Recently, I had a conversation with my father about street harassment. I told him about a time I was walking down the street when a car pulled up and a man reached out to grab my arm. I jumped away and he made kissing sounds at me. I shook my head, disgusted, and flipped him off. He yelled, “Oh, okay. Fuck you, bitch!” My dad was pretty shocked, but I told him that things like that happen fairly regularly. I sent him a couple articles: Schrödinger’s Rapist and a recent blog post about a woman’s particularly horrifying encounter on the subway. My father found the articles upsetting, but eye-opening. Unfortunately, I soon had another awful example for him.
Yesterday, as I was walking across campus to my car after teaching, I was approached by a man who asked to use my cell phone. He told me that his cell phone was dead and that he really needed to get in touch with someone. I had just texted my husband, and I figured the man had seen me with my phone out which is why I thought he asked. I didn’t think much of the request – the campus is close to the U.S./Canadian border and my cell phone battery tends to drain quickly because the phone switches signals back and forth. I even remembered asking to use a classmate’s phone after mine had died when I was a student. I also didn’t feel unsafe. It was around four o’clock, and I wasn’t far from the building where I teach. The campus isn’t exactly isolated, but it’s certainly not in the middle of things, either. It’s not a convenient walk, anyway. The man didn’t look like an undergraduate student, but I figured he might be a graduate student. He was wearing dress pants and a button-up shirt, and he was carrying a folder. The school has a fairly large MBA program, and this man looked like he could be one of those students.
This may seem like a lot to consider in a matter of seconds, but I have a feeling that these sort of details go through many women’s minds when they are approached by strangers. I’ve learned over the years to take notice of my surroundings. I’ve even been told, urged to do so. There were no obvious red flags to me, so I pulled out my phone and handed it to him.
As soon as he dialed, he asked how long I had been a student. When I said I was a teacher, he replied, “Could’ve fooled me. Hey, are you always this trusting?” I immediately regretted giving him my phone. I shrugged my shoulders and waited for him to complete his call. After a second he said, “Hello? Hello?” quickly and looked at the phone. I figured the person on the other end hung up, and told him that his friend may have ignored the call, not recognizing the number. He smiled and went to hand the phone back to me when I heard a ringing. It was not my cell phone. I didn’t recognize the ringer, and I knew my phone was still on silent because I had been teaching. I realized that he was not trying to reach a friend. He had called his own cell phone with mine. The man’s face got red, but he still tried to cover it up. He looked at my phone. “Oh, is my friend calling back?” he asked. I said, “No, I think that’s your phone.” He took out his ringing cell phone, turned it off, and handed me back my phone. He stammered his thanks and hurried away.
I immediately felt angry, but not at him. I was angry with myself. How could I have been so stupid? Why would I ever hand my cell phone over to a stranger? I thought of all the personal information contained on my cell phone: photos, e-mails, messages to my husband and friends. I had just handed all of this over to some creep! I also felt violated and downright suspicious. If he wanted my phone number, why didn’t he just ask? Why go through this ruse? I wondered what he planned to do with the phone number. Was he going to try to get more personal information using the number? I was also frustrated for another reason: that morning, I had rushed out of the house without my wedding ring. I had taken it off the night before because I was afraid of losing it when I took a shower. It’s not something I normally do, and I felt awful about it, as though a ring could have protected me from this. I thought for a moment that maybe if I had been wearing it, the man wouldn’t have done this.
Later, however, I came to my senses. I cannot hold myself responsible for the actions of others. I was trying to do a nice thing, and I did my best to read the signs around me. I did allow the man to use my phone, but I did not consent to letting him take my personal information from me. It was not okay for him to manipulate me into giving him my phone number. This was not my fault. Like many other women, I have received nasty comments and threats after rejecting men on the street. This time, however, I was not even given the chance to reject this man’s proposition. As the ever relevant Schrödinger’s Rapist article states, “If you fail to respect what women say, you label yourself a problem.” There’s nothing more disrespectful than denying a women the chance to speak, to say no.