Imagine a Sunday afternoon at Panera. I’m looking for an outlet for my laptop plug, while my partner gets us tea and bagels. A nice elderly man points to an outlet in the wall across the corridor from where he and his friend share a table. I say, “thank you” and “you ‘da man” and begin setting up the computer. He starts to talk to me again, and I think to myself, oh dear, this is not going to end well. I ignore for a moment. He repeats the question about what I want to eat. I ask him, “are you addressing me?” trying subtly to indicate that he probably should not be. He replies “yes, what do you want to eat?” When I answer that I am fine, I consider that a generic, perfectly polite, but also somewhat pointed way of telling him that I’m not interested in more interaction. His next comment shows me what he thinks of me, “you have to get something.” Really? You mean I cannot just sit in the Panera and use their air conditioning, their free wireless, and their outlet/electricity without purchasing something. Thank you so much for explaining the coffeehouse rules to my ignorant ladybrain. Thank you for telling me that I must perform certain actions when you tell me. Instead of saying something scathing, I say, “my spouse is in line getting me something, and we’re fine!” Even explaining myself to him was a mistake; I do not owe strangers in the Panera an explanation, but our culture trains us (especially women) to be nice, to apologize for ourselves, to explain our presence in public when questioned. He had, after all, shown the outlet to me, and I don’t like to be rude, especially to lonely older people. But the mere fact that he felt the need to make me explain my presence, which also forced me to acknowledge him again displays layers of privilege. He was perfectly willing to coerce a complete stranger to explain her existence in a public space, and I felt the requirement that I speak kindly to someone bullying me because that’s how rape culture works. He felt like I owed him my story because I am a woman and he is a man. I. owe. him. nothing.
What happened a few minutes later was merely a continuation of his assumption of entitlement to women’s stories. My partner dropped off a bagel and cup of tea, went to another table, and we both began to work. Clearly paying attention to my computer and the tasks at hand, I mistakenly thought I was now protected from more intrusion by the I’m-busy-bubble. Not so. The man got up from his table and said “I want to tell you a story.” I ignored him and kept looking at the computer. He spoke once more, and I continued staring at the computer, hoping he would just give up. Oh no, that’s not how rape culture works. When a woman ignores you, the next step in rape culture is to get physical. In this case, he touched me on the shoulder. At that point, my annoyance kicked in, and I said very loudly, “excuse me, are you touching me?” He said, “no, I want to tell you a story” and proceeded to begin said story. Once his hand was off me, I looked back down at the laptop and ignored him again. Thankfully, he wandered off without escalating further. But he was older and probably less sure of his privilege than in years past. A younger man might have cursed at me, called me names, or even struck me, all because I did not respond in the culturally sanctioned way, politely interrupting my work to meet the needs of a man. Of course, this incident falls on the mild end of the cultural continuum, but all the seeds of rape culture are there. A man I did not know felt my attention was his due, and he was willing to touch me –without consent– to get it. I felt guilty for not giving a perfect stranger the social approbation he wanted. Is it any wonder that men we do know feel that we must soothe any social/sexual discomfort they feel? Is it any wonder we do not fight back when they attack us? Is it any wonder we blame ourselves for their brutality?
I’m close to tears at the ridiculousness of it, and I still feel guilty for “causing a scene.” He probably just thinks I’m a “bitch.” I’m not saying I never talk to people I do not know in public, but I don’t approach strangers three times, when they have clearly indicated that they are busy. And I never touch people that I do not know without their permission.