“You’re a fucking slut,” and other things you should not say to a stranger on the subway

A few weeks ago, I was on my way back from a long, hard run through Manhattan. I had had a really shitty day, and while the run had been hard, I was hoping that it would send some welcome endorphins pumping through my body. I stood on the subway, sweaty but pleased with myself, with my usual cool-down music piping loudly through my headphones. As I stood there, I became aware that the man standing next to me was speaking to me.

I ignored him. I had had a long, crappy day, and I didn’t want to talk to a stranger. I wanted to stand on the subway, let the air conditioning evaporate the sweat off my skin, listen to Jessie J, and mind my own business.

The man asked me a question, which I ignored. He asked it again, and I ignored it again. Then he started waving his hand in front of my face (yes, he really did that, and even though this happened weeks ago, I’m still kind of stunned by it. Seriously, who does that?!).

I kept ignoring him, but I surreptitiously paused my iPod. Someone had just entered my personal space, and demonstrated that he didn’t have a whole lot of regard for my obvious wish to be left the hell alone. Turning off my music, so that I could be as aware and attuned to the situation as possible, seemed like a wise thing to do.

He kept on waving his hand in front of my face. After about ten seconds of waving, I lost my cool. “Yeah, I’m ignoring you,” I snapped.

There was a pause, and then he kept talking. “I was just asking you a question,” he said. “I just wanted to know where you run, because I run too, and I was curious.”

I stared straight ahead and said nothing. He was silent for another few seconds, then said:

“You’re a fucking slut.”

And then he walked to the other end of the subway car.

Man, I am so bummed that I did not talk to him. He was obviously a total catch, and I will kick myself for the rest of eternity for having missed out on the chance to have a conversation with him!

So here’s the thing. I don’t know this man’s life. He could have also been having a really shitty day, and maybe he tried to strike up a conversation with me to feel better, just like I went for a run to blow off steam. Or maybe he was having a shitty day, and that’s why he lost his temper and said what he said. Maybe he is really bad at picking up on social cues, and doesn’t understand that when a woman ignores your questions and continues to ignore you when you rudely wave your hand in front of her face, it means she doesn’t want to talk to you, and you should back off. I don’t know his life. I don’t know what was going on in his head, and as pissed off as I was in the moment, and as pissed off as I still am when I recall this incident, I want to at least allow for those possibilities. Maybe he is a lovely guy and I just happened to catch him at his very worst. Maybe he has never called a woman a “fucking slut” before in his whole life and he’ll never ever do it again.

Or maybe, he got really pissed off because a woman didn’t behave the way he’s been taught women are supposed to – deferential, compliant, polite even when a man is rude – and his kneejerk reaction was to throw a violently sexist insult at her. In response to which, I should add, no one else in the subway car did or said a damn thing, even though the guy said it loudly enough for everyone around us to hear.

And you know what? Even if he was having a bad day, the worst day, a terrible horrible no good very bad day, I’m of the opinion that calling a woman “fucking slut” simply because she refuses to talk to a complete stranger in a crowded subway car, is not acceptable (nor is it accurate, since the slutty thing to do would have been to have sex with him right there in the middle of the 7 train). I don’ t think it’s ever acceptable to call anyone what he called me, and I don’t think it’s acceptable that no one around us spoke up to tell him so.

But hey, what would I know? I’m just a fucking slut.

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31 Comments

  1. Posted August 30, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I live in Philadelphia, and I find that men feel as if a train or a bus is the perfect place to hit on a woman. That is obviously not the case, as you’d think they’d learn after countless rejections from countless females (I see this all of the time), yet they still try. I don’t know if you take the subway often, or if that was something unusual for you to do, but I do not believe you reacted in the wrong way at all. I’ve literally ‘shooed’ men, and said things like “I really don’t want to talk,” which looking back seems quite rude, except when you take into account that the particular man I said that to actually sat down next to me and started nudging my arm. It is ridiculous. It’s hard for a woman to go anywhere, at least in a metropolitan area, without being bothered by someone. People (not ONLY men) need to learn to respects others’ personal space.

  2. Posted August 30, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I had a somewhat similar experience a couple months ago when I was playing laser tag with my husband and a bunch of my friends. It was the group of us and some other random guy on our team. As I was running around basically shooting everyone that wasn’t my friends I accidentally “shot” my team mate. He shouted at me, “I’m on your team you stupid slut!” I was pissed off but didn’t do anything (there were children present, after all). Several hours later we went in for another game and the douche was on the other team. Being not in the mood to play I just found a secluded place to wait for 15 minutes. This guy found me and just stood there shooting me for like a minute before I finally said, ” First you call me a slut and then you just stand there shooting me? Why don’t you get out of here and grow a pair?” He denied ever calling me a slut and said he’d never used that word in his life. Luckily it was time to go home after that confrontation, but I seriously couldn’t believe that I’d had that experience.

  3. Posted August 30, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I never know how to respond in situations like this. A complete stranger pulled up next to me while I was walking down the sidewalk last week and kept yelling “Excuse me!” at me and I kept walking, and then he yelled “Don’t be rude!” I thought MAYBE (hoping) he just wanted directions somewhere so I stopped and then he proceeded to hit on me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s kind of difficult to get away when you’re walking and they’re in a car creeping alongside you. I actually had flat-out ignoring people because I always think later that maybe they needed help or something. But it makes me feel disgusting when someone hits on me when I’m just trying to mind my own business and walk down the street.

  4. Posted August 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    There’s no reason to consider whether this man is just having a bad day. He stepped into your space, attempted to exercise his male privilege, and you denied him. For that, he attempted to punish you by shaming and cursing you.

    He gets no charity from me.

    Chloe, I’m sorry to hear that this happened to you.

    • Posted August 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Very well said. Let’s not make excuses for this jackass.

    • Posted August 30, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      I would just not pay much mind to such people. He only called you a slut to make you upset, and I’m sad to say that his plan worked very well. And so, deny that bastard a victory and deal with people more worth your time.

      • Posted August 31, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        This approach is problematic because it’s impossible to ignore this kind of thing, and it’s hurtful to suggest she just “get over it.” Chloe deserves her response, her reaction, and her feelings about it. She is allowed to feel whatever she wants to feel. Her response is not wrong; it’s HIS actions that were wrong. Giving energy to a negative experience is okay: it’s part of processing, it’s part of regaining confidence and a sense of safety, and she’s being brave enough to talk about it and allow us to learn from it too.

        All I can say is thank you for sharing your experience, I’m sorry and sad that this happened to you, and that this man and others like him continue to harm our community.

      • Posted August 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        But it DID upset her so she posted here to talk about it. Should she bottle it inside and deny the way it made her feel with some pretense that it gives him some sort of “victory” by her repressing what she truly thinks and feels?

        I really don’t get this whole notion that experiencing an appropriate emotion to a situation is somehow a “loss” or a “weakness”. We’re human beings, not automatons.

  5. Posted August 30, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    That is SO shitty! Sometimes I feel revolted when I can feel a man just LOOKING at my ass or breasts when I should be able to go out as I please without the feeling that I’m always under surveillance. Like yesterday in the grocery store when my partner and I were shopping for pork tenderloins, and the man working the poultry department at the store decides to walk over and “politely” harrass my girlfriend by telling her he thought she was a surfer, judging by her body. So I let him continue his conversation with a giant booger in his nose, hoping someone else would point it out and embarrass him. OOPS! :)

  6. Posted August 30, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s unbelievable how stupid men can be – completely unable to recognize an absolute non sequitur. He had such a sense of entitlement he considered it a personal injury for you to retain your agency and not to bow and scrape and fulfill his fantasy of speaking to a stranger. Asshole.

  7. Posted August 30, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    This is really horrible.

    I had a similar experience. One day I was going home, a bit absent minded for some personal reasons, and a guy approached me shouting “hey!” at me to call my attention. This shows that I had no idea of his presence until that moment. When I turned to look at him without saying a word, a but annoyed with that, he said “You’re almost beautiful”. And I kept my way without any reaction thinking to myself what the hell this man meant. So he kept going in the same direction as me, not close hopefully, I was a bit uncomfortable since I was new in the area, had moved within less than a month by then, and he came again and finished by saying: “I thought you were younger”, and then finally walked away. Gladly I never saw him again.

  8. Posted August 30, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m so sorry that this happened to you! I took the bus for many years in Los Angeles and dealt with an amazing amount of abuse.

    What I realized, though, (and this does not excuse them) is many people who are so upfront and in your face like that tend to have some kind of mental illness. I once had to run to another bus stop, because a man kept asking me for $1. When I said I didn’t have $1, he proceeded to make comments about my breasts and call me a slut. It was quite obvious he wasn’t “all there.” It by no means excuses their behavior, but may help when understanding such experiences.

  9. Posted August 30, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    A little off topic, but I liked the reference to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. At least, I hope you meant to reference it because if not, that’s a freaky coincidence. Either way, it was a little funny in a sea of serious.

    Sorry about what happened to you. I’ve been in similar situations and it’s very difficult because I’m shy and when a person does something like this it can ruin my whole day. It’s times like these that I’m glad to be a feminist though, because I know it’s sexist bullshit and that helps me deal with it better. I hope it does the same for you.

  10. Posted August 30, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Wait, he wanted to know where you run and then called you a slut?? Whoa there, that’s a grade A predator right there.

    And he was on the 7 train? Aw man…..

  11. Posted August 30, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    It makes me raging mad just to think about the abuses women have suffered on the street. When I was 14, I took the subway home and found myself in a car with a few teenage boys and one you women. The one guy got up and sat across from me and began to talk to me. I was listening to music and ignored him. He began to get mad, and yelled at me. I was scared, and didn’t want to risk him becoming violent. It makes me so mad that even young girls are aware of the imbalance of power, and realize how much harm 5 or so boys could cause both a young girl and the only adult–a women–in the car. So, I was polite to the bastard. I took out my earphones and said, in the sweetest, most polite voice: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you” implying that I was interested in what the jerk has to say to me. I am angry that I felt like it was dangerous to be anything but docile and sweet. I am angry that felt like it was dangerous to stay in my seat. I am angry that I can’t say with confidence that I would act differently if the same thing happened today. I am angry at myself when I don’t speak up, and I am scared that they will hurt me if I do. Good for you for speaking up. I am still working on that.

  12. Posted August 31, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry you had such an unpleasant experience. And I’m sorry the people around you once again proved the theory of the passive bystander effect: as the number of bystanders increases, it is less likely that any one onlooker will help.
    At school we learnt that in situations as those we should choose one of the bystanders and deliberately ask them personally for help.
    One of my favorite experiences happened while waiting for the night-bus with a guy friend. He was being silly and talking a lot. One of the other girls waiting for the bus came up to us and asked me whether I was alright or was I being bothered by this guy. Luckily I was not being harassed, but her courage inspired me and I try to be on the lookout for people who might need someone to ask them if they’re being harassed.

  13. Posted August 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for courageously sharing this disgusting story.

    As has been mentioned, nothing he had experienced that day justifies his verbally abusing you in the subway. So often, people try to justify abusive behavior (certainly not implying that you did this in your writing) by thinking about what caused someone to act a certain way. Many victims of domestic abuse/sexual assault feel guilty specifically because they consider their feelings less important than the negative experiences their abusers have had which “caused” them to act that way. Most people have experienced some form of abuse, whether it’s physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, etc. However, most of us have not chosen to use this as an excuse to abuse others. There is no justification for abusive behavior, period.

    On a completely separate topic, I’d love to hear from others about strategies for being allies and not bystanders when they’ve witnessed abusive behavior. When I witness something (street harassment, someone speaking/grabbing another person harshly), I ALWAYS check in with the abuse recipient to make sure they’re ok and see if they need anything. However, I’m usually scared to confront the abusers. On the few occasions I’ve done so, I’ve faced some pretty frightening threats and nearly gotten my ass kicked. Because of my own experiences with unhealthy interpersonal relationships, I’m not particularly comfortable with confronting agro people, particularly larger-bodied men (I apologize to all the kind larger-bodied men who I know I unfairly judge out of usually unwarranted
    fears). I believe very strongly that it is NOT the responsibility of the abuse victim to have to call out their abuser, but don’t know how to help in these moments without putting myself in a scary situation. I know the ultimate solution would be that more people would speak out so that the community would be emboldened and more of us would feel safe doing so, but I’m not willing to wait and watch countless folks being abused because I need someone else to stand up with me. Any advice?

    • Posted August 31, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      One thing that you can do is be obviously watching the situation. Most people that read as bystanders are generally minding their own business or trying to look like they are minding their own business. If you aren’t minding your own business and staring intently with a netural or negaive expression that will make those involved self conscious.

  14. Posted August 31, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Even if he WERE having a shitty day of his own, since when did that suddenly make waving your hands in front of someone or calling them a “fucking slut” NOT rude behavior? He overstepped his boundaries and completely dismissed your lack of interest, as though it didn’t matter what you did or didn’t want.

    I recently exploded on a guy who persisted in following me up the street when I went to buy a carton of juice one night demanding my phone number despite my repeatedly stating I am married monogamous. He even went into the store, borrowed a pen while I was at the juice freezer watching peripherally, scrawled something on a piece of cardboard and went outside to wait. It was HIS number, which he thrust at me instructing me to call him. So I slapped it down and began calling him out loud as I could, just no holding back, and attracting the attention of the store owner and neighbors who know both me and my husband. I feel glad that though I’m further into Brooklyn and there are a lot of desolate areas, there are those in the immediate vicinity with that sense of community.

  15. Posted August 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, that sucks, Chloe. It speaks to our misogynist culture that just about every woman I know can tell a story about being harassed on the subway. This is why countries like India have female-only train cars.

  16. Posted August 31, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    I am so sorry to hear this happened to you. I hope you are healing from this.

    I’m been experimenting with my reactions to being approached and harassed and how it turns out ( also I approach people who do something completely unacceptable on the train, so I would have gone and talked to him for you)

    What I have concluded is these guys are still children who want attention. They know when when they are not being noticed so they throw a tantrum and cause harm. My method is to maintain 100% awareness on my surroundings, and think to each person as i walk by ( without looking at them) “hello, i see you, i hope you are happy”. So, this is somewhat perceptible, and they are unwittingly pacified and I don’t get any of their mess on me. At least I think that’s why it works; 100% success so far, I only get harassed when I’m daydreaming. It helps me to feel really sorry for them, and imagine what conditions would have made them crave attention like that.

    In messing up with this, I have learned to step away quickly from anything that sets off a warning bell ( conveniently the subway has many people to escape behind) Also I agree with the mental illness comment.

  17. Posted August 31, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    @ David. I agree with your suggestion to check on the person who has been harassed but not confront the jerk making trouble. I, too have been threatened and told to “mind my own business” when standing up for someone taking abuse. I’ve even had the person getting bullied tell me to butt out, so I don’t intervene other than to ask if they’re okay. And I’d be curious what other approaches work.

    • Posted September 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I’ve had good results from confronting people, but I don’t do it often, because for me it requires getting control of my own emotions first; usually the chance goes by. Because, if I’m approaching them with a “you suck” , i think that will come out in body language and words and adds fuel to the fire.

      I have to put myself in the ‘attackers’ shoes, to accept them as they are. I have to imagine all the horrible upbringing, abuse, neglect, discrimination and repression they have likely experienced ( even a large percentage of men experienced sexual abuse as children) even if none of that’s true, i think the person probably acted out of fear and a habit of violence. So, once i’ve calmed down, i can say “hey, i am still troubled with what happened back there” and “would you be ok if you turned your music down a bit” ” or, “what you are saying makes me feel afraid, did you mean it that way?” From these few times I got a person explaining their actions, or stating they know what did was not helpful and they are trying their best, and I didn’t need to say anything I just listened. So these are mild cases, no real violence was done, and I don’t think anyone was in real physical danger; that’s out of my league. So that has worked for me; I think once i get better at understanding more people I can help right away. I’d love to start a whole subject on screaming babies and cranky homeless people but that’s another day

      I have a friend who broke up a young man hitting his girlfriend on the street, and they were only able to arrest the guy because my friend got hit in the fray; the girlfriend was trying to defend the boy’s behavior. Wonder what I have would have done in her shoes? no idea.

  18. Posted September 1, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I hate when men assume that women want to be hit on by anyone, anytime, in any situation or that we live and breath for male attention. I work in a factory where new, young females get pounced on by every male worker in the plant (even the ones who are married). I go to work to WORK, not pick up so I blew them all off. They were offended that I ignored them so they spread the word around that I was a lesbian. I didn’t get upset by this because being a lesbian isn’t an insult, it’s a way of life. So because I didn’t get all upset by being called a lesbian, that meant that I really WAS a lesbian. When I moved in with my current boyfriend, everyone was coming up to me and asking, “I thought you were gay?” lol
    Some men don’t get being shut down. They can’t seem to understand that:
    a) I’m taken
    b) I’m busy
    c) I’m just not interested! Take a hint.

  19. Posted September 2, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    The good old bystander effect.Once I tried to help a woman which was verbally abused by her boyfriend in a bus.In the end I was the bad person, because I was louder than him and so I “disturbed” the other passengers.The worst part was that the girl was smirking at me when her boygriend talked to me with the same manner.The whole situation was very disturbing on a couple of levels. Mind you, that if a conductor had tried to fine a passenger for not buying a ticket there would have been raised alarm,shouting,defending and so on by other passengers.

  20. Posted September 2, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I find these situations can be so difficult because of the uncertainty and unpredictability of how these people may respond if called out. I don’t want to say we should submit out of fear – but good on you for holding your ground.

    A few weeks ago I attended an outdoor concert that was likely at max capacity. I heard someone trying to squeeze through the crowd to get back with their friends or get closer, who knows. Irritating? Sure. But it’s to be expected. Suddenly I hear a gruff voice say to this person – “if you try to get past me, you’ll die”. A bit of a strong reaction to a pushy crowd, I thought. I turned around and looked at who had said this; he caught my gaze. A moment later he attempted to talk to me, and I ignored his advances. Eventually he gave up, but not after muttering, “Ha! Okay then. Wow. How rude.” and so on. Even in a crowd of thousands I felt unsafe so unsafe at that moment!

  21. Posted September 3, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Perfect example that demonstrates – being called a slut is nothing to do with us or what we do. Ignoring a man? So what! This pathetic excuse for a man is stupid. And that goes for everyone who said nothing, men and women on the train.
    Slut has nothing to do with sex or clothing, it’s what we get called when we do something guys don’t like. ( On a side note, this is why it’s so strongly linked to independent displays of sex and clothing, when we do it in private for a man it’s okay but when we’re independent they don’t like it, hence ‘slut’. )

  22. Posted September 5, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    That’s terrible that he did that! How dare he ask you a question?! Trying to be friendly to a stranger. Seriously, who does that? You did the right thing by ignoring him.

  23. Posted August 31, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Not wanting to be a pain, but with other comments getting posted/approved I’m wondering why mine still hasn’t been…?

  24. Posted September 5, 2011 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I too have some comments that are oddly still awaiting approval and I’m not sure what I’ve said that causes the moderators to fear that I may be disingenuous. Hopefully, we’ll learn to trust each other :-)

  25. Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    @Sarah @Spencer

    Same thing here. Hope this one gets posted. Odd.

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