By: Lisane Thirsk, Ottawa, Canada, SSH Correspondent
By the time I’m in the middle of whatever it is I resisted (Harry Potter, Pinterest, Breaking Bad, etc.), people tend not to be eager to chat about it, since by then it’s old news and has already been analyzed to death. Yet I enjoy being able to evaluate what I really think about the latest book/TV show/film/technology with less of the mainstream hype around it.
A few weeks ago I needed another book for my commute to downtown Ottawa, so, in a typical move, I picked up a tattered copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from the Thrift Store.
On my way home from work the other day I was reading my new-old book on a bench while waiting for a transfer bus. Suddenly, I was on my guard after a young man sat down too close to me on the long and otherwise vacant bench.
As buses pulled up and I glanced over to see if it was my bus, I caught glimpses of my seat neighbour. He was a teenager, maybe seventeen years old.
Suddenly he turned to me and said, “Can I ask you something?”
At this point I admit saying in my head: No, I don’t feel like making small talk because you’re bored and feel entitled to interrupt me with a comment about my appearance. No, I don’t care to justify the fact that I enjoy reading. No, you can’t have my phone number, little boy.
I closed my book and turned to him with a somewhat icy look in anticipation of what I thought was coming. Still, I said, “Sure.”
“On a scale of one to ten, how good is that book?”
My shoulders relaxed. As a matter of fact, I’d just been pondering how I felt about it.
I gave it a four and explained why. I watched him closely as I gave him an earful of a response, throwing out references to other guilty-pleasure thriller reads from the past few years, which he caught.
We talked a little longer about bestsellers from past years before he got on a bus that pulled up.
The chat actually improved my mood for the rest of the trip home. I interpreted this particular encounter as positive, despite my initial unease with him sitting so close.
What had I been expecting, based on my experience in similar situations? Street harassment.
No matter which city I’m in, it’s not uncommon for men and even boys I don’t know to intrude on my space and time in a way women never do. This is especially true on and around public transit in all the cities I’ve spent time in.
And I’m usually supremely annoyed by men who use what I’m reading in public as an excuse to start a conversation that quickly becomes unwelcome. In my opinion this is generally solid advice: See a Woman Reading? Leave Her Alone.
At the same time, I like people watching and I’m always interested in strangers carrying around books instead of e-readers (and why I adore the Underground New York Public Library project). My commute is more interesting when out of the corner of my eye I see someone reading an unexpected title.
This particular day, based on a combination of factors, I felt it was acceptable to be interrupted with that question; I was happy to spend a few minutes chatting about a paperback bestseller from a few years ago.
Why not celebrate interactions with strangers that make life enjoyable? That’s why I love the Street Respect Stories on the Stop Street Harassment blog. The brief conversation with a teenager at a bus stop was neutral, if not pleasant, compared to what I had braced myself for.
The relief I felt at not having to deal with harassment during my commute that day was anything but neutral, of course. It was based on my personal experiences, gendered socialization, and the power dynamics present in all street interactions.
The bottom line, though, is that it’s time for street respect to be the rule, not the exception for women reading – or doing anything – in public.
Lisane works in the non-profit communications sector and supports local anti-street harassment advocacy through Hollaback! Ottawa. In 2012, she completed a Master’s in Socio-Legal Studies at York University in Toronto, where she wrote her Major Research Paper on gender-based street harassment. She holds a B.A. in Latin American Studies and Spanish from the University of British Columbia.Share on Facebook