Running home today, I turned my head as I hit an intersection to see if any cars were turning onto the road in front of me. None were, but a gaunt white man, his hair cropped close to his head, pulled up beside me. “Where’s your bike?” he asked, and cycled slowly next to me. I looked at him blankly. I don’t have the world’s best memory for faces, but I was pretty sure at least his face would register somewhere in the recesses of my mind if I had met him before. “Your bike. Where is it?”
I sighed to myself in irritation, and decided I really didn’t know him. And really, what business is it of his where my bike is. He persisted. “Your bike. It is red. I saw you on it this morning. Where is it?” I gave in. And I told him I’d left it at the office so I could run home. A small conversation followed, consisting mainly of him asking me why I run, where I run, how often I run, how far I run, and again asking a few times where my bike was. As if I hadn’t already told him.
I don’t really understand the desire to engage people in conversation, particularly when they are running. Running, at least for me, is not really conducive to discussion. And yet some people seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable. Mark, he told me his name was, wanted to accompany me on his bike while I ran. No thank you, I told him. And then was caught in that horrible female dilemma (at least it feels more common to women than men) between that socialisation to be polite, versus my own personal desire to just be left the fk alone. So I made something up about being almost at my destination, and thanks very much but no thanks. Because getting into a conversation about why I don’t like to run with random strangers cycling next to me just felt too tiring.
It got me thinking. Do men really not realise how predatory their behaviour often feels? It reminded me of another part of Reviving Ophelia, where a young male college student says sometimes he walks around his campus at night, and watches women skirt away when he goes past them. He wants to say—hey, it’s okay, I’m not a rapist, you don’t have to be afraid of me. But women are afraid of strange men that pass them in the dark. Women are afraid of men in general. Far more so, I imagine, than men are afraid of women. Or maybe even of other men.
Some friends of mine have gotten me hooked on the TV series Six Feet Under. A fellow guerrilla girl came back from the UK recently, and brought with her DVDs of series 3, 4 and 5. In the one I watched the other night, a woman in her early twenties is walking home alone from a club one night. Some men come up behind her and start wolf whistling, heckling her, propositioning her for sex. She walks faster, and they keep at it. Afraid, she darts across the road into traffic. When the men see her run into the road, they call her name. It turns out they are friends of hers from the neighbourhood. They were just joking around with her. It didn’t occur to her that she would genuinely be afraid, or that their behaviour would upset her. In a panic, she doesn’t look at the oncoming traffic, and she’s hit by a car and dies. Sure, it is perhaps an over dramatisation. But once again, it brought home for me the very different realities of men and women.
Walking through the car park this morning, I watched the women walk slowly, watch, follow behind cars, wait for them to pass. And I watched the men move forward, not looking, claiming their space and ignoring how they might inconvenience others. I don’t know that either of these behaviours is more “right” than the other. Ideally, perhaps, there is some kind of balance between the arrogant insistence of one and the passive submission of the other.
Complaining to a friend of mine about all of this, she reckoned “I think men think women exist to want them.” I don’t know that I would have thought of it that way. But the minute she said it, I got what she meant.
Certainly wishing that the male half of the population would somehow spontaneously evaporate is not very Zen. And it’s probably not very helpful either. I mean, it’s not Mark’s fault that I am suspicious of men at the best of times, or that I feel more vulnerable when I run. And maybe I have no right to complain if I’m not willing to engage strangers like that in the kind of conversation or “education” that might contribute to a change in attitudes. Even though it’s draining. And how much of us really want to listen, anyway. But still. I know I’m not perfect. And certainly I could be trying harder. I’ll take responsibility for not doing my part for world peace today by engaging Mark. Or yesterday by engaging Gutu. Or Christopher the day before. I just wish I wasn’t so cynical about the prospect of even one of them pledging to not harass any women for just one day.
Women's Rights, Zimbabwe, Sexual Harrasment