To start the New Year off right, the universe sent me an experience to remind me the work here is not yet done. Thankfully, it was not violent, but it was annoying to see how far women still have to go on the path of being respected.
A few days ago, I needed to go to the store, but I realized I was going to miss the bus at the time I wanted to go, so I made sure I caught the next pick-up. Had I caught the bus I wanted, I would not have witnessed the interchange that occurred on the bus I got on.
I sat in the only available seat, the one behind the driver. I like this driver; she’s very nice and tolerates the annoying passengers well. As we ambled along, I could hear a woman four rows behind me tell someone, “No. Stop touching me.” Then she giggled. I assumed it was a man doing the unwanted touching. A few seconds later, again, “No. Stop touching me there.” I heard him murmur something as she sort of laughed. Again, she said the same words, but more insistently, “No. Stop touching me.” The half-hearted laugh was faint. Again, the guy murmured something to her, his tone obviously trying to convince her that she should let him continue to do what he was doing.
As I sat, facing the front, my ears were piqued. The bus passengers were quiet, each one keeping to himself or herself. No one seemed to be bothered by this interchange. She was giving off little giggles at first, but my ears heard something else. I heard a woman who is saying “No” and then apologizing by laughing, so as not to offend him even though this man was violating her personal space and her right to body autonomy.
Even for myself, I thought, If it’s actually a problem, wouldn’t someone who’s closer to them speak up? Wouldn’t someone who can see what’s going on stop this guy? Were they confused by her laughter? Could they not hear that the giggle was a mask of her true feelings?
I kept listening. Their interchange continued, but it was different. Her refutations grew more loud and more insistent. “NO. STOP touching me.” No giggling. He murmured, laughing to himself. “NO! STOP touching me THERE.” No giggling. He laughed again. “NO! STOP touching me!”
I whisked around in my seat, sitting slightly taller to make sure they could see me over the two rows between us, and I said very loudly where everyone can hear, “Do you need the bus driver to call the police for you?” Stunned, she looked at me. So did he. They were both in their 30’s. He had one arm around her shoulders and the other on her torso. She was by the window. She was pinned in. I know that feeling of being trapped by a man with no way to get out. Now, I was really pissed off.
I continued, “We’ve all heard you tell him five or six times to stop touching you and he hasn’t. That’s assault,” then I looked at him but talked to her, “And he can go to jail.” She looked at him, her eyebrows arched, yet said nothing. But he did. “We were just playing,” he smiled. Clearly, he still thought it was a game.
I responded,”‘No’ and ‘Stop’ are not playing a game. We all heard her tell you five or six times to stop touching her. When a woman says ‘No,’ she means ‘No.‘”
He replied, “Yes, ma’am,” almost sheepishly.
I turned back around in my seat, still pissed off at the situation, pissed off at her for not giving him an elbow to his nose, pissed off at every other passenger who had said nothing.
The bus driver pulled up to the local grocery story, and this couple was the first to exit the bus. Then someone else exited, while I debated continuing with my plan to shop at this store or continue on the route to Wal-mart. I loathe Wal-mart. More importantly, I wanted to make sure she was okay — that he wouldn’t do something to her once they were away from people. So I got off the bus there. As I did, he sort of glared at me, and she sort of tried not to look at me. It was a very strange moment, but I walked by with my head held high and continued on inside the store.
It so happened that they almost crossed paths with me a couple of times in the store. She was looking around at what she wanted. When he saw me, his eyes darted away. But I did notice that she kept about a foot of distance between them. Every time he tried to get close to her, she moved away. I could only hope that she was okay.
I finished my shopping, and got the bus the next time it came by. The bus was empty except for one passenger and the bus driver. As I put my $1.25 in the machine, the bus driver exclaimed, “Okay, tell me what happened!”
She had been unaware of what was going on until the woman had said “STOP touching me THERE.” This was about the time I spoke up, so she heard my comment about calling the police. The bus driver told me, “I couldn’t see what was going on, but the bus has cameras, and I was ready to call the police after I heard you. But you turned around, so I figured I’d check on it when we came to a stop, but they got off.”
Ironically, the bus driver was worried about me. “He didn’t say anything to you did he? Are you all right?” I assured her I was fine, and I had been concerned about the woman. She replied, “Yeah, you always worry about that — what happens when they get home.”
Exactly. This is the same reason some people are afraid to correct a parent for being mean or even abusive to their kids in a public place — you worry what the parents will do to the kids at home. (I have also spoken out on these certain occasions, the most recent being a woman who came back at me with her fist raised ready to punch me in the face for telling her grandmother not to yell at her infant.)
At the next stop, a couple of the passengers from the last trip got back on the bus. As they saw me, sitting on the front seat on the right side of the bus, they laughed a knowing laugh, and the entire bus ride centered around the incident. I’ve seen these people many times before on the bus, and they had been closer to the man and woman. So I was curious, “What was he doing? Why didn’t anyone speak up?”
One woman said, “She was laughing. I thought she was okay. He was just playing.” I said, “No, her laugh wasn’t a real laugh. It was a nervous giggle and a fake laugh.” I wasn’t imagining this. I could tell.
The bus driver even had insight to the matter. “When you said that to them, she didn’t speak up in his defense. If he really had been playing and she didn’t mind what he was doing, she would have defended him. But she didn’t say a word. Not a word.”
Without seeing the incident, I could only go by what I could hear. It sounded like a woman being harassed or assaulted and giving a nervous laugh, as women do when they’re trying to maneuver their body away from a man they don’t want touching them. The bus driver couldn’t see the incident, but she knew something was amiss by what she didn’t hear — the woman defending him. The woman was silent. As so many of us are.
I made the comment, “She may have felt she had to put up with it becaasue she’s in a relationsghip with him. The reason I felt I had to speak up wasn’t just for him to leave her alone, but so she could hear from another woman that what he was doing was wrong. In case she needed permission to speak up.”
I made the point then in talking with the bus driver, and I’ll make it here now. When a woman says, “No,” she means, “No.” When a woman says, “Stop,” you stop.
Even if you’re in a relationship or legally married, he does not own you or your body. You are your own, autonomous human being with rights to self-determination. Just because you’re in a relationship with a man does not mean you give up your rights to yourself.