Where I work is just over a quarter mile from the bus stop that I ride everyday. I notice roughly the same people—a mother jogging with her baby in stroller, the man selling the local Street Pulse newspaper, the same hurried faces on their way to work as they pass the library and a Starbucks behind the bus shelter where I wait. It’s not uncommon to be smiled at or briefly talked to by these strangers—some more innocuous than others—but this Tuesday afternoon was different.
I was wearing my bulky winter coat, wrapped in a scarf, hat, and mittens. A man rushed into the bus shelter where I was sitting and spotted the only visible part of my body that could be considered remotely sexual about me that day.
“Can I tell you something?” he blurted out. “Those boots are beautiful. Do you know that you have some really stunning boots on right now?”
Taken aback by the peculiarity of his comment, I gazed up from my phone, looked at him and responded curtly, “Thanks.” That was the last time I looked at his face. He had red hair and wore glasses and a backpack.
“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I,” he said smirking and with a hint of titillation.
I waited just a few seconds. “Nope,” I replied tersely.
“Oh, I’d never forget a face like that. I know I’ve seen you before.”
I huddled over my phone while staring intently into whatever happened to be on the screen at the time. My hope that he would read my disregard and lose interest in me quickly dissipated in what happened next. He followed up with one of the most bewildering, most troubling, most invasive things ever said to me by a stranger in public: “I want to fornicate with you.” That’s right, fornicate.
I sat there with two options: I could object, defend myself, and risk an altercation that might escalate into something physically dangerous, or I could continue looking at my phone, crouching my body in an attempt to ignore him while appearing unfazed by his comments. I chose the latter option. He continued to tell another bus rider, a younger man who had just approached the shelter, how he wanted to fornicate with me and that “we’d make beautiful children.” The other rider was more generous than me—acknowledging and responding somewhat apathetically to his outlandish remarks. Just before he left, he told the other bus rider to take care and that he “respected” him because that man looked him in the eye, when “this woman wouldn’t.”
Sexual violence pervades the ubiquity of everyday experiences, and on this day, I encountered it in crass yet commonplace ways. When women choose to protect their bodies, they simultaneously confront the choice to silence themselves. In silencing myself, I protected my body; in silencing myself, I failed to challenge these sexually violent norms because, consequently, the risks for doing so are high.
Although the media has culled attention to the problem of sexual violence and the ways it manifests in various legal and institutional contexts, including on college campuses and in workplaces and civic spaces, sexual violence persists, tainting women’s most mundane social activities and movements. Such cultural norms discipline a woman’s body to act and move in ways geared toward protecting her in public. That is, the woman’s body is trained by a sexually violent society to move throughout public, private, social, academic, and professional spaces. Even places like a bus stop frequented daily.
Young women—young girls—quickly learn how a non-consensual exchange takes place between her body and others in public. The body becomes a topic of conversation, an invitation for unsolicited “compliments,” and most unsettling, a battleground for physical trespass. This is the unspoken education, the social conditioning women receive to stare at their cell phones or avert eye contact when merely moving in public.
The outside world perceives women’s bodies and imbues them with insecurities and unwanted shame. A woman’s body is quickly read and coded as sexual, risky, available, abnormal, fat, thin, disgusting, desired, and worst of all, not her own. Because of this, women are vigilant about their bodies in public, and we operate under persistent unease about and suspicion over the body in public: Who will touch it? Who will call it out? Who will claim it? And most egregious, who will violate it? To stave off undesirable answers to these questions, women then operate under the direction of don’ts: Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t wear “slutty” clothes. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t drink too much. Don’t ask for it…because it will be your fault.
A rape culture has rendered a woman’s body in a state of constant defense; it has disciplined a militant, confused, and even shameful relationship between women and their bodies. Female bodies sensuously communicate through protective movement to ward off potential spoken and physical violence. We crouch over, position headphones in our ears, avoid eye contact, stare blankly at cell phones, navigate alternative paths, cover our breasts, legs, necks, and feet, deciding whether or not to engage when called out in an effort to police our bodies in public. These are the silent narratives whispered to women’s bodies that disgust me but ones that I follow.
While sexual assault implies a legal category with judiciary responsibilities, sexual violence remains a cultural problem—our culturally inherited baggage that maintains a deep legacy of disbelief and blame. What happened at the bus stop is symptomatic of a larger problem concerning sexually violent norms; sexual violence has grown perniciously normative to the extent that it works to discipline women’s bodies. At a moment when society grapples over the legal and institutional responsibility to victims of rape, I ask us to consider, too, how movement reveals sensuous communication rhetorically inflected by a rape culture—communication that calls women to deflect the risk of violation through bodily movement.