There’s nothing more ironic than a grown ass man at Starbucks arguing that he can harass you however he pleases, as he sits with a Bible in front of him.
The day started out simply enough.
I settled in at my new favorite Starbucks, curled on a comfy chaise lounge chair, laptop in my – well, in my lap. As usual, I was adorned with my standard long dress, sweater, and thick shawl. It’s a beautiful 50 degrees here and I was sockless in my dress shoes. Naturally, I slid them off. I put in my earbuds, began listening to Spotify’s collection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr speeches (since I was working on volunteer assignments for the day of service I was planning), and let my feet dangle off the chair.
It was awesome. Dr. King’s words were inspiring and made me thoughtful about progress, or lack thereof (52 years later we are still speaking out against police brutality -wtf).
In the middle of listening to Dr. King’s “The American Dream” speech a man in his 50’s moved by me. I gave him a slight smile because he wore a dapper old man outfit that was adorable and I was in a great mood. I looked back at my laptop.
He said something but I didn’t quite hear. There was a twinge of dread because there’s usually only one reason why a strange middle-aged man is trying to talk to me in public. Still, I’m an optimist and incredibly curious. I took out my earbuds. “Excuse me?”
“You have beautiful feet.” He smiled at me.
My stomach twisted. I felt incredibly creeped out and entered a state of shock. I said a soft thanks and immediately turned back to my laptop. Ironically, the speech was at the point Dr. King was talking about how we need to love our enemies…
If you are not a woman-identified individual that has experienced street harassment (essentially sexual harassment in a public space) then my issue with his statement might seem like an overreaction. He was just giving me a compliment, right?
Here is the issue: I am just chillin’ here, lounging on this comfy chair at Starbucks, getting my work done (and facebooking, of course), oblivious to the world. But the moment this jerk comments on my body part, I am yanked from enjoying this peaceful moment and reminded that because I am a woman, my body is open to commentary. That while I get lost in my own mind, I have to remember that I am being scrutinized. That my worth is parallel to how attractive I am. That beauty is decided by strange men and not by me. That I’m expected to say thank you for the honor of their acknowledgement.
The comment strips away my security. I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Nothing more than meat at the market, ready for inspection.
When strange men ‘compliment’ me like this, I’m not a human. I’m a walking sex toy.
“You have beautiful feet.” Feet are personal kinks for some people and highly sexualized. This isn’t to say it’s bad to have a foot fetish, but my interpretation of this man’s statement is he’s definitely sexualizing me. Gross. My body does not exist for your commentary, dude.
Not to mention – my feet with peeling red toenail polish ain’t even a thing to be found attractive.
My mind was flooded with thoughts. I’m offended, disgusted, wondering if it’s that big of a deal, feeling vulnerable, feeling sexualized, frustrated, indignant this fool thought he could talk to me this way, angry at myself for going into shock and uttering “thank you”, and angry at him.
Overall, I just felt incredibly uncomfortable.
Ten minutes later I realize the man is still at Starbucks, around the corner from me.
The discomfort I’m feeling increases, as does my adrenaline. I do not want to stay here. I’m sitting in a private corner right by the bathroom – what if he comes by again? I don’t want him to approach me again.
I decide I’ll leave. Panera is nearby and a who doesn’t love broccoli cheddar soup?
And yet…there’s a kernel of dissonance growing within me. I consider myself a feminist and an activist. How can I let this dude get away with his comment? Clearly he meant it as a compliment. He probably doesn’t even realize he makes women uncomfortable talking like that. Men are socialized to speak to women like this and that women love random compliments.
If he speaks like that to me, he probably does so to a lot of woman. Maybe if I said something then I could help him see a new perspective and fewer women in the future would have to deal with harassment.
On the flipside, speaking to him could be dangerous. Women who have spoken out against harassment before have been dealt severe repercussions, including physical violence.
Not that I thought he would react violently. We were in public and I am aware I had able-bodied privilege. Plus, he was dressed all dapper and stuff; looked like a nice older man. Father-like. He wouldn’t react too bad – if anything he would probably just try to diminish his action and make me feel crazy, at worst.
If only I knew.
I scrounged up the courage. At this point my hands are shaking from adrenaline after sitting down for 25 minutes. I hate confrontations and this is my first time actually confronting street harassment.
“Excuse me, sir.”
He takes off his headphones and looks up at me with a hint of surprise. I think how fitting it is that he interrupted me earlier while I was using my earbuds, and now he is the one to be interrupted.
I took a deep breath. “Hi. I just wanted to come over and tell you that your comment earlier made me feel uncomfortable.”
His face contorts in shock and annoyance as he sits back in his chair and throws his arms up in the air. “Oh NO,” he cries out in exasperation. “Please don’t do this to me!” he pleaded.
He says it in such a way that I can’t help but feel he’s been confronted about sexual harassment before. His defensiveness is incredible. Immediately my insides writhe with rage that this asshole is acting like HE is a helpless victim. Drama king, much?!?!
I use the force (I’m a Jedi, obviously) and center myself. As a social justice educator I know that harsh words rarely accomplish anything when trying to teach someone that they are contributing to systemic oppression.
My voice is firm, measured, and low. The perfect tone for talking to misogynists. “Sir, I’m sure you meant it as a compliment, but it made me feel uncomfortable—”
His expression darkened. “You know what makes me feel uncomfortable?! Racism makes me feel uncomfortable!”
I recoil in anger and shock. Please, old man. Are we doing this right now?
“I’m sure it does.” After all, I am aware that it’s not easy being a black man in America, especially when one has to use a wheelchair. Ableism and racism sucks. I ‘get’ that as much as an able-bodied white woman can (which means I know that I’ll never truly ‘get it’ and I’m trying to always learn more about privilege and oppression). But old man, please. That ain’t here nor there.
“And sexism makes ME uncomfortable,” I add.
“Well, a lot of things makes me uncomfortable!” he speaks in a shout-whisper. Apparently the 2015 location of the Oppression Olympics has begun.
Our voices are hushed but increasingly rising. No one looks up from their laptops. Damn Starbucks culture.
The creep begins rambling. Something about how there’s too much negativity in the world and he just wants positivity and I shouldn’t be bringing negativity into his life.
I cut him off. “Negativity into YOUR life? Look, I’m sure you meant it as a compliment but I needed to tell you it made me uncomfortable. And I’m trying to tell you this and you are not listening to me.”
“Well I won’t talk to you again! And if you don’t like it, why are you talking to me!?” he bristles. Clearly I’m the one harassing him.
“I am talking to you”, I snap, venom seeping into my voice, “because I know most men don’t realize those comments are not compliments and make women feel uncomfortable. I was HOPING you would learn so other women don’t have to feel uncomfortable!”
“Well, you shouldn’t have had your feet out there!” he countered angrily.
…is this motherfucker kidding right now?
Did he really just slut shame…my feet?!?!?!?!?!
Do we live in Victorian England? I’m already wearing a long dress and long sleeves, with only bare feet. ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT I NEED TO NOT BE PUTTING MY SLUTTY FEET OUT THERE?
Right, how dare I tempt the perverts of America who like to troll on any hint of womanly flesh.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I hiss back.
“Oh, well now you have to swear at me!” he gasps, all offended and clutching his invisible pearls.
Yep, keep them male tears comin’, bro. Because using the ‘f’ word is totally worse than your sexual harassment. CREEP. “If that’s how you’re going to react…I didn’t do nothing illegal! If I did something illegal, call the cops on me.”
Trembling with rage, I glance down and see a Bible on the table in front of him. I chuckle softly at the sight and my eyes slide up to meet his. I speak softly and let the disdain in my voice wash against his ears. “You’re reading the BIBLE and you are speaking to me like this?”
I spin away, because I have nothing left to say to the creep.
Immediately I go to the Starbucks counter because if some creep thinks he can sexually harass women because their ‘slutty feet’ aren’t covered with socks then the staff need to know. Not to mention, I need to know if this man is a regular because if so, my new favorite Starbucks is going to be abandoned in lieu of the nearby Panera.
The middle-aged man who regularly is working when I come in, spots me. I get his attention and he motions me to the other side of the counter, away from customers. Perhaps he saw the expression on my face, perhaps he saw the confrontation. Either way it was clear he wanted me away from others.
“What happened, miss?” he asks quietly.
I open my mouth to speak…and instead a sob squeezed its way out of my throat. The encounter had me rattled and my adrenaline had to be released somehow, since I wasn’t running away nor was I slapping the creep like he deserved.
For the record, I HATE crying. I’m down for other people crying and I don’t see weakness in them, but my own personal psychology views that when I cry I am demonstrating weakness – and I cannot allow such a thing. I have had to demonstrate strength for much of my life, even when I didn’t quite have it, because I had to deal with a lot of bullshit. Crying, to me personally, makes my enemies think they’ve won.
The Starbucks employee was kind and encouraged me to speak.
“It’s stupid,” I sputtered. Because in that moment I felt like a stupid little girl, weeping in a public space (but thankfully folks love their laptops), and talking to a man so I assumed he probably wouldn’t get it. My voice catches. “He went by and told me I had commented on my feet, so I went and told him that was not okay and he made me uncomfortable and he FREAKED out on me.”
Starbucks Employee looked at me with pity. “Aw, he just compliments all the ladies. He’s harmless.”
I stiffen. Of course. “Maybe he’s harmless, but sexual harassment is not okay.” Even after I said this, I realized I was wrong. Because what that man is doing IS harmful. Sexual harassment is harmful. A woman not able to feel safe from harassment in a public space? Pretty fucking harmful.
He was nice, this Starbucks employee, but he just didn’t get it. Not that I can expect him to ‘get it’ too much – we live in a world where it is socially acceptable to “give women compliments”.
I sat down back in my corner spot. Took a few minutes to calm down and then I left – soothing my nerves by calling my partner and then nomming on some broccoli cheddar soup.
Overall? I’m glad I said something. I would have regretted not saying something. But…I’m not sure if the heightened aggravated harassment was worth it.
>>Before I sign off, a recommendation to men who like to talk to women they don’t know:
Control yourself. Remember that it’s rude to comment on a woman’s body w/o having that kind of relationship with her. You’re wasting our time and depleting our emotional energy. There’s a whole bunch more I could teach you, but just use Google (start here) because enough of my time has been wasted today.