Mental Math

Today, I did a mental calculation.

Right now, I live next to Lake Merritt, in Oakland. There’s this glorious 5K trail around the lake, that’s often filled with people jogging and children frolicking and tiny puppies being floofy and sweet. As someone who recently lived next to a lake that did not encourage activities other than daring one another to take the polar plunge (skinny dipping around the ice floes), I love it. I’ve long felt more focused after a good walk, and I started tracing the path each day.

However, there’s a problem.

I never really understood people who said they felt unsafe when they got catcalled/street harassment. I mean, I believed that they did, but I couldn’t imagine myself into that reaction mindset. I just filed it as a thing to remember about people’s experiences. And Oakland doesn’t have the worst street harassment I’ve experienced–not even a bit.

But since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been far more conscious about how catcalling/street harassment can feel unsafe.  In the few weeks since moving, two different men have walked up behind me on one of my daily walks and let me know their graphic sexual fantasies. The sidewalks are busy, and I’m often listening to music of some kind, so this might explain how someone can get all the way to standing next to my shoulder before letting me know exactly what he’d like to do to me. In fact, the first time I was so confused/shaken/scared, that I wasn’t sure I knew what had happened until I saw him laughing and heard the same voice claim he’d ‘gotten me’.

And it’s true, I wasn’t hurt, and my System 2/deliberate-thinking brain knows it’s pretty unlikely that I would be. But just like the ghosts and goblins in a haunted house will not actually hurt you, or even touch you, they are meant to raise your blood pressure, to scare you. Except that I wasn’t paying admission to a Halloween ride, and I wasn’t trying to take my autonomic nervous system out for a test drive.

Conditioning happens even if you don’t consent to it. Pavlov’s dogs, after all, weren’t eagerly awaiting the day when the bell would make them salivate. And as I notice myself flinch a little bit at eye contact, get slightly more tense when any approaches, I am annoyed.  I am annoyed every time I wonder if what just happened was so obviously bad enough that I can share the story without feeling like I should expect to be on the defensive. Was it just something about the tone? Or the way they looked me up and down and seemed to be leering?

I would say it’s always complicated by explaining the subtext, but yesterday two men had this conversation in front of me.

Man: Fuckable? [points at me, grins, nods]
Other Man: Eh, maybe.

so. that would be text.

There’s a solution to this. Well, a Thing That Sort of Solves The Specific Problem I Have in A Way I Have Control Over. The solution is that I decided to only take walks in the very early morning, when almost everyone else out is sweaty and running and unconcerned by my existence. Except that it’s now late afternoon, and I spent five minutes attempting to sort out whether the mood boost of a long walk would be outweighed by the mood drop if I had the same experience, while factoring in the baseline anxious/on-edgeness of having had several days with bad experiences in a row.

And I am annoyed by that math.

Note: My experience is particularly lucky in that the result of these experiences is merely some fear and adrenaline. Please don’t take this post to mean “the real reason girls object to street harassment is merely that it’s the mild fear similar to a haunted house, all the other ones are making mountains of molehills”. Things would still be unpleasant if that was the version of the world we lived in. Unfortunately, it’s not.


7 thoughts on “Mental Math

  1. Ack, I’m sorry you have to put up with that.

    I’m confused about one thing. When you say both “I wasn’t hurt, and my System 2/deliberate-thinking brain knows it’s pretty unlikely that I would be” and “My experience is particularly lucky in that the result of these experiences is merely some fear and adrenaline”, I can’t tell what you think your risk of being harmed actually is, or to what extent you’re trying to say that the hypothetical quote in the note is wrong because the fear actually is a big deal vs. because assault is common.

    1. I think I was unclear on how these fit together in the original, so let me rephrase some:

      -I didn’t expect to be hurt because I was in a crowded public place and fit a lot of the characteristics of being the sort of person people will overcome the bystander effect for. (white, female, conventionally attractive).

      -the footnote quote and related stuff is because I’m fairly confident that tweaking those variables a little would amp up my fear and risk a fair bit. (I don’t have great assault statistics because all the methodology sees to be awful, but if I were to go from a quick poll of my friends, where are certainly not an entirely representative sample, I’d be terrified)

      -additionally, an aspect of harassment/catcalling is that for people have been assaulted once in specific circumstances (ie, as the result of street harassment) the fear and adrenaline can be so much higher than my experience of being jittery for a half hour.

      -So I percieve my actual risk-of-bodily-harm as fairly low in the story above, but realize that I have both specific advantages, and that in telling it this way, I might be accidentally letting people think that my advantages are the norm, when I’m unsure they are.

  2. My SO has a morbid interest in “murder porn” documentaries where “conventionally attractive white female in broad daylight” was a rather prevalent theme, so this piece gave me a few willies. Why does the world have to be this way? Why do women have to make risk assesments for basic daily activities that give them pleasure (meaning/health/relaxation)? Why? Because a lot of us men are lead to behave this way, a lot of us ignore these criticisms and viewpoints.

    Every time I read about this kind of thing I remember that what can be done by me as a man, is to 1) change my own behaviour 2) be conscious of how my behaviour affects others and 3) not stand up to sexist shit I hear from other men every day.

    (Sorry if this sounds like a notallmen response, but I’m trying to take this seriously.)

  3. This sort of thing creeps me out just reading about it, let alone being present while Creepers be Creepin’. I have almost zero reason for any direct fear from that behavior, but it sets off all the alarms anyway.

  4. My first urge was that these men should be physically hurt. Obviously not a suggestion/solution for you; just tracing my thought process as it happened. Escalation could be a problem, as could the fact that violence may be illegal in response to lewd comments (though a lawyer may be able to successfully argue that it was self-defense in response to a legitimate perception of physical harm).

    My first actual non-“gorilla smash” response was to consider ways to report these incidents to the police, on the assumption that the incidents would quality as violations of a sexual harassment or public lewd behavior law. After a bit of Googling, it is not clear this is the case. doesn’t indicate there is currently anything to be done from a legal standpoint. I find this confusing and somewhat shocking.

    Flame of impotent rage stoked once again, it is unclear how to continue beyond buring my head back in the sand of mathematical texts and machine learning code.

    (Writing the above sentence made me spend 5 minutes thinking about something that might actually be done. The result follows.) Maybe a sting operation. One or more people surreptitiously follow you during the long walks, armed with sensitive recording devices, to later release video and audio of the scumbags publicly / on the ‘net (preferably with their identities revealed via facial recognition). My main worry against doing this would be fear of retribution against the woman who is in the role of scumbag-bait. Maybe if it were done in a separate area from where each woman lives, so no one would be bumping into the scumbags again by virtue of living in the same neighborhood.

    I don’t know. IANA social activist. I feel like the project would have positive social effect overall, but I’m not sure how confident I am in that feeling’s correspondence with reality.

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