Warning: this post contains violent and sexist language.
A few weeks ago, I was standing on a sidewalk in Stratford, having just come out of a bookstore. A middle-aged man walked up to me, asked if he could have a minute, and when I said "yes," proceeded to scold me for "not looking where [I] was going" and nearly running into him. I have no idea if I did or not; I'd never seen him before in my life. All I knew was that I was on my own and a strange man had started berating me out of nowhere.
About five minutes later, after I got away, my phone chimed and I pulled it out to see what it was. It was an e-mail from someone I'd defriended on Livejournal and ignored his subsequent "but whyyyyyy?" messages. Apparently he hadn't gotten the message, because he was rhapsodizing about how great it would be if we lived near each other and could hang out. I deleted the e-mail.
Would either of these men have hurt me? I don't know. All I knew was that I was getting unwanted- in the first case, hostile- attention from strange men who were ignoring my boundaries. At what point can I assume that I'll be safe? And if I do and I'm wrong, how many people will blame me if I turn out to be wrong?
A few years ago, I came close to dating a man, but called it off when I discovered a series of disturbing internet posts he'd made before arriving at university. I'm not going to link to them because his real name is attached, but suffice to say they described graphic violence against women. After I turned him down he started to Facebook stalk me- whenever I posted something, there'd be a like or a comment from him within the space of five minutes. He was also wont to send me messages out of nowhere, congratulating me on being "cool" when I saw him in public. I unfriended him. Sure enough, within twelve hours, I had a message from him wanting to know why. I blocked him.
Dangerous? Maybe. Disrespectful of my boundaries? Absolutely. The history of violent rhetoric was there. The low-level creeping was there. If I'd let it pass and put up with the annoyance and discomfort, would he have lost interest and gone away? Or would he have escalated?
When I was in high school, a friend invited me over to his house to watch a movie. He had a TV in his bedroom, so we sat on the bed to watch it. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he repeatedly reached over and grabbed my backside, crotch, and breasts. I slapped his hands away. He did it again. I slapped them again. He kept going. His mother was upstairs, and I threatened to scream and bring her running downstairs- that stopped him for a few minutes. I didn't scream, though. I was too embarrassed. What could I say if she came downstairs? "Your son keeps groping me?" I could barely force the word "vagina" out of my mouth.
We were watching "The Fifth Element" that afternoon. To this day, I can't watch that movie without feeling queasy.
I took drama class in high school, and had a classmate who really didn't like me. His name was Jeff. I was assigned to work on a skit with him and one other boy (the one who groped me, but this was before that.) There was a scene in our skit where I was thrown to the ground and kicked. All staged, of course, but then Jeff started kicking me for real. I told him that if he did it during the actual presentation, I'd break character and yell at him to stop. "Do that," he said, "and I'll fucking kill you, bitch." He got more graphic than that: when I suggested wearing a nightgown as part of my costume, he responded "will anyone be able to see your pussy? If I saw your pussy, I'd kill myself." Then there was the time he asked me if I'd ever masturbated and told me I should "stick a carrot in your pussy."
One day, he passed me in the hall and muttered "see you in drama class, Laura" under his breath. I burst into tears and ran to a payphone, begging my mother to take me home. She pulled me out of that class. After I stopped going, we started getting hangup phone calls, from a number that listed on call display as "012345678." I still can't prove that Jeff was the one calling. All I know is that when I mentioned in front of his friend (the groper) that my mother had called the police about the phone calls, they instantly stopped.
That was high school. In middle school- I was eleven- I went to a friend's birthday party. We were walking home from the park, five girls from the age of eleven to thirteen, when a man pulled up on a bike. "oooh," he said, "five pretty ladies!" We all froze.
"Are you scared?" he asked. "Don't be scared of me." In retrospect, that was his mistake. Before, we'd been paralyzed because we knew there was something wrong with the situation, but we couldn't put a voice to it. As soon as he identified his behaviour as scary, it broke the spell. We all started screaming, and ran the rest of the way home. My friend's parents weren't there- just her sixteen-year-old sister, who laughed when she heard the story. "He was hitting on you!" she said. "Get used to it!"
It's been eleven years.
I'm still not used to it.