intersectionality in action

Tonight, I realized something I’m not very happy about.

There was a guy outside the grocery store, panhandling. I had to pass him both entering and leaving. And both times, I looked away and walked right past him without saying anything or slowing down.

And then I realized, If I were a man, I wouldn’t have done that.

I don’t like ignoring panhandlers and other people on the street. It erases them, and I’m sure they get that far too often. But at the same time, I know that if I had made eye contact, smiled, said anything . . . my odds of being sexually harassed would have shot up like a rocket.

It isn’t inevitable, of course. Not every panhandler would take that as an invitation to more. It’s happened to me often enough, however, that my reflex is to avoid interacting with strange men on the street, just out of self-defense. And I say that as someone who’s never been raped, or even harassed to an extent I would call traumatic; the worst was enough to put me off my stride for half an hour or so, but in the grand scheme of things, I know that’s not nearly as bad as it gets. But there’s always the little voice in my head reminding me that I’m female, and it could get worse, and so it’s safer to not engage.

(I do more often make eye contact, etc. with female panhandlers. They don’t set off the defensive reflexes in the same way.)

This bothers me a lot, now that I’ve noticed it so directly. If I were my husband — a six-foot-three man — I’d be a lot more likely to acknowledge those people, even if I didn’t give them a handout on the spot. And yet, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to chuck this pattern of behavior, either. There is no good solution, I fear, except to live in a utopian society where a) women don’t have to fear harassment, b) people don’t have to beg on the streets, or c) better yet, both.

I may try engaging more, anyway. I can withstand sketchy, unwanted compliments, for the sake of the people who don’t respond that way. I live in a pretty safe area, so I don’t think I’m likely to get assaulted just because I decided not to ignore somebody. But that isn’t always going to be true, and so this defensive habit is likely to stay — and I really wish that weren’t the case.

0 Responses to “intersectionality in action”

  1. coraa

    Yeah, this.

    When I first moved to a good-sized city, I always acknowledged panhandlers in some way–made eye contact, smiled, said ‘sorry,’ something. After I was chased down the street twice in two weeks, I quit. It never happened again, as long as I always walked briskly past without even turning my head.

    My then-boyfriend, a 6’2″ dude in pretty good shape, came to visit me and told me that he thought my behavior was pretty rude. I don’t know that I ever got across to him, in all the time we dated, that I behaved differently than he did because I got different responses than he did–that I was in a different, and greater, danger. In the end I think he intellectually acknowledged that I was not lying about what had happened but never emotionally believed it. After all, nobody had ever chased him down a city street.

    It’s hard. I never want to simply fail to acknowledge another human being, and yet that defensive reaction isn’t something I can really safely give up.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve only been followed down the street once that I can recall, but it was pretty scary. And it’s that experience — with the fear of worse — that leaps to mind every time I find myself faced with this decision.

      accepts that my situation is different from his, but I don’t think he really gets it, on a fundamental level, because my life quite simply operates on different terms. If you haven’t experienced that kind of response, it’s hard to grok how it shapes someone else’s behavior.

  2. chrisondra

    Wow, seriously?

    I don’t usually stop and strike up conversations, but I will smile, say hi, give money here and there where I can, and have never had any issues doing so, other than the fact that I’d like to be able to do more for them. Someone I knew once actually had a great idea. She would buy $5 food gift cards and hand then out to them instead of money. That way you *know* it’s going to food. Even so, though, I like to think the best of people.

    I live in a small city now, but I’ve also lived in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, and Boulder as well. The whole idea of what you just described, I’ve never seen anything like that happen ever. It’s actually mind-boggling.

    • Marie Brennan

      I grew up in suburban Dallas, and don’t remember ever having a negative experience, largely because you don’t walk down the street there; you basically drive everywhere. And when I was at college, it was mostly okay, because there was sort of a fixed set of guys on the street, and you got used to them, and they behaved decently. (The fact that “the street” in this case was Harvard Square probably had something to do with that: anybody disruptive stood a high chance of getting run off by the police. Can’t risk ruining the image and all that.) But I came across some sketchy guys in Bloomington, Indiana, and my worst experiences have been in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not sure how much that maps to my age, though.

      I donate to charities and the like, because the good ones are a lot more effective than handing out cash to random people. But if I’m solicited in public, I’ve had enough bad experiences that I feel safer not responding at all.

      • mrissa

        I don’t think it maps to your age, because I have moved back away from the Bay Area in that age range, and back into a situation where being chased and sexually harassed by a homeless person is just not something I have to worry about even in the parts of the city where I see more of them. The Bay Area has a serious problem this way. Frankly I think it’s partly because some of the worst cases–the people who are physically hearty and lack social inhibition for whatever reason–have to get into some kind of program here or they will not survive the winter. I don’t know what I would do on the larger social scale to solve this. It is a really, really hard problem. Here we support shelters and food banks, but as I said, conditions vary substantially from city to city.

        I noticed living in the Bay Area that I also engaged a lot less with random passersby who were not street people, and I didn’t like it. I was starting to lose the habit of making eye contact and smiling as I passed someone on the sidewalk. That’s not how I think of myself–that’s not who I am. But the cultural context for it is also somewhat different. Other people were more likely to react to me as though that behavior indicated that I wanted something of them, out there–here it is absolutely standard, but there it is either, “Oh, this person looks reasonably clean and friendly, what can I do for you, person in question? Now should we have a conversation?” or else, “Ack, probably selling something, possibly a deity of some sort, disengage, disengage!” So I confused a heck of a lot of people there with behavior that here means, “Hello, we are occupying similar space and acknowledge each other’s humanity. We agree not to eat each other when the snows come. Walk on by!” and does not request further interaction unless there’s something specific that needs doing. Are you noticing that your random small interactions with passersby have changed, or did you already have the rest of the Bay Area passing by social skills appropriately coded?

        • Marie Brennan

          I’m not sure whether the Bay Area has changed my general interactions, or whether they were already well-suited to the Bay Area’s mode, or whether I don’t see a difference between this and another region. It isn’t something I’ve really paid enough conscious attention to for me to judge it. If I’m inside the grocery store, say, or anywhere else that doesn’t trip the “urban public outdoors” switch, I’m a lot more likely to do the “I acknowledge your humanity” interaction. Some of it might just be the sheltered Dallas suburbanite kid conviction that City = Dangerous — I dunno.

          • coraa

            If I’m inside the grocery store, say, or anywhere else that doesn’t trip the “urban public outdoors” switch, I’m a lot more likely to do the “I acknowledge your humanity” interaction.

            Yeah, that. I actually am a very ‘make eye contact and smile!’ person, even now… unless it’s a man I don’t know in an urban area and outdoors. It’s changed my behavior, but only in a specific set of circumstances.

          • mrissa

            That’s fascinating, that the inside vs. outside makes that much difference and in that direction. Because the place I am least likely to make eye contact with and smile at passersby is in an indoor mall.

  3. alecaustin

    Possibly this is just having spent more time than is healthy dealing with panhandlers and grifters in Berkeley and LA, but the “For the love of God, do not engage” reaction makes perfect sense to me. Even without the added layer of sexual threat, I’ve had to deal with panhandlers following me and shouting after I didn’t stop to give them money, and been a position to watch the same panhandler repeat the behavior (it was clearly a shaming tactic).

    This isn’t a nice or fair reaction to those panhandlers who actually are in need and aren’t faking infirmity/actively trying to scam people to get the money for their next fix/otherwise prone to behaving badly, I agree. And I do try to support charities that are there for people who are actually in need. But I’ve just run into so many folks who are scamming or panhandling as a(n apparently lucrative) profession that it’s completely poisoned that well for me. So I walk on by, because it seems like the best of a bad set of options.

  4. houseboatonstyx

    I never thought of being sexually harassed by a panhandler or homeless man. The ones that appear honestly down and out — they don’t appear to have the energy to harass me, or to beg. I often give them something and a smile and meet their eyes if they look at me.

    The ones that look healthy, unstressed, and manipulative — I avoid, snub, because I don’t like manipulation.

    There are also some that appear from their body language to want to avoid attention, so I don’t force myself on them. Think of having no place to go for privacy!

    I might be scared of a gang of young, healthy, resentful looking men. But anyone older and really pinched by poverty, I think of as safe, as not wanting to do anything that might get him into trouble.

    • mrissa

      Do you think of sexually harasssing a woman on the street as something that might get a person into trouble?

      This is not a rhetorical question. I am wondering whether you actually think that this hypothetical middle-aged or older impoverished man would get into trouble for doing this, or whether you think he would just fear drawing negative notice in any way.

      My experience as a youngish woman who is within parameters for social assumptions about being feminine/pretty is that sexual harassment can reach incredibly intrusive, deeply negative levels without anybody ever getting in trouble for it–particularly the random kind on the street. The best I’ve ever seen that go is someone intervening to say, “Hey, knock it off,” or, “Leave her alone.” It is not, in my experience, something that leads to any real consequences except the woman in question feeling more harried and less safe on the street, less likely to engage with strangers, etc.

      • houseboatonstyx

        I’d say getting negative attention was a subset of getting in trouble.

        I spent a lot of time around homeless people in Long Beach in the early 1980s (I was pretty in those days too), and in a small town north of San Francisco in the 2000s. I saw them as socially vulnerable, on the edge of survival, needing the tolerance of the better-situated people around them. If they found a comfortable place to rest, they could be chased away by police or anyone in authority. If one was sitting on the steps of a restaurant for me to hand him my takeout as I left, he could be chased off by the proprietor if he started scaring customers. It never occurred to me that one might touch me or even say anything sexual. Even an imploring tug would have meant he was drugged and didn’t know what he was doing, and being too far out would draw police and get him in trouble on drug charges.

        Maybe things have changed, or maybe I was in better neighborhoods or at better hours. But I never saw any of the harassment described in these posts.

          • houseboatonstyx

            Well, I never saw very many panhandlers either. Those panhandlers I did see (vigorous men aggressively asking for money) might have been capable of going on to sexual harassment, which might have been ignored in a location that ignored aggressive panhandling.

    • Marie Brennan

      Here’s the thing: in order to evaluate somebody the way you describe — whether they’re healthy or ill, young or old, manipulative or retiring, etc — I’d have to look directly at them, because I’ve worn glasses for enough of my life that even when I have my contact lenses in, I don’t use my peripheral vision very effectively. And looking directly at them is enough to set off the ones who want to harass me.

      Some of them will do it even if I ignore them, of course. But it’s a lot easier to slip free of that interaction if I haven’t participated at all.

      • houseboatonstyx

        I was wondering about that! It’s not peripheral vision I use, it’s ‘sweeping survey from a medium distance’, just like deciding which part of the sidewalk is less crowded, noticing if there are toddlers or leashed dogs I should stay clear of, etc. I’m looking so far ahead to choose a path (maybe 20 feet?), that the dodgy person isn’t necessarily looking toward me at the same time; if he’s looking at anyone, he’d be looking at people nearer to him. If someone does happen to look in my direction, he sees me walking along looking from side to side, my glance not pausing to participate.

        If someone looks harmless and looks open to contact, then when I get closer I smile or nod or whatever he looks open to.

        If he’s playing music and it’s not too aggressive, I’ll detour to give him something, and a compliment (which he usually ignores). Or if he has a funny sign.

        Most of the shaggy ones aren’t looking to make contact with every close passersby; think how exhausting that would be for him. My default is to respect his privacy.

        • baka_kit

          it’s ‘sweeping survey from a medium distance’

          I do the same thing, but I’ve got vision that (with glasses) is pretty good. Not everyone is that lucky.

          • houseboatonstyx

            Perhaps there are more body language signs that could be read from a safe distance, even with poor vision. For example, if a well-dressed person is taking a step or two in various directions, stopping everyone who slows down near her, that’s a sign that she’s probably taking a survey or something.

  5. kernezelda

    I can’t say I’ve felt the same for the most part, but the one time that came closest occurred in a public park, where I was eating lunch and reading in my car with the window rolled down. A man on a bicycle grabbed my door and not-quite leaned in to ask for money. I was startled, and actually scared that he was close enough to grab me or try to reach my purse on my other side. I put up the brave front and said that I had no money (which I didn’t, actually rarely have any cash). He said ‘okay’ and cycled on, but that incident still stands out as pretty much the scariest interaction with a panhandler.

    • Marie Brennan

      Wow. Yeah, that would definitely scare me. Grabbing the door of your car = invading your personal space, in a way that could very easily be prelude to something worse.

  6. stormsdotter

    I’m 5’9″ and I try to smile at people asking for money. On the rare occasion they’ve said something inappropriate, I give them my best die-in-a-fire glare. I guess being tall helps.

    The worst was an older gentleman trying to sell newspapers. He complimented the hair of every single woman who walked by. *I* bitched him out for it, pointing out that I noticed he did it to every woman, and thus the compliments were all phony. He stopped.

    • Marie Brennan

      Height does help, yes, though (like everything) it isn’t a sure-fire deterrent. Die-in-a-fire glares can also help . . . but then there’s the class of guy who would take that as a challenge and an escalation.

      Selling something is a weird situation to be in. It actually does help, so far as I’m aware, if you can say something more than the equivalent of “newspapers, getcher newspapers here,” but you’ve got all of half a second in which to (hopefully) hook the customer, so it isn’t like you have a lot of time to be creative in what you say. But on the other hand, in a public space like that, it’s very easy to hit women’s harassment triggers.

  7. diatryma

    My particular trick with people I do not want to talk to– less pedmall people* than people talking about religion– is to do my usual smile-and-nod as I approach rather than when I’m within conversational range. I can then pass by with a, “Sorry,” when they ask me things.

    I’ve never exactly feared the pedmall people, but I also don’t treat them the way I do People Like Me. I don’t say, “That’s a beautiful dog,” even though they often are, and it bugs me when people I’m with engage, even when everything turns out well.

    *I’m in Iowa City, and I don’t know what to compare it to. There are some people who are familiar, some selling things, some playing music, some digging out cans, and then people who are familiar within a summer (I mostly recognize the dogs). And two who look homeless but are actually somewhat well off, I’m told. They donated refreshments to my reading in December.

    • Marie Brennan

      I used to do the smile-and-nod-and-“Sorry” thing. I do it less often now, because of things like being followed down the street and then cursed out for not smiling at him again.

  8. moonandserpent

    What’s funny about this (not “ha ha” funny, but “hmmm” funny) is that I have the same reaction except you know, for all intents and purposes, I’m (presenting as) a burly 6′ 250lb guy.

    But after some bad run-ins with NYC, Chicago and Bloomington homeless, I’ve had the “DO NOT ENGAGE” mantra stamped pretty firmly on my frontal lobe. And I hate myself for it. I used to greet homeless folks with a smile and whatever I could gave, and that just didn’t turn out well.

    But, to veer back on point, my gender presentation hasn’t always been a shield against harassment, aggression and assault.

    (Now that said, random homeless negative attention is a LOT greater in those times where I haven’t been presenting as a burly 6′ 250lb guy.)

    • Marie Brennan

      You’re right that gender presentation isn’t proof against this. The “if I were a man” comment was mostly because for my own part, if I looked like , I’d have more confidence about giving smile-nod-sorry responses to those guys. (At least for a while.)

  9. wshaffer

    My own “Engage/Do Not Engage” algorithm is complicated, and I don’t entirely understand how it works. When I was in college, I worked with an organization that went around handing out blankets and coffee to homeless people, which sort of damped my previous “Do Not Engage” instincts. When I lived in Berkeley, I got to know a lot of the “regular” homeless people pretty well. I’ll admit, that at this point, I’m at least as likely to avoid making eye-contact with someone because I lack the emotional energy to listen to the life story of someone who is desperately thrilled to meet someone who is acknowledging their humanity as because I’m afraid they’ll harass me. (I apparently haven’t quite mastered the fine line between, “I acknowledge your humanity,” and “I want to be best buds.”)

    In general, though, I think it’s important to respect your instincts. Better to snub a few people wrongly than to get yourself into trouble because you’ve gotten into the habit of overriding the little voice in your head that says, “This person feels dangerous.”

    • houseboatonstyx

      My algorithm, come to think of it, has a lot to do with whether the person is standing and moving around (beware) or sitting with head drooping forward (probably harmless).

  10. d_c_m

    *sigh* I totally understand.

  11. boannan

    I have had a lot of success with glance in general direction (not necessarily direct eye contact) combined with “sorry ma’am” or “sorry sir” said in a genuinely deferential way. This seems to work better than no eye contact/eye contact and smiling. I think the honorific throws people off, because I mean it (no reason a homeless person deserves to be called “ma’am” or “sir” less than any one else) and it’s dissonant enough with respect to what they hear the rest of the day that it’s momentarily confusing and by then I’m gone.

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