I’ve always had a big thing for public connection; catching a passerby’s eye in the habitual bustle, maybe offering a nod or — heaven forbid — a quick “good morning.” There’s something worthwhile in mustering the effort to reach out and acknowledge people. It’s important, savouring the subtle details that are so easy to dismiss but, at the end of the day, it gives you that extra little something. Cheesy, yes, but unmistakably true; to be connected is essentially to be human.
But then I became a SkyTrain commuter, and everything changed.
Put bluntly, people are perverts.
Okay, I can’t just say that. It’s unfair and a total generalization. But I will say this: in one week alone, I’ve become fed-up with accidentally snagging eye contact with someone who, in return, behaves intrusively and downright grossly. All too quickly, the encounter becomes a sexualized episode between the 18-year-old girl and the somehow-entitled man. Pardon me, sir, but I absentmindedly glanced at your face. I didn’t invite you to imagine me naked.
Confused? Allow me to give an example: I’m gazing through a bus window, my attention grazing over the wonders of Surrey Central and all its glory (sarcasm intended). I spot a man strolling by and, in the second I notice him, he notices me. He abruptly halts and, with his eyes fastened to mine, he smirks. But it wasn’t just any ol’ smirk; this smirk was slow and unforgiving. It was the most suggestive smirk I’d ever seen, and I had never felt so violated.
Believe it or not, the next day was a similar case. Except this particular man was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk and slowly wiggled his fingers at me.
Pardon me, sir, but I absentmindedly glanced at your face. I didn’t invite you to imagine me naked.
And my last case (yes, there’s a third) involves a man who dedicated the ten minute skytrain ride to staring fixedly at my face. I went as far to change seats, but he either failed to decode the hint or couldn’t have cared less.
Upon telling this tale to a friend, they settled on a simple solution: “Just don’t look at people.”
I’m left grappling with these words, as they contradict the human communication spiel I’ve always held dear to my heart. Because of these few disrespectful commuters, must I sacrifice my values of public connection in order to feel safe and comfortable? I think we all know the commuters wouldn’t have acted like this if I’d been a middle-aged man. The fact that I was a young, unaccompanied girl made all the difference. So at what expense am I to make room for their absurd behaviour?
It doesn’t seem fair that, as a young woman, I ought to divert my eyes to the ground in order to avoid the smirking, staring, and wiggling fingers. I should be allowed to look at people, incidentally or not, without feeling degraded afterwards. And that’s that.
As I grapple with this, it’s understood that these sort of situations are not about to just evaporate. To all you women who put up with the same problems, I’d say learning to handle them with dignity and grace — that is, to keep your chin up high and to remember that you’re far superior to their weird sexualization game — is the decent, if not best way to approach this situation. To hold yourself to higher ground must count for something!
But get this. Just yesterday, someone tapped me on the shoulder at Production Way Station. A man held my Compass Card in his hand. I’d dropped it moments before. My guard automatically flew up, but I smiled nonetheless. And then he gave me a quick nod, wished me well and ambled away.
Suddenly, I remembered why I’d bothered smiling in the first place.