cultural differences, self-defense, and creepy strangers

Bee's picture
Fri, 07/15/2011 - 03:12 -- Bee

Walking around Paris with my daughter I was shocked beyond reason to find that men stared at her.

This should not have been surprising - if you've read even a little bit about France you would probably guess that cultural attitudes about flirting and sundry mating rituals are specific to the place.

Heck, I'm completely oblivious to such things and even my backwards self has clocked the fact that waiters pet my hair. Elsewhere in the world nobody would dare, but in Paris strangers walk right up and touch my arm.

We talked about the phenomenon of people staring and I pointed out that the French men I know believe the attention is a compliment. I disagree, and would place the attitude somewhere between 'annoying distraction' and 'nefarious social control.' But there is a need to acknowledge the truth that when you visit other countries, you are the guest, and as such it is necessary to be polite.

But, even though we were in the city as an early twenty-first birthday present, I have a very different reaction when people pay unwanted attention to my daughter. She might be an adult now, but I still shove her behind me in crowded trains. I still scissor between her and creepy men in crowds. I still watch, vigilantly, to protect her - even when she doesn't want me to.

Beyond that I have very little advice. I take the position that if I don't notice something it didn't happen. I walk through the world with impunity because I see myself as powerful, victorious. Other people correctly judge that I would rather rip their nose off than put up with nonsense. Even those who want to date me approach with their palms open to show they do not mean any harm.

But my freedom and autonomy were earned the hard way: I grew up poor, with cancer. My life has been defined by violence, both real and metaphoric. I had to fight to survive.

I did not want my children to face the same struggles, and I succeeded: my kids are thoroughly middle-class and relatively innocent. They are now independent and encountering the world as it is, with all of the attendant brutal lessons that implies. And by keeping them safe, in some ways I have failed, because I never taught them how to fight.

I do not know what advice to give a young woman about street harassment, because there is no way to bottle and sell the toxic wisdom of my life. There is no easy way to convey "you have to show with every quivering muscle that you will commit murder rather than be insulted."

One afternoon we were standing on a busy upscale shopping street, looking in a store window and chatting idly about nothing in particular, when I realised that a stranger had walked up between us, reached out, and was caressing my child.

She looked over her shoulder in horror, I looked from the arm stroking my daughter to the face of the leering man committing the crime, and I started to scream.

"NO, NO, NO!"

The man jumped away, but faced me and started to argue - in French - as I continued shouting. He tried to mime that he meant the touch as a compliment. He stood his ground and made eye contact, making little kissing gestures.

My pointing hand turned into a fist and I advanced.

He scuttled away, looking back over his shoulder in dismay.


mermaid_radio's picture

That is so wild. I have never been to France but I got plenty of unwanted attention in Portland in my late teens/early twenties. I bet in France or anywhere I'd receive much less attention now as a thirty-something. I already know from another one of your posts that your daughter can handle herself, even if her way is different than yours. I think it's probably (unfortunately) something all young women have to learn by experience.

mamanopajamas's picture

oh you changed the title

I was gonna reply -- and ach my squabbling kiddos have derailed my train of thought -- i will be back!

 "Do not speak--unless it improves on silence." ~ buddhist saying (wow - my email on file was so old - it was from the old hipmama email!)

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

I'm guessing that I skipped many standard dreadful aspects of being a young woman by having children. They acted as a permanent shield of safety throughout my twenties.... it was truly shocking the first few times I went out without them. Which didn't happen until my thirtieth birthday!

turtle's picture
Submitted by turtle on

Re: Staring.

This is totally cultural, I think. At least, GENERALLY speaking. When I lived in Portugal I found it completely creepy that people stare all.the.time. Just stare and stare and stare at you. I got stared at by everyone- not just men but young women, children, old women, young and old and all in between, especially since I was a foreigner. After awhile I got used to it.

These days in the States, when someone is staring at me and I find it uncomfortable (and usually it's somewhat older men-- in their 50s? or so), I get all pissed off and stare them down until they look away. Don't fuck with me, I learned from the best!

I hardly ever get harassed in the street, etc., never have. I'm not sure why. Maybe I'm not conventionally pretty enough or something. Sometimes I think I walk around with a giant fuck you face on cos I've also never been hit on by a stranger (like in a bar or whatever, not that I hang out in bars much) and no one ever even came close to touching my belly when I was pregnant or ever said so much as boo to me while I nursed T in public (which I did A LOT). This might be because I live in Minnesota and people are more reserved although this hasn't protected any number of women I know here... so.

I do know that I think I carry myself 'well' - learned early on how to walk down a street like I'd kick anyone's ass who I care to. Partly due to self-defense classes I took as a young teenager and partly due to my social anxiety/misanthropy & desire to not talk to ANYONE. And partly because I'm so much in my head/lost in the clouds that I don't notice some stuff.

Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough. -- Emily Dickinson

You want to do what you think is right and what matters to you, and if other people don't like it, as my father would have said, they can go fuck themselves. -- Amy Bloom

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

With you on all of it. Nobody hassles me, nobody ever has. Though I am informed that people sometimes try to talk to me, they just bounce off my impenetrable wall of disinterest before I even notice.

I don't think it has anything to do with beauty, or clothes, or anything except attitude. Even when I was young and cute and walked around half naked no strangers ever hit on me.

People ask for directions and assistance, all the time, even when I'm in a different country and lost myself. But those who have wanted dates have always had to ask directly. Subtleties are wasted on me!

Susan's picture
Submitted by Susan on

Blarg. People ask me for help all the time especially in stores as if I worked there. Stupid 'ready reference' librarian face, I suppose. I have, gotten good at saying, "I don't know, I don't work here, but I'm sure the nice lady/gentleman at the front would be able to assist you." Then I get the lemon face, because clearly in this situation *I* am the asshole, and then we all move on with our lives.

"Do not forget. Remember and warn." -- Plaque fixed to the hollow shell of Sarajevo's National Library