreshing thing, to challenge these men and try to change the situation. Although I personally wouldn't block out my hearing as I think that would make me vulnerable I completely understand why women do this. I agree with much of what was said about doing something like filming and making eye contact to let the victim know you're offering your support. <the only thing I think you did which was mistaken was to touch the woman's shoulder. I know some people think tapping someone on the shoulder is a reasonable thing to do but personally I find this too close/intrusive from a stranger, and especially in a situation where someone is feeling vulnerable anyway, that's going to make them defensive.