Don’t assume every space belongs to you. Period.
Lazy Sundays, rainy Sundays, practically any Sunday—for some reason, this is when I always have the idea to go get lost in a bookstore. Wandering through a bookstore, inching along the rows and shelves of books, soothes my mind.
Recently, while meandering through a bookstore, I remembered an author I had been meaning to look for. I headed to the alphabetical section—the R’s—only to come upon somebody standing exactly at the column of shelves I wanted to look over.
The somebody was a woman—a detail that will be key in a moment.
I wasn’t in a hurry, and didn’t want to interrupt a stranger merely taking her time, so I decided to browse elsewhere and return to this area later. Also, since it was a cramped bookstore, asking her if I could squeeze in would’ve meant taking up her personal space, and I didn’t want to make her feel unsettled.
While I was off meandering some more, I recalled that I had been in the mood to read some poetry lately. After asking one of the bookstore employees where I might find the poetry section, I moseyed on into the direction I was guided.
Lo and behold, upon arriving at the poetry section—another cramped, dead-end nook—I came upon the same woman I just saw over at the “R” section.
If I was hesitant to crowd her before, I was adamant about not approaching her space this time. I bolted into a different direction, crossing my fingers that she didn’t see me. The last thing I wanted was to be That Creepy Dude following a woman around in public.
Now, some people—mostly men—might think I’m over-reacting with paranoia that I would mistakenly be seen as following this woman around in a store or trying to get too close to her. But here’s why they’d be wrong.
From the Santa Maria to subway cars, men have a well documented history of claiming space in excess, regardless of whether that space is unoccupied, shared, or even clearly claimed by someone else. Men seem to lack the natural awareness that other people need space, too, and that by taking up more space than they need, men are likely making someone else uncomfortable. That’s what we call privilege. I won’t get into how men came to possess this privilege. That fact is that it exists.
What I will get into, though, are the reasons why men should be more mindful about the space they take and more respectful of the space of others.
This bookstore woman had the random circumstance of being in public spaces I also wanted to occupy. There might have been nothing wrong with simply saying “excuse me” and asking for her to make room so that I could browse alongside her. There might have been nothing wrong with coincidentally ending up in the same space as her for a second time.
To have acted upon these opportunities might have been nothing to me, but for the woman in this situation, it is a gamble with her safety. When a stranger intrudes upon your personal space, it can feel violating and create an immense sense of vulnerability.
It’s easy to dismiss words like “excuse me” and “hello” as the epitome of innocent behavior, and objectively, they should be innocent. Our society, however, is far from objective. No event occurs in a vacuum and the meaning of every word and act changes from one context to the next.
The woman didn’t know that I would only be asking for permission to browse the same shelf. For all she knew, I could’ve been a creep trying to plan an accidental conversation with her. She didn’t know if she’d have to rebuke a male stranger’s advances, creating a potentially tense moment.
That a woman may experience anxiety by having to deny male advances is not outlandish. Earlier this year, this exact phenomenon was well publicized via Twitter—and in chilling detail—with the #NotJustHello hashtag, in which women shared personal experiences of being punished and threatened by men for not welcoming their “innocent” comments and actions.
For a woman, sometimes a mere “excuse me” from a man they don’t know could result in that same man aggressively shouting obscenities at her if she doesn’t respond the way he wants her to. Obviously, not all men do this, but some do, and it’s because of that unpredictability that women must assume that any man can suddenly turn aggressive should she not respond sufficiently flirty or nice enough for him.
In her 1993 book The War Against Women, Marilyn French sums up this concept: “As long as some men use physical force to subjugate females, all men need not. The knowledge that some men do suffices to threaten all women.”
A woman can never truly know which men will respectfully accept that she is not interested in them and which men will escalate the rejection with verbal and even physical violence.
Asking that a woman take one step to the side so as to allow a man she doesn’t know to peruse the same shelf as her in a crowded public space might sound like a far cry from a more aggressive harassment like cat-calling, but how could this woman ever be expected to discern the difference up front?
The history of men intruding on women’s space and safety has made it impossible to know how either scenario ends, thus flattening any gradient or nuance into a stark black and white issue. If the only two outcomes for a woman is to either ignore a man or to become entangled in an increasingly hostile situation, it doesn’t take a lot of guess work to know which one she might prefer.
Men are the original domestic terrorists because they’ve made every public space a potentially dangerous space for women.
To be clear, I’m not asking men to give women more space. Phrasing it in such a way would imply that space naturally belongs to a man and it is his to give. It’s not. Instead, just claim less space. It’s a small cultural micro-progression that can make the space men share with women slightly less hostile and questionable, which could make all the difference in the world for a woman’s peace of mind.
Drew Bowling writes about language, gender, and mental health, although other topics have been known to enter his orbit. When he’s not writing, he spends his time pretending to be a photographer. Follow his messy thought-trail on Twitter.