I’m sitting on the F Train, still considerably new to New York City and still somewhat hesitant to believe I have actually memorized the subway system well enough to ditch my phone’s directions. I have my favorite pair of headphones firmly secured in my ears: one earbud is broken so that I can be aware of my surroundings, while the other earbud blasts a newly released single from a favorite band. I bob along, pretending to be oblivious to the men standing next to me and commenting on my clothes, my body, and how rude I am being.
I’ve come to learn that, when combatting street harassment and catcalling, the best way to avoid it is to pretend it doesn’t exist. I would rather get lost in the melody of a favorite song than hear someone tell me to smile or call me “baby,” or invite me to please them in one sexual way or another. Simultaneously, I have learned that I can’t allow myself to become completely lost in music, a good book, or a particularly riveting conversation with a friend, because I have to be aware of who and what is going on around me. If someone is walking behind me, I have to count their steps and the distance between us, wonder if they’re just passing by or have far more menacing intentions. If someone is turning where I turn or stopping where I stop, I have to be mindful of their movements and be conscious of the likelihood that they could be following me home, or to a bar, or to a friend’s apartment after a particularly long day at work. I have to be within and without, forever on the cusp of a particular moment while consistently surveying that moment to make sure it remains a safe and enjoyable one. It’s exhausting.
I want to tell them that their bodies have been arbitrarily granted more respect than mine, so they can focus on connecting with people while I’m left focusing on my physical safety, my mental wellbeing and the ability to get from point A to point B without feeling like I’m being devoured by watchful eyes.
My earphones make it easier, though. I can simultaneously listen to music and listen to the conversations going on around me somewhat covertly. I can rid myself of any social obligation to respond to someone when they call me a name or when they invite me into their apartment from the safety of their stoop, or when they ask me how I got my ass, because I am just listening to music and didn’t hear them. I’m not rejecting them or being combative or giving them an opportunity to call me a bitch or get angry. I was oblivious. I was unaware. I was just being "rude."
At least, that is what I am being accused of now, by three men who are unaware that I can hear their remarks. One is telling his friend that he can’t believe people have become so self-obsessed. He accuses me of missing out on the ability to connect with other people, because I’d rather listen to music I have probably already heard a thousand times. He claims that instead of engaging with strangers and making real-life connections, I'm lost in technology and missing out on the “real world” around me. Another laughs, telling his friend that girls have always been self-obsessed, technology has just made it more obvious. The third chuckles and says he’s surprised that I haven’t been taking selfies, because I, “have the face for it, at least.”
I want to say something. I want to tell them what my “real world” looks like, and why that real world requires that I put in earphones, pretend I don’t hear them, and live my life forever hoping there is a shadow I can get lost in. I want to take both earbuds out of my ears and tell them that the reason why I’m not “engaged” with strangers on the sidewalk or on mass transit is because that engagement usually begins or ends with sexual harassment. I want to tell them that keeping themselves open and available for spontaneous human contact sans fear or harassment is a privilege they don’t even know they have.
I want to tell them that their bodies have been arbitrarily granted more respect than mine, so they can focus on connecting with people, while I’m left focusing on my physical safety, my mental wellbeing and the ability to get from point A to point B without feeling like I’m being devoured by watchful eyes and salivating mouths. I want to say that my earbuds are granting me the priceless ability to be safely aware, where I can perpetuate the illusion of naïveté that makes me less of a threat and, therefore, less likely to upset a man. It’s not a man's fault I’m not interested in his yelling, because I didn’t hear his yelling to begin with. It’s not a man I’m saying "no" to, because I never heard that man in the first place.
I want to tell them that my earbuds grant me the ability to protect myself and their ego, simultaneously. I don’t have to force them to realize that catcalling or harassing a woman isn’t a worthwhile advance that garnishes positive attention or women’s affections. I don’t have to put myself in harm’s way in the name of education or enlightenment. I don’t have to roll the figurative dice with my personal safety, hoping that my rebuke of their unwanted advances won’t end in anger or violence. I can pretend they don’t exist, and they can pretend that they’re being endearing. They get to puff their chest and consider themselves wanted by members of the opposite sex. I get to go home, safe.
I would give my favorite pair of earbuds away if it meant I could connect with strangers without fearing for my safety. I would toss them in the garbage, along with the shirt I wore the day I was sexually assaulted, if it meant that I could confidently sit on the F train without hearing someone call me an inappropriate name or loudly mention a part of my body. I would give anything to take the train to work with the same carelessness that the three men next to me have.
Instead, I am afraid. Instead, I bob to music and listen to men talk about me like I’m either a piece of meat designed for male consumption, or an out-of-touch millennial who cares too much about herself to speak with the men next to her. Instead, I pretend none of it is real. Instead, I’ll wait for it to be over. Instead, I’ll be rude.