One morning last week I was in line at Starbucks, preparing for the long work day ahead. As I stood in line, a man walked through the café, heading for the seating area in the back. He stopped when he reached me, placed a hand on my arm, leaned in close and said, “You’re so beautiful.” I gave him the filthiest look I could muster – now a reflex after over a year of dealing with New York City street harassment – and stepped up to the register to order my drink. The barista handed it over, and as I walked over to add milk and sugar, I could feel myself becoming angry. I stirred the milk and sugar in, a little more aggressively than was necessary, and some coffee splashed on the counter. Why do strange men think they’re allowed to touch me? I wondered to myself.
Why do strange men think I care about their opinion of my appearance? Do they think I’ll be flattered if they approach me out of the blue and offer their unsolicited opinion as I stand in line, listening to my iPod and minding my own business? Why didn’t I have some witty rejoinder – “and you’re invading my personal space” – ready in time, to make it clear that I wasn’t interested in his input? Most of all, why, why, do strange men think they’re allowed to touch me?
As it happened, I had been feeling good that morning. I had slept well and managed, despite my usual lack of style, to put together a nice outfit for work. I had spent the long subway ride watching the previous night’s Maddow on my iPod. I felt good. I felt beautiful, actually.
Being touched by a stranger and told that I was beautiful didn’t make me feel more beautiful; it made me feel unimportant. It made me feel like what I wanted – to go from home to work with a quick stop at Starbucks on the way, without being harassed – didn’t matter. What mattered most was that this man had an opinion about me, so I had to hear it whether I wanted to or not. He wanted to touch me, so I was going to be touched, by a stranger, whether I wanted it or not.
What he wanted was more important than what I wanted, because he is a man, and I am a woman. Did he consider that his words and his gesture, perhaps intended to compliment, might mean something totally different to me? If he did, that didn’t stop him. What he wanted was more important than what I wanted, perhaps because we live in a world where what men want is more important than what women want. That is why strange men think they’re allowed to touch me – and any other women they feel like touching. It’s that simple.