I was sexually harassed today. It wasn’t the first time. My freshman year in college there was a guy in my dorm floor who spent the whole year harassing me – I guess this was before the age of collegiate codes of conducts and speech codes, as the dorm authorities did nothing to stop him. Later I had a French history professor who felt it was appropriate to tell me how he would have sex with two women at the same time. And the whole year I spent as a student in Egypt was an exercise in learning how to deal with sexual harassment – I couldn’t walk more than a few steps without hearing someone tell me how he’d like to fuck me. I had similar experiences while traveling in other Middle Eastern countries.
But truth be told it’s been a long time since I’ve had to deal with this behavior so once again I found myself not knowing how to react to it.
It happened this way. I was sitting outside the library, behind my stroller, waiting for my kids when a guy sat on the bench next to mine. He said something that I didn’t quite hear so I looked at him, half-smiled acknowledging him and looked away. A couple of minutes later he started talking. His voice was almost a whisper at first, though it increased in volume as time went on. It was calm and it almost sounded like he was a reading a poem. But what he was saying was very sexually explicit. It annoyed me, it disgusted me. He kept going on and on, saying almost the same identical phrases over and over – only stopping when someone walked close enough that might overhear him.
I didn’t know what to do. I had barely heard him at first, and I thought I could go on pretending I didn’t hear him or understand him. I felt that by moving away I was acknowledging him and giving him power, making him win. After all, I imagine that what he’s going after is a reaction, any reaction (I doubt he ever gets positive reactions).
I thought about going and complaining to the library security guards – they could at least make him leave. But why? I am, after all, a fierce believer in freedom of speech. I do feel people should be able to say whatever they want whenever they want. And while the words of this man bothered me, even offended me, they didn’t hurt me. I’m a 36 yo woman, I should, at this age, not be too bothered by what other people have to say to me. Indeed, I’ve been told many worse things.
But I was bothered, and I thought, if it bothers me – how likely is it to really bother someone else, someone for whom all of this is not really as much of a theoretical discussion. Perhaps, to protect them, I should complain. Or perhaps not.
In any case, all of these considerations became moot as after a while a police car came by and this man stood up and started to walk away. The police asked him to stop and he did and they arrested him. Two other women had complained to the library about this guys’ behavior. I gave a statement but refused to prosecute.
As I write this I am as conflicted as to what happened as I was back then. I do really believe that everyone should be able to say whatever they want. On the other hand, I do think that sexual harassment, special given our history of aggression and discrimination against women, can cause trauma on the victim. Words sometimes do hurt as much as stones. Which one should win here?