Several years ago, I was living on my own in Boston (well, the ridiculously nicer town of Brookline, to be honest). I left a Somerville bar after the subway had stopped running, so I hopped in a cab for the fairly quick trip home.
I love cab drivers, and when I’m in the mood, I like talking to them because so many are from places I’ve never been and have interesting stories. That night, my driver was Muhammad from Morocco, a place I’ve always wanted to visit. We talked about what it was like there, and how easy it would be to get around as a foreigner, and how tough the language barrier might be.
About 20 minutes later, we were a block from my apartment. I let Muhammad know that he could pull over wherever was convenient. He asked which building, and I said, “Oh, just up there, so anywhere around here should be fine.”
“Um, yes, but just pull over wherever, really!”
Instead of pulling over to the right, he turned to the left into a parking spot and turned off the car and the meter.
“Ummmm,” I said, “so how much do I owe you?”
“Oh,” he said while turning around in his seat, “it’s okay, we should just talk a bit more.”
I tried to hand him $20, and he grabbed my wrist and pulled me through the window between the front and back seats. He tried to kiss me on the mouth but I turned and pulled away, so he only brushed up against my cheek. I dropped the money and jumped out of the car, dashed across the street, and ran up to my apartment on the third floor. Inside, I locked the door and then felt my way to my bedroom without turning on the lights, fearing that he’d see my window light up and know which apartment was mine.
It was a singular incident for me, and one that I recounted several times for friends as a funny anecdote. It was the final ridiculous thing to happen to me in a string of ridiculous things that had happened all that day. I haven’t really thought about it much in the intervening years.
This past Saturday night, I waited in a New York bar for my friends to finish their last drinks so that we could go back to our hotel. I wanted to go about an hour earlier, but I was waiting to split a cab for the 20 short blocks. As the bartender settled up, I realized that my friends weren’t going back to the hotel, but were heading to another bar. One friend gave me some cash for the cab, and I left on my own.
Out on the street, traffic was light and cabs seemed plentiful, but after a moment of hesitation, I decided to just walk. I was in midtown Manhattan on 7th – not a particularly scary part of town, even at 2am. Still, though, I was really tired, and I had a blister on one of my feet, and I realized at some point that I really would rather just be in a cab. I couldn’t figure out why, then, I wasn’t hailing one. After several blocks, I thought of the Boston incident and wondered if maybe that’s why I hate taking cabs late at night by myself these days.
Literally as I was pondering that, a man passed me and made a comment about the hotness of my hair. I couldn’t quite hear him and I didn’t stop to get a clarification. He reached for me but I quickened my pace and he didn’t follow.
Half a block later, another man walked up to me and offered me $1,000 if I’d let him do unspeakable things to me. Again, I didn’t respond, nor did I slow my pace. One of the first lessons I learned in Getting Street Harassed University was Just Keep Going Because Maybe He Will Decide to Murder You and People Will Say It Was Your Fault. He said something else I couldn’t make out.
As I passed that guy, a third man fell in beside me and matched my pace.
“Oh my god, did that guy really just say that to you?”
“I guess,” I shrugged, eyes straight ahead and still keeping my pace.
“I can’t believe he said that. I bet a girl like you gets shit like that all the time.”
I shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I bet you got some stories. I bet we got a lot in common. We’d have some good conversations.”
“Whatever, man, I’m just trying to get home to my boyfriend.”
“Your boyfriend ain’t here. He can wait.”
“Maaaaaan (unintelligible cursing)….”
I continued walking straight ahead and he turned away. Just then, a group of guys approached me. “I bet she’ll give you her number,” one said to the other. I passed them. “Will you?” one shouted from behind me. “No,” I shouted without turning around.
Four come-ons in two blocks: a new record for me! For the next few blocks back to the hotel, I wondered if it would have been less upsetting to deal with one guy in an enclosed space who could drive me wherever he wanted, or several dozen guys in an open space gauntlet who could follow me or drag me wherever they wanted. Then I thought a bit about how unfair it is that that’s even something I have to think about. Then I thought about how my parents raised me on the phrase, “Well, life’s not fair,” and I hurried back to my hotel where I slipped into bed with my boyfriend.
“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” he said. I laughed and told him it wasn’t that big a deal, that it’s just been awhile since I’ve had that much harassment in one short time period, and that it didn’t bother me that much, but even while I said it I knew that at least two of those statements weren’t entirely truthful.
The next morning, I Tweeted/Facebooked this:
New record set last night: 4 come-ons within 2 short blocks. Fave: “I’ll give you $1k if you let me…” @everydaysexism
(If you’re not aware, @EverydaySexism catalogues daily examples of things like street harassment and assault.)
One of the Facebook responses was this, from someone I don’t know named Joshua:
So it’s apparently now sexist to approach a female with sexual interest? Awesome.
My first thought was this:
My response was this:
Omg who is this dumbass on my feed, ha ha
He’s a ferengi
Hello feeeeeemale, I am approaching you with sexual interest and offering two bars of latinum
I’ll be honest, that made me laugh and laugh. Joshua posted again to say this:
Discounting the one offering money; Wait, wait, wait… I think I know how it goes…
1) Male initiates come-on
2) Female declines
3) Male respectfully accepts declination
4) Male gets called names on the internet
5) Female rights have been upheld.
And finally I unfriended him, because, really, you know you don’t have much going in the logic department when to even try to make an argument you have to begin by discounting the only example your opponent gave you. It’s my experience that people who are so indoctrinated and unable to think critically about their own viewpoint (in this case, the view that it is somehow anti-man for a woman to use her personal Facebook page to complain about unnamed (and un-gendered) strangers offering her money for sex) are not worth arguing with. They’re only good to bat around like a catnip mouse for a few amusing moments before discarding.
I thought that would be the end of it, but (and I still can’t even believe this happened as I’m typing this) Joshua then had the audacity to send this email in to the podcast I co-host, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe:
From: Joshua [redacted]
Subject: Leaving the SGU
Message: Dear SGU,
I’m writing to say a farewell to the SGU… Recently I had a minor altercation with Rebecca Watson regarding an issue of sexism. This was my first ever direct contact with a SGU member, taking place on the above named’s Facebook wall in response to a post I didn’t think warranted the sexism ‘label’, and I was excited for a discussion that would result in my own enlightenment and clarification of an issue that I’m interested in, albeit not especially knowledgeable of.
However… When, what I thought, I provided comments that would elicit clarification of an issue or incite an explanation, Rebecca instead resorted to insulting me. This was… surprising… As I previously stated, this was my first direct communication with an SGU member. The latter of which, without providing any thoughtful commentary, called me a “dumbass”, “stupid”, and even likened my physical appearance to that of a ‘Ferengi’. If I’m truly honest, this hurt my feelings. Quite substantially. It almost feels like a pillar of confidence has broken away. I’ve listened to the SGU for literally years, and you guys have brought me through some incredibly tough times. I’m now a working research assistant at a university, and frequently use the SGU as a source of my argument skills, insight and critical thinking within debate. All five of you have inspired me deeply, and I admire you all, regardless of this setback. However, I honestly feel quite heart-broken about this altercation. I did not mean to offend Rebecca, and if I unintentionally did I at least wouldn’t have expected the response I received.
I apologise for sounding melodramatic, but moving forward I don’t think I can continue to listen to the SGU. This perturbs me a lot, but whilst listening to you guys, specifically Rebecca, I will only be reminded this episode, doubtlessly questioning ‘How could someone I’ve admired for so long judge me so harshly without giving any second thought’. I mean, this is literally a case of one of my sceptical heroes defying all of my conceptions of them, and personally attacking me on a relatively public medium. This leaves me a little heartbroken, but I feel I need to send this email, not with the expectancy of a response, but for my own personal closure.
Thank you for everything you have taught me, and I wish you all the best of luck in the future.
I wasn’t planning to respond to this, and was happy just to have actual proof that mocking someone like this does actually hurt his feelings. One might even hope that he might have the self-awareness to realize if he was that hurt by a stranger calling him a Ferengi in a Facebook conversation, maybe women might be hurt by many strangers constantly calling them sex objects as they try to walk down the street unmolested.
But after reading the Facebook thread, Steve Novella did respond. His response is more than sufficient, I think:
Thanks for writing. I think either you are missing the context here, in which case I can enlighten you, or you are perfectly aware of the context here.
Here is what you wrote:
“So it’s apparently now sexist to approach a female with sexual interest? Awesome.”
This is not a genuine question. The “awesome” at the end clearly makes it a negative and sarcastic commentary.
Rebecca was recounting how she was harassed on the streets, including one person directly offering her money if she would pleasure him. Your comment was clearly dismissive. If you were genuinely confused you could have actually asked a question, and if you were the slightest bit savvy you would have included a disclaimer so that your comment would not be confused for sexist trolling.
The larger context here also is that Rebecca and other female skeptics have been under constant online harassment by sexists and misogynists in the movement. So yeah, they’re a bit sensitive to that kind of trolling.
For the record she also did not compare your physical appearance to a Ferengi. She compared the attitude in your comment to that of a Ferengi – and even gave a specific example.
So – giving you the benefit of the doubt, at best you naively stepped into a touchy issue unaware of the history and grossly misinterpreted the situation. If you genuinely are interested in learning why your average woman does not like being cat called on the streets late at night in the middle of New York, then you might try apologizing for your insensitivity and asking more appropriate questions.
You must understand, however, that your behavior, including this e-mail, are indistinguishable from the all-too-common sexist trolling that we get. So at this point you really should just apologize or go away.
(Previously in amazing Steve Novella responses…)