I don’t know what kind of night you were having, but I was in a good mood for the first time in days. It was late and I was coming back from a gathering to which I had dragged myself in spite of feeling like slinking off to a corner of my apartment with a beer and a notebook. I bundled, I trekked to the D and transferred to the A, I jogged two avenues in the cold, and then I had a great time. I chatted and laughed with some people who know me really well and others who didn’t know me at all, and I started to feel that glow that I get sometimes when I’m delighting in my company. This feeling lasted through the two avenues back to the subway, through the A and the D, and when I exited at Broadway Lafayette I was thinking about the word ‘luminous.’ It was nearly midnight and you were the only person who chose to leave through the north east stairwell on Houston with me, which I noticed because I was startled when I spotted you out of the corner of my eye several feet behind me. I was momentarily embarrassed that you had heard me humming.
We’ve reached the part of the story that you know: as I walked up the stairs, you followed very closely behind me —too closely, for two people alone on a staircase. I didn’t notice. You took your cellphone in one hand and pointed it at me (were you taking a picture?), and then slowly began pressing your other hand up into my ass. I didn’t feel this right away, and when I did I leaped up two stairs, spun around and began to yell at you. You looked like a total idiot in this moment, I have to tell you. If your plan is to sneak up behind a woman when she’s alone in a subway stairwell at midnight and grope her, you might want to have a better plan for dealing with her inevitable terror and anger than staring vacantly, stuttering “n-no” twice and running away. Pretty pathetic, actually, but then again, so is getting your kicks by groping unsuspecting women.
Yes, I yelled at you. Yes, you looked taken aback and you ran away. But actually I wish you had stuck around, because then you might really get it. I wish you had stuck around to see me shuddering in revulsion all the way down the block, and taking deep breaths to try to slow my heartbeat. I wish you had seen me tear up in fury that you robbed me so quickly of upbeat for the first time in weeks. I wish you could see the way I look over my shoulder now. If you saw all that you might understand that harassing women, especially laying hands on us without permission, fills us with rage and fear and an overwhelming powerlessness. It makes us feel like we live in a world in which we cannot be safe, physically or emotionally. It reminds us that we need to be prepared at any time to respond to violation. This very problem had been a topic of conversation among my friends at the bar— what is the right thing to say when a man makes loud comments about your “rack” as you pass him on the street? What about the guy who tells you to “keep it tight,” or gestures obscenely with his tongue, or gropes you before you can stop him?
Because of you, sir, this is something that the women I know strategize about. We plot it out beforehand because we know you’re coming, and we know that if we’re not ready our fear will overtake us and we won’t say anything, or we’ll respond with outsized rage. Dismally, we know that even if we respond in a way we won’t want to change in retrospect, it won’t change anything. “Don’t talk to women like that,” I told a guy who accosted me on my way home from yoga with a request to take advantage of my flexibility, “It fucking sucks. What would your mom say?” He laughed in my face.
This is all to say that you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. But I hope you don’t walk away with the notion that your actions don’t have consequences, even if momentary embarrassment was the only repercussion you faced the other night. You are creating a world where your sisters and daughters risk this treatment when they leave the house, where warding against harassment or violation is woven into their understanding of how to be a woman in the world.
Think about that the next time you catch a girl alone in a stairwell. Pretty please? For me?