Wednesday, April 6, 2011

No, sir, my 'panties' are not for sale

Ten minutes after I was sexually harassed on Oberon Day.

In the spirit of the Take Back the Night activities this week and the recent SlutWalk in Toronto, I would like to stir up a little conversation on the issue of sexual harassment, sexual assault and women's safety here in Ann Arbor. For most women, sexual harassment is something we deal with on a daily basis. It's sneaky, it's irritating, it's pervasive. Worst of all, it's not even traumatic, really; it's everyday life. According to a study by Michigan State University, sexual harassment--from drunk frat boys, from co-workers, from homeless men while you walk to school--is so commonplace in our lives, we can let it roll off our shoulders. Most of the time, sexual harassment is a non-story, an occurrence I don't even share with my boyfriend at the end of the day. (And he'll get a text when I see a cute dog on the street.) It's not the kind of thing most women like to dwell on: it'll ruin your day and, from a practical perspective, if you reflected on every instance, you'd never have any time to do your actual life.

Well, not today. Today I'm going to bitch about it, in every sense of the word. I invite you to join me.

It was about 10:30 PM on Oberon Day, and I was on my way to grab a quick beer--an Oberon, natch--with BCB at Old Town after my Sex Equality class (I assure you, the irony is not lost). I was walking down William Street near the parking structure on Fourth Avenue when a sixty-something-year-old man passed me. I hardly noticed him--I was lost, as is my wont, in my walking-around daydreams--until he said something.

"Are you wearing panties?"

Well, I noticed him now. (Was that the point?) He had dirty, salt-and-pepper hair and he carried a backpack. He may have been homeless, or an aging hippie, or maybe both. I looked straight ahead and walked past him. Why does he think I'm not wearing underwear, I wondered.

"Can I buy your panties?" he shouted after me. "How much are they? Would you sell them to me?"

At this point, I was nearing the lighted and peopled Main Street, so I turned around and flipped him the bird, issuing a verbal salute as well. That is one nice thing about downtown Ann Arbor: I always feel safe enough to do at least that. It made me feel a little bit better, but the interaction weighed heavy on my thoughts for the rest of the walk. Why did he ask about my underwear? Could he somehow see it through the baggy sweatpants I threw on hours ago, after a mid-day yoga break? Maybe it was the dried sweat in my headbanded hair that caught his attention? Or my dad's old corduroy jacket that my Oma made for him in the seventies? I wondered if my dad had ever been solicited for his underwear while walking around Ann Arbor in this jacket.

Of course, as any woman can attest, there is no rhyme or reason to these things. Sexual harassment and sexual assault have nothing to do with desire and everything to do with power and humiliation. (This is one of the many reasons victim-blaming is so offensive and, you know, completely divorced from reality.) Sometimes you get catcalls in your slutty bumble bee Halloween costume; more often you're in line at the post office in your boyfriend's jeans and sweatshirt when someone decides to tell you a thing or two about your "tits."

So, readers, I'd like to turn over the conversation to you. What do you do when you are sexually harassed? Do you avoid any parts of town? How does Ann Arbor measure up as safe and comfortable place for women to live?


  1. This post led me to wonder what the going rate is on used women's underwear. Turns out EBay doesn't allow its sale. The more you know!

  2. That was my next instinct. Looks like anywhere from $25-$100 here in Austin. Not a bad rate, I must say. That could buy a lot of Oberon.

    I don't think that man was a pervert; just an entrepreneur.

  3. Erika, I'm sorry this happened to you. I read a blogpost yesterday about shock as privilege and I think it resonated a lot with what you said about harassment being so commonplace (here if you're interested:

    I find it's worst when I'm running alone. (OBV I just look sooo desirable when I'm sweaty and partially out of breath) My general technique to combat it is listen to my music loudly. (Obviously, then, it will be my fault if I get assaulted, because I wasn't paying enough attention to my surroundings).

    It's interesting to talk to men about running paths in Ann Arbor and realize that all of the concerns that go into my route planning (are there a lot of people? are the streets well lit? is it too far out of town?) don't ever cross their minds. And by interesting I mean what the fuck and fuck rape culture.

  4. Better question: how does the Internet measure up as a safe and comfortable place to talk about sexual harassment? Apparently, not very well. nice job, commenters.

    Read this on my phone while waiting for the bus, and some dude called me a sexy librarian. Because i was reading? I always want to say something, but I can.t ever respond quick enough.

  5. I continue to work on perfecting the art of being totally appalled while appearing as if I heard absolutely nothing.

    Lucky for me I get to practice this most days here in Kzoo walking down Lovell on my way home. Though it is especially difficult if the perpetrator is dressed like Sponge Bob.

  6. The worst area for me is along Liberty between First and State. Once a man started talking to me as I approached a mail drop box he was near. Then he grabbed my hand and started saying some sort of jibberjabber. He opened his arms up as if for a hug, which I just shook my head at, so he grabbed my hand again and kissed it. I couldn't get away fast enough.

    I think the hardest ones to deal with are the ones that happen at work. I've been sexually harassed at every single job I've had so far in Ann Arbor. Most recently, I was helping out at Dominick's for Hash Bash, and a Hash Basher came to the window to pick up his food, only to start commenting on how I looked. He told me I had a "very nice outfit on" (um, a pit-stained beater and BCB's old basketball shorts?). He then told me he liked the way I was "put together." Finally, he told me about his website, said I should contact him via his website so that he could get me "nice and buzzed" sometime, smacked his lips together as he looked me up and down (meanwhile I'm staring at him with a "Really?!" look on my face) and then told me that I'm a "fine looking woman."

    Newsflash to dudes: I'm not "uptight" for being creeped out for a COMPLETE STRANGER commenting on how I look, staring at me and trying to touch me. Whether or not a woman has been sexually assaulted before, she most likely feels like she has to have her guard up. I would love to see some sort of sex education initiative that would inform men/boys how to communicate with women/girls in an effective way. And by effective, I mean how to not be a creep/manipulator/assaulter, not how to get her to do what you want.

    Besides, is it really that hard to just talk about the friggin' Yankees?!

  7. I don't support sexual harassment at all, Quinn, but I challenge you to have a conversation with me about the Yankees with me right now. Do you think The Captain's contract was fair given what he has done for them. How long can Mariano Rivera keep it up? Will Mark Teixeira be able to avoid his typically slow starts? How fat will CC Sabathia and Roberto Colon get? Is Rafael Soriano going to cut it as a set-up man given what happened against the Twins? What about the rest of their bullpen? Should they move Jeter down in the line up? Are their fourth and fifth starters strong enough to contend in the American League?

  8. Anonymous, I can't tell if you're slamming the commenters or not?

  9. @Chris, I can only take your comment as a suggestion that you talk to women about their breasts because they don't know anything about the Yankees.

    @katie, yeah, can't really tell.

    @Colleen, Quinn, katie: thanks for sharing! On the subject of reactions, though, this woman remains my hero:

  10. Done and done!

    1. I don't understand why they're paying someone to steer a ship when they should be playing baseball anyway. No!
    2. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but his show was canceled in 1998.
    3. He should be starting slow! You can't rush making pottery, and Texera is known for its quality. So no, I hope not.
    4. We'll have to ask a genetist that. So I guess you've got me on that one.
    5. Psh, I didn't even know he was a suspect! Anyway, terrible what happened to those kids.
    6. I really think they should get rid of the bullpen. Especially after what happened to the twins.
    7. The lineup should go by height, so it depends on how tall everyone else is. But don't worry, we'll stagger everyone so that no matter where you are, your parents will be able to see you.
    8. If they need four or five different starters to get their car going, I think they have bigger fish to fry. Long story short, no.

  11. @Quinn

    "I would love to see some sort of sex education initiative that would inform men/boys how to communicate with women/girls in an effective way. And by effective, I mean how to not be a creep/manipulator/assaulter, not how to get her to do what you want."


  12. That guy sounds a lot like Dale Newman, who owns the 4th Avenue Towne Center (the block that Banditos, Eastern Accents, etc. is on):

    He is seriously creepy - and don't take my word for it. Article in this month's Ann Arbor Observer is titled "Why do people in Ann Arbor hate Dale Newman?"

  13. I don't get this kind of commentary much because I think I must project the kind of "authority" energy that says "don't mess with me". I walk confidently. Physically, I am tall, and while and while I don't look old, I don't look extremely young, either. I guess I don't look like an easy mark. My advice is to work on developing "get back stare" and next time it happens, use it. It's fun to use in all sorts of situations!


  15. When you first posted this I debated whether or not to jump in and ultimately decided against it. But then, on this sunny day I had a moment of sexual harassment so beautifully offensive that I needed to share; mostly in hopes to find someone who can explain it to me.

    So, Tyson and I were taking a stroll in downtown Plymouth when I was honked at by this guy on a very tiny moped (compensation perhaps?). Now, understand that we were walking down the street in our typical fashion, so our relationship status was completely (and even obnoxiously) evident to anyone around us. Despite this, a tiny man on a tiny moped felt compelled to honk his horn. But why? What could possibly be gained by honking at an obviously attached female?

    Lest you think this is the only example, let me throw out another (and trust me—there are plenty to choose from). Tyson and I were out playing disc golf one day when two guys walk over to us from a hole on the other side of the course—crossing through shrubbery and everything—to ask if I was happy with Tyson and, if not, then I was more than welcome to come home with them.

    ‘I’ll keep that in mind, but, in the meantime, you might want to invest in eharmony’

    Now I understand competitor derogation as it relates to male sexual selection, but come on fellas! Do you really think I’m going to instantaneously drop everything and hop on the back of your tiny moped? I mean, I love Roman Holiday as much as anyone—but trust me when I say that I am not the woman who can help you fulfill your whimsical Audrey Hepburn –meets-Fabio romantic fantasies.

    The thing is, I get it most forms of sexual harassment. I truly understand the catcalls, gropes, ridiculous lines, and even the guy who was gracious enough to show me his penis while I read Oscar Wilde in the park (I still laugh at the irony). But at the end of the day, I just don’t understand this type of harassment. And that’s what bothers me so much.

  16. That old dude needs to get his eyes checked!

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