Thursday, 15 May 2014

Sharing Public Spaces

Yesterday we got into a bit of a debate in the combox over what is a compliment and what constitutes an attack.

And this is good debate to have. Let's thrash it out.

Before we do, though, I want to underscore that this is about public spaces, like the bus or the main street. Somewhere where there are other people around. This is not about parties or or empty classrooms or elevators or an alley. When you are alone in a small enclosed space with a strange man--or a potentially violent woman--you need to be.... Actually, I don't recommend ever being alone behind closed doors with a strange man or a potentially violent woman.

I used to be very frightened of strangers, especially male strangers. This did not show on my face, for from an early age I schooled it into a mask of confidence, and it could look cheerful or sardonic, depending on the circumstance. As a child I was frightened of dogs, too, but learned that the safest thing to do was not run away or smell afraid. Looking confident is a survival skill, and etched on my memory is the episode in which I gazed at a streetkid between me and the kitchen door and said in a steady voice, "That's a very big knife you have there."

The streetkid's name was Stretch, and he was not a kid, really, but a twenty-something who had been brought home by my flatmate because she had (and has) a good and generous heart and was naive about the destitute. The destitute community, like any other community, has its sinners and its saints, its villains and its victims. The destitute, as Servant of God Dorothy Day could have told you, are not lovable ragamuffins out of a Dickens' novel. The destitute person I liked best, when I worked for the Ontario government, was really very dangerous when off his meds.

Well, anyway, my flatmate invited dear old Stretch home, thinking to give him a bed, only it became clear Stretch thought she meant her bed, and before long I received a frightened phone call at my then-fiancé's from my friend trying to explain the situation while Stretch listened in. Neither she nor I knew Stretch had a knife strapped around his leg, or I would not have gone home alone.

So flashforward to the kitchen, and Stretch casually unwinding the wrappings from his leg to reveal his shiny knife, and I remarking on the size of the knife, and also saying I hoped Stretch never had cause to use it.

"Don't worry," said Stretch. "I only use it when I feel threatened."

Great, I thought as my heart pounded like feet down a staircase. And here I am trying to throw you out.

This story seems to be running away with my post. To make the scary story short, it was made clear to Stretch that he wasn't getting any, and he left. My then-flatmate and I were 24 years old. She burst into tears.

The moral of the story is not to bring a male stranger into your home, or to find yourself alone with a male stranger behind closed doors, no matter how sorry you feel for him, no matter how much privilege you think you have compared to him, no matter how pale you are or how dark he is, or how native you are or how foreign he is. If inspired to give a homeless man a meal, invite him to McDonald's, or volunteer at a shelter.

Now back to public spaces.

There's an Ontario woman named Gwen Jac*bs who got mad because men were allowed to mow their lawns shirtless, but women weren't. Women were, of course, allowed to mow their lawn in a bikini top, but that wasn't enough for Gwen. Gwen organized a rally in which Ontario women marched down a main street topless to show... Well, I am not sure what. Aggression towards the law against women going topless in public, I guess.

Men lined the road with video cameras. Ick! I was disgusted. The men seemed disgusting. The whole thing was disgusting. The women were... Well, not disgusting, but possibly stupid. Or not stupid and merely fighting a battle for the Great Lie that gender is merely a social construct and that, given enough "education", there will no longer be gender at all.

And I wonder if the men weren't fighting a battle, too--a battle against the over-sexualization of public spaces. We see film clips of men driving into lampposts with the introduction of the miniskirt. Absolutely hilarious, unless you're the men who have driven their cars into lamp posts, or their wives, or their frightened children. Sure, women could tell men, "Stop being so distracted by naked breasts!" And men could tell us, in return, "Stop menstruating."

I bring this up to point out that public space belongs to both men and women and that men, too, can suffer from the opposite sex behaving aggressively.

Of course, men can be unpleasantly chippy about it, too. For example, if I wear a vintage hat, I am not aggressively trying to assert that I am socially a cut above the residents of Roughmillar or Roughbrae. However, this is indeed how wearing a vintage hat can be understood. I think it sucks that I have to tailor what I wear to the boring, tasteless and conformist community standard of the Rough Bus, but there you go. I don't want to look aggressive. A vintage hat on the Rough Bus is aggressive, smelling of Tories and Margaret Thatcher.

In Toronto the community standard for buses is quite different. It isn't about what you wear but about how loud or talkative you are. We don't like loud or talkative people on the bus or train, especially early in the morning. Women dread some man just starting a conversation on the bus. What the heck is wrong with him!? Why is he talkingggg???? And why to meeeeeee????

In Edinburgh, however, it is perfectly normal for strangers to chat with each other. I have had to get over my Toronto dread of talking to strangers on the bus, so as to be a good citizen of Edinburgh. And so I ended up having a conversation on the bus on Tuesday with man who got on at Rough Towers. He had a very small head, and I thought he might not be "all there", but he observed that I was reading a Polish dictionary, and I admitted I was learning Polish, and he told me he had a 15 hour shift, and I said that was a pity on such a sunny day, and that there was an Italian proverb that if you want to be happy for life, become a gardener. "I like a bit of gardening," he said, wistfully, and not surprisingly, as British men garden in their millions. We blethered on in this neighbourly fashion until I said "Here's me" and we wished each other a nice day.

I would have been amazed, at 24, to see my 40-something self chatting away like an Edinburgh wifie to a man with a very small head. But this is merely because at 24 I had not yet figured out that the great majority of men, of every intelligence and condition, are decent chaps who would do anything for a quiet life, and that the yahoos and fiends, some of whom have graduate educations, are a decided minority.

Of course there are yahoos and probably fiends on Edinburgh streets. A gang of passing foreign men (probably Polish, alas) made a snatch at my friend and shoved my head as we walked passed them one evening. My friend evaded them, an I shouted "Hey!", but there as no policeman about, so what could be do? Our boundaries had most definitely been violated, but short of learning how to say "God will punish you" in Polish for the next time this happens, there was nothing we could do. Gangs of drunken young men are dangerous, have been dangerous, and always will be dangerous. Avoid them at all costs.

And then there were the toads who shouted at me from a speeding panel van, so helpfully emblazoned with the names of their employers. They needed a rap over the knuckles, and they got it.

But these are just yahoos. The fiends are sneakier and rarer.

I agree absolutely, and I will always maintain, that women need to assess every social situation with a stranger, be he a man or be she a woman who seems "off". Worries that he/she will think you're a racist or a snob or a phobe of some sort or another should not factor hugely in your assessment. If you get weird vibes from a guy in an elevator, get off, and if you stay on anyway just because he's from a different race from you, don't give yourself a pat on the back afterwards. If you think no man harbours racist beliefs against women of your race, you're incredibly sheltered and one day your luck may run out.

However, an elevator has closed doors. It is an uncomfortable space on the border of public and private. In public space, in daylight, I maintain that there is more room to relax and, to be frank, for charity. If I hear "Hey! Nice hair!" I say "Thank you", even if there was a chance the guy was being ironic. If he was, I'm throwing his irony in his face. If he meant me to feel insulted, I chose to feel flattered instead. And meanwhile, he is probably so dumb that before the power of the female smile he will forget that he was being ironic and feel a boost to his mood. I know I am wonderful and unique, dear neighbour. Have a nice day!


Catherine said...

When men comment (loudly) on my hair, I also take it as a compliment and thank them. I also wave back at cars full of whistling teenagers - to the absolute mortification of my friends. If I were to be insulted at every silly comment I get...well, what kind of life would that be? I enjoy flirty banter with construction workers - I can probably thank my modest clothes for the conversations never really crossing the line.

That being said, I grew up outside of Manhattan and my dad was always giving my sister and me lessons about safety - never get on an empty subway car, always take wide corners, don't give anyone money (although water bottles are okay). I think being aware of situations is always necessary - know your surroundings, keep an eye out for possible problems. If I feel uncomfortable in any situation, I extricate myself from it. I think I've managed to stay out of trouble this way, and while I'm a little suspicious of everyone, I'd rather be safe than sorry.

Sheila said...

I think men going around shirtless is very rude. For one thing, some of us DO find that immodest and distracting. And for another, it's rude to do what you don't want others to do. It frustrates me when Catholic men lecture about modesty, saying we shouldn't be conformed to cultural standards, and then admit they go jogging shirtless. Hey, how about you set an example of bucking cultural standards and wear a shirt? It won't hurt you, and it might make life easier for your sisters in Christ.

I am not good with "which public situations to be scared in," because I grew up as a very sheltered suburban girl. So my default is to be scared in all of them. I try not to show it!

Recently I traveled across the country all by myself (well, with a baby) and had to rent a car by myself, stay in a hotel by myself, etc. It was a really intimidating prospect, but I was proud that I handled it fine anyway. Except for one time. I was crossing the hotel parking lot to my hotel room for the first time. It was about 7 pm and getting dark, and while the neighborhood was a standard suburban strip, I had no idea how safe it might or might not be at night or what the crime rate was like in the city I was in. And there was a man about 20 paces behind me. I was hindered with my baby and suitcases and couldn't go very fast, but I kept speeding up and speeding up, trying not to look scared of this guy. He slowed down a bit -- trying not to look creepy, I assume! But when I got to the door, I couldn't get in. My card key wasn't working, or I wasn't putting it in right. And here is this man coming up behind me! I'm cornered.

Well, he comes up, sticks in his card key, and holds the door open for me. Up close, I see he's Asian -- slim and no taller than I am. Not at all intimidating to me, because I'm physically fit if not exactly trained in street fighting. And anyway, he's here smiling and opening the door for me. I felt like such a doofus!

On the other hand, better to feel like a doofus than let myself get attacked because I didn't want to seem too nervous. I guess. But I wish I had enough ease in situations like this to be able to size them up accurately the first time.

Seraphic said...

Oh, dear, Sheila. How very sad and uncomfortable!

I agree that men should not run around without a shirt on. I don't see many do so here though. Possibly they get yelled at by men in cars when they do. Actually not wearing a shirt goes against old-fashioned Scottish working-class mores, so it wouldn't surprise me.

Modesty said...

I just so happen to live in an American town where it is in fact legal for women to go topless. (Which is a relief for nursing mothers I assume.)

But round these parts it can get up to over 115 degrees Fahrenheit and I'd be lying if I didn't say I don't wear much in the privacy of my home with all windows drawn and curtained. :) And man oh man, on my Sunday drive to mass I always go by the most popular jogging spot and there are a lot of topless men. My friends and I make sure we say a little "Thank you" prayer for an example of human beauty in such situations.

But is too hot for clothes in the summer here. Also anyone who jogs in such weather is either crazy dedicated or just crazy.

Sheila said...

If it's 115 degrees, I will forgive anybody what they're wearing!

In my redneck American town, most of the men don't wear shirts when it's hot. Most of the men are also overweight and hairy. So it's not really an offense against chastity, more of an "ow! my eyes!" sort of thing.

At the same time, it's hot, and they've never lectured ME about what to wear, so I don't get upset. If any of these men felt like lecturing me about my feminine duty to be modest and beautiful, I'd give them what for. But they don't, instead they tinker with cars and offer me a piece of the deer they just shot. They are very nice fellows, despite the shirtlessness.