Property is defined as a thing or things belonging to someone.
I am not a thing.
Nor is anyone else.
And yet, I can’t count on my hands the number of times that I have been perceived to be the property of a man that I am with. Not by friends of course, but by complete strangers. Some of these men haven’t even been partners, they’ve been friends, acquaintances, family. But because I have been with a man, the lingering glances of other men rarely evolve into more than that. They respect other men, they wouldn’t dare approach a woman they thought might be with another man. The equation that I, and so many other women I’m sure, seem to encounter is: woman + man = belonging to said man.
And because so frequently women are viewed as the property of men, being with a man is sometimes that only thing that prevents us from being harassed in public.
How do I know this? The mere ratio of times I’m approached when I’m alone versus when I’m with my boyfriend or a male friend. It’s staggering.
Our city is small, it’s not unreasonable to cross paths with the same people over and over again. I couldn’t tell you the exact number of times because I’ve lost count, but it’s nothing to be approached by someone one day when I’m alone, ignored the next because I’m with a man, and then approached the next time that I’m by myself.
Two instances in particular come to mind. Walking home from the store (alone) a man passed me and told me to smile because “it couldn’t be that bad.” I told him to leave me alone. Days later, my boyfriend and I stood at an intersection next to this man – he looked at me, but didn’t say anything. A few weeks later, I encountered him downtown and he asked if I’d learned to smile yet.
Another man followed me and tried to engage in conversation as I walked to a bar to meet up with some friends, complimenting me on my hair and eyes.
“You’re very pretty,” he said to me.
“I know,” I responded, and crossed a street, going out of my way simply to avoid him.
I saw this man again, this time with my boyfriend. Again, he looked at me but said nothing, instead walking up to two girls who were by themselves and asking for hugs. The next time that I saw him I was actually standing outside my home one morning, waiting for my boyfriend so that we could walk together for a few minutes before we separated to go to our respective jobs. He walked past me with a friend, both pushing their bikes, and said, “You smell nice.” To which I said, “It’s too early for this. Go away.”
This has just been in the past two years. The amount of times that similar scenarios have played out over the past thirty years of my life are unquantifiable.
Once many years ago, standing in a bar with some friends of mine, the majority male, I lamented that there were so many cute boys in our presence, as there often were whenever we went out, and I wished that some of them would actually come up to me instead of eyeing me from afar.
“It’s because you’re with us — men,” one of them said. “They see us as competition, if not someone you’re already with. Unless you go up to them, they’re going to think that you belong to one of us.”
“I don’t belong to anyone,” I had replied, vaguely offended and definitely intoxicated.
“I’m just sayin’.”
He was right, whether I liked it or not. Scenarios that did or didn’t play out were vastly different when I was out with all of my friends, or just the women. Dancing in a club with just my lady friends meant yelling at men and pushing them away, asking them to leave us alone because we just wanted to dance. While the exact same scenario, only with added male friends meant that we were virtually left alone, unless someone actually invited a stranger into the mix.
Whenever I’m catcalled or harassed in public when I am alone, I try to keep my wits about me instead of just yelling the first thing that comes to mind at people. I’ve learned to take no shit in recent years, but I do often just hurl insults at these men. But when I do remember that creating a dialogue could actually get them to realize what they’re doing, I try to ask them, “Are you doing this because I’m alone? If my partner was with me would you even consider talking to me that way?”
If they’re not embarrassed enough by the fact that I’m calling them out in public to reply, the response is often “No.”
Women are deserving of respect, regardless whether we are with another person (a man) or not. My partner doesn’t have the rights over me and my person any more than a stranger has a right to harass me. If you’re going to be gross and catcall me, at least have the guts to do it when I’m with someone, as opposed to when I’m alone.
What’s stopping you?