The first time I was harassed, I was barely thirteen.
Standing outside the grocery store where my dad was helping my grandma choose some things to bring back to her apartment, I waited with our new puppy on the sidewalk. It was busy and hot, the sun battering the pavement and the exhaust from cars clouding in the air. A man older than my father approached, petting our new puppy without asking. He then launched into a speech about how pretty I was, followed by an onslaught of questions begging to know my address, my phone number, my age and whether my parents were around. I told him I was just thirteen. He laughed, but was not dissuaded. I noticed how his eyes lingered in uncomfortable places for longer than I wanted them to. As he leaned close to me, I caught a whiff of alcohol from his faded t-shirt. Eventually, I ran inside.
The entire time, I was afraid he would think of my response to his questions as rude or overdramatic.
Perhaps, he was just trying to be nice.
The second time it happened, I was on the school-bus and someone groped me. I couldn’t see who did it — the bus was brimming with people and I was too scared to turn around at first — but it felt like someone had just poured hot coals onto my skin.
The third time it happened, I was in the parking lot of my church, playing frisbee with a couple of girls from the youth group. I was wearing my new blue jeans and a matching top, proud of my carefully assembled outfit. A shirtless guy from one of the neighbouring houses in his fifties or sixties sauntered over to join our game, offering us beer, even though we were clearly underage. We all declined, but my two friends chatted with him and his friend, which made me tense with discomfort. After falling silent for a couple of moments, his friend asked him which one of us he would date.When he noticed my refusal to engage with him, he pointed to me and declared: “I like the one in blue. I’ll take that one.”
I had never felt so mortified.
Thankfully, the church staff swiftly intervened, notifying the police and forbidding the man from ever entering the premises again. But over the years, from early adolescence until now, moments like these have both haunted and terrified me.
Raised to be polite
At my house, both my brother and myself were raised with the expectation that we were to be polite and respectful to everyone we met. We were the kids who said please and thank you whenever we visited our friends’ homes, earning compliments from their awestruck parents. I know some families exclusively teach their daughters to be polite, but in our family, it was simply the status quo for everyone. Besides, we were Canadian, and Canadians are famously polite, even when we don’t mean it.
Perhaps my upbringing and fear of being perceived as rude explains why I am always so hesitant to be assertive in harassment situations. I despise confrontation and use my politeness to avoid it. In grade school and even now, I hate the idea of upsetting one of my teachers or professors, which is why I was perpetually motivated to achieve good grades. In short, I dislike the idea of being rude and potentially hurting other people. Even when it comes to creeps. To avoid this unpleasantness, I usually tell the guy I have a boyfriend or give them a fake number so that I don’t have to seem rude.
For example, on my first day at university, I was eating sushi and waiting for my mom to pick me up outside of the student union building. A guy on a skateboard rolled over to me and we began chatting. It was pretty normal at first, but then he made a few inappropriate comments and tried to hug me out of the blue. While I rejected his hug, I did give him a fake number so as not to seem rude. When I look back on that situation, I wish I would have been more assertive and flat-out told him to go away. I realize now that I didn’t owe him anything.
Other than my own personal fear of being polite, the comments of others — usually other women — have contributed to my past inability to act assertively in the face of harassment. As a young woman, I often thought other women would support me when I encountered harassment from men. After all, one 2018 study found a whopping 81% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
On the contrary, some women I confided in when I experienced harassment reinforced the notion of pathological female politeness. I heard comments that ran through my mind every time harassment occurred.
You’re being overdramatic.
He’s just flirting with you.
It’s just a compliment. There’s no need to be so uptight.
He’s just being friendly.
Don’t you want a boyfriend? Maybe you should accept his compliments.
Many of the women I interacted with seemed to view the advances of sixty-year-old men as endearing and something I should be proud of as an adolescent. Some even suggested I was bragging when I confided in them about what happened, as if being groped by a stranger was something to boast about. Especially as a young woman navigating these issues for the first time on her own, it hurt to have other women invalidate my experiences in such a demeaning way. Although the vast majority of female relatives and friends were understanding and sympathetic, these few cases stuck with me.
The difference between harassment and flirting
When I was browsing through conversations about sexual harassment online, I found many negative comments from men who complained flirting was becoming taboo. Some even suggested the act of approaching an attractive woman was considered flirting for good-looking guys and harassment for unattractive guys. This simply isn’t true.
There is a clear difference between harassment and flirting. Flirting is defined as playful behaviour meant to elicit romantic interest. When someone tells you to stop or seems clearly uncomfortable, then you stop. Yelling out crude epithets at women on the subway is not a form of flirting. It isn’t flattering, it’s humiliating. I can promise you that harassing people will not get you a date. Context is important, and there are plenty of spaces in which you can have healthy romantic interactions with women. Groping, screaming, stalking and approaching minors do not comprise healthy romantic interactions.
After the death of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, women across the globe began sharing their own stories of sexual harassment and assault. Sarah’s story is eerily familiar to many of us. Women who have been harassed or even just walked down the street alone at night have imagined the horrifying possibilities of what might happen to them if rejection or objectification transforms into violence. This fear prompts us to be polite when someone approaches us in an aggressive manner. The unfortunate reality is, sometimes being polite as a woman is a matter of safety.
While being assertive should not lead to death, sometimes it does. This explains why so many women feel the need to be polite. Insulting a threatening person could prompt them to violence. This is not to say you should never be assertive. On the contrary, as women, we should make decisions based on the situation we are faced with. If we possess the ability to be rude in such a situation, we can and should exercise that right.
You don’t owe anyone anything!
Something my mom told me when I was struggling with the idea of being rude was the above statement. You are allowed to decline. You are allowed to walk away from an uncomfortable situation. You are allowed to ask for help when you need it. You can be a nice person without giving into the demands of others in order to appease them. This applies to both men and women, and goes beyond sexual harassment. So the next time you’re on the subway and someone is making crude comments about you, don’t be afraid of being rude.