Over the last few months I’ve been interested in street harassment in New York – how I and other women react to being bothered, catcalled, and touched by men. It all started with this post and continued with this post, where I decided to respond aggressively to harassment.The biggest conclusion I came to, I think, was that you have to be ready for these incidents and have a response ready – if you don’t you’ll be too shocked to do anything (and also, don’t respond aggressively if you are not in a safe position to do so). Of course, I still have a lot of questions – what is the best way to react to someone so that they might understand how they are making you feel? What’s the best way to react to someone so that they might decide not to do it again? What doesn’t egg them on? Why do they do it in the first place?

In any case, on the way home from work on the subway on Friday, I saw something totally new: a drunk woman harassing and inappropriately touching men.  I was sitting directly across from her and got to see her interact with four different men during the ride and it was absolutely fascinating – like a mini-experiment in how men react to street harassment.  

It happened the same way each time a man sat next to her: she started by resting her head on their shoulder. All four men allowed this to happen and didn’t react except to look a bit uncomfortable and confused. Just like I feel when it happens to me, they seemed to be working out in their heads what was happening – was there some other explanation for how the woman was acting?

After this, though, the woman would touch their legs and crotches and make comments about how much they wanted her and what kind of men they were. I won’t go into her colorful language except to say that it was extremely creative and effective and that I might have noted several of her imaginative phrases for utilization my fiction, if I ever decide on a drunk crazy person character.

Two of the men (the two older ones) put up with this behavior longer than I would have guessed – again, maybe they, too were in shock? But, eventually, all four men yelled something loud enough for the entire subway car to hear (these statements varied from “Chill, lady!” to “What the fuck is your problem?” to “Do not touch me or speak to me again!”

Two of the men used physical force – pushing the woman away from them – and, most surprisingly, all four of them stood their ground. No one left the space that they were originally occupying until their stop came. It seemed almost territorial – whereas the first thing I think of doing when someone is bothering me is to get away from their area as soon as possible, the men opted to push her out of their area instead.

The drunk lady, as one might guess, wasn’t especially affected by any of the men’s defenses (the yelling, the pushing, the retorts). Once the man got off the train, she started the whole cycle over with whoever sat next to her. No one else on the train jumped up to help either the men or to confront the woman, but a lot of sudoku puzzles were completed and a lot of paperbacks were read. Although I stopped reading my paperback, I had no idea what to do.

I don’t think we can draw any solid conclusions from what I saw since it was such a small sampling of people – but, as evil as it may be, it sure was interesting to see the tables turned for once.

Although we could make some guesses about men being more apt to aggressively confront something like this (and I should mention that three out of four of the men were bigger than the woman) or about how they are more likely to cause a scene or stand their ground, the thing I was weirdly comforted to see was how bothered they were about being touched and called names. Nobody likes to be treated like that, from the tiniest meekest woman to the burliest, most aggressive dude.

But as far as I can tell, all the efforts I’ve seen from both men and women haven’t really worked. I still think doing something is better than doing nothing, but is anything effective in the long term? The heart of the problem seems to be that you can’t reason with a drunk crazy person. Is anyone who would openly harass a stranger on the subway, man or woman, capable of understanding how they are making other feel? Perhaps not. Is reacting to these people and stadning up for ourselves more for us than for them? I’m not sure. Back to the drawing board, I suppose.