This weekend I found myself in two situations with my children where I felt deeply uncomfortable about what happened. Twice in a just a few minutes where we experienced street harassment. They’ve stuck in my brain ever since. I can’t help but ask myself if I could have done better, not for my sake, but for my son.
Perhaps if they hadn’t happened one after the other they wouldn’t have lodged themselves in my brain. But they have. So I’m writing them down, because I want people who read this to think, but also if you read this to be empowered.
I know I have a degree of privilege. I’m white. I’m educated. But when these happened, I felt like ‘just’ a woman. Just a woman with her two young children. Just an immigrant who can’t assert herself as she would in her native tongue.
Let’s go back.
On Saturday I took a bus home with both my children, around midday. The bus was crowded, and the seats near the space for prams were full. I sat my four year old down on the nearest available seat, a few rows back. My daughter was tired and began crying. I stood with her to comfort her. Just a few stops before home a man got on. I turned from my daughter to see him standing next to my son, who was staring down at the ground. The man was talking. The woman in the seat next to my son had turned and was staring out the window. I left my daughter (still crying) to go to my son. The man reeked of alcohol. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Later talking about it, I discovered it was this that made my son nervous “Even though he was speaking Danish I couldn’t understand”. If you knew Danish you would understand that slurring your Danish so badly it is incomprehensible is, in some ways, an impressive achievement. This man was very drunk. When I arrived he sat down, just a row away. He kept trying to talk. I told him we couldn’t understand. He switched to English. This was also so badly slurred it was impenetrable. My son stared at the floor the whole time. Mercifully my daughter was now asleep and we had reached our stop. We left the bus, as everyone else studiously avoided eye-contact.
I gave you the long back story for a reason. It should have been clear to anyone on the bus that it was physically impossible for me to stand with both my children at the same time. I’m not asking anyone to raise or supervise my children for me. It was not my children who were causing the problem. What kind of society leaves a four year to fend for themselves?
At no point was Drunk Man aggressive, in fact I’m sure he thought he was being friendly. But he was intimidating. He was literally standing over my son, trapping him in his bus seat, and had to move when I arrived to let me through. Maybe it doesn’t count for much, but my inability to speak fluent Danish added to my uncertainty of what to say and do. Could I be sure that this large drunk white man wouldn’t turn on a foreigner? Not until I’d spoken, and thankfully he didn’t. What I can piece together of his speech, he was trying to ask my son what he was eating. Fairly innocuous stuff, but here’s the thing about drunks – they don’t know when to back off. It was clear from his body language that my son was uncomfortable with what was happening. And what woman isn’t aware of how quickly the friendly drunk guy can turn nasty?
We continued home, stopping as planned at the local supermarket on our way. It was almost uneventful. But after I paid, put down my wallet, released the brake on the pram, pushed it forward and then turned to check my son was following me, I saw the young man waiting behind me had already moved forward and had placed his card in the terminal. His shopping had only just begun to be scanned.
My son was between him and the checkout. Squeezed against the wall.
He wasn’t too bothered, but had a look of surprise on his face as he inched out. I did mind. This same man had also not waited for my son to finish helping load our groceries before putting his on the conveyor belt. We had not kept the checkout operator waiting then either. There was no rush.
It seems a little thing. But it is also a big thing. Can you imagine if I was the person he had squeezed up against? Let me be clear, I do not think there was any sexual overtones to either of these events, but if this had happened to a woman we would feel less certain. My son has as much right to personal space and boundaries as any adult. I walked back over and took my sons hand saying ‘come on, although he could have waited for you to get out of the way’. Loudly. In English. It got a few raised eyebrows. I didn’t care.
We all know children learn from the behaviour they see modeled around them. What sort of precedent did these men set for my son? That white men have a right to inhabit space regardless of the needs and desires of those around them? We are seeing, now, played out on the global stage, where that idea leads us. It is ugly. It is time for change.
We need to do better. We can do better. We will not achieve better by keeping silent and avoiding eye contact.
It is hard, though, to know what to do when faced with street harassment.
I’ve been reflecting on that for the last few days. I’ve even read some good articles (links below). I’m going to do something I rarely do here – give advice.
Here are a few things that could have helped.
- Acknowledge what is happening. No adults drew my attention to Drunk Man when he got on the bus. My son was sitting next to the ticket swipe, so while I knew someone was standing there I didn’t immediately realise he was talking to my son until I turned. Notifying me wouldn’t have just shaved micro-seconds off my reaction time, I would have felt that at least one other person on the bus had my back, and wasn’t leaving it up to me to deal with the situation. In other situations it could be as simple as making eye-contact, or moving closer to someone who is being harassed.
- A non-confrontational comment to either of these men. We’d been speaking to each other in English. Perhaps a comment to Drunk Man along the lines of ‘I’m not sure he understands you?’ taking the pressure to reply off my four year old’s shoulders. Or a polite ‘excuse me’ to supermarket man, pointing to my son in front of him – as though it was possible he just hadn’t seen him. Non accusatory intervention is the key here though – not ‘Stop badgering him’ we don’t want to escalate!
- A quiet word to the bus driver, so that he was aware of what was going on. Transportation should, and usually do, have policies in place to prevent passenger harassment. We were not near the driver, so it was not feasible for me to do this without leaving my son.
- Distract someone, ask if they have the time for example, breaking Drunk Man’s focus from us may well have been enough for him to sit happily in his seat afterwards. This is probably best applied if you don’t fit the same demographic as whoever is being targeted. It is really important to keep yourself safe.
- Contact authorities. If you see something really bad – racist, physical, overtly sexual harassment – report it, use your phone to record it. Don’t leave it up to the victim.
- Befriend them. A great technique if you see a lone woman being harassed is to pretend to be their friend, and completely oblivious to what is going on “Sarah – Hi! How are you” Power in numbers!
We all have a right to feel safe and comfortable in our daily lives and routines. I think back to Saturday and I hope my son felt that I supported him, that I kept him safe, and he wasn’t alone.
I just wish I could say that I felt the same.
Immigrants and ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable, here are some accounts of that abuse, and suggestions of how to intervene safely:
Some of the links on this page aren’t working, suggesting it may be a somewhat abandoned project, which is a shame, because it has excellent suggestions for a variety of situations incl. if you know the offender:
More on pretended to be a fake friend