A woman I know was 53 years old the last time she rejected a stranger’s advances, and it went badly. A man on the New York subway kept asking her out, complimenting her breasts and butt, though he used more vulgar terms. When she told him she wasn’t interested, he pivoted to yelling, “I’m going to f--- you up, you fat bitch,” until she asked the other passengers to take out their cellphones and document what was happening. This was just a few days ago.
Another woman I know was 15 the first time she rejected a stranger’s advances, and the rejection went badly. This was several years ago. She was walking the family dog in a New England suburb when a man in a car pulled up and smiled. When she didn’t smile back, he started to follow her, slowly, down the street. After a block she cut through a random backyard and ran home, 10 minutes of panic while her happy dog thought the whole thing was an adventure.
Last week, I kept reading essays about Mollie Tibbetts, the young woman killed in Iowa while out for a run. Her alleged attacker told police he started following her and that she got frightened by this and said she was going to call the police. That threat made him angry, he said, and then he blacked out and woke with her dead body in his car trunk.
I kept reading essays about what Mollie Tibbetts represents. Some commentators say she represents the need to build a border wall, and some say she represents the threat of toxic masculinity, and I’ve been feeling too useless to say anything, because I imagine that to her family, what Mollie represents is a person they loved who is never coming back.
But all this week, I couldn’t stop thinking about the things that have happened to the women I know. And the times they have carefully weighed the consequences of asking to be left alone.
A woman I know was in a bar with friends when a man asked if he could buy her a drink. She declined, and he angrily called her a “bitch.” She was alarmed, but she was also confused. Was she rude for rejecting him? Had she done something wrong?
A woman I know in New York once ignored a passerby’s order for her to “smile,” so he reached out and grabbed her crotch; she was 12. A woman I know in Maryland told a customer at the store where she worked that she had a fiance, but he still figured out her schedule and showed up repeatedly to harass her. A woman I know in Texas last week deflected a new acquaintance’s text message with an “LOL”; he then left her five enraged voicemails in a row telling her to “f--- off,” because he wasn’t laughing.
It could have been worse. These women kept saying it could have been worse. Online, you see stories: Caroline Nosal, 24, shot and killed by a co-worker after he was suspended when she complained he was sexually harassing her. Lakeeya Walker, 22 and pregnant, whose attacker choked and kicked her because she hadn’t thanked him after he held open the door.
Nothing that bad has happened yet to a woman I know, at least not that they’ve talked about.
A woman I’m close with once got on the bus after midnight for her night shift at work. After a few stops, a man her age got on, too. The bus was mostly empty but he chose the seat next to her and tried to strike up a conversation.
When she didn’t reciprocate, he said, “Hey, are you ignoring me?”
When she still didn’t answer, he grabbed her leg.
When she tried to stand up and move away, he yelled, “Hey, bitch, I’m talking to you,” and grabbed her again, this time violently.
She shook him loose, and the bus driver noticed what was happening, and made the bad man get off the bus, and as a thank-you, the woman baked the bus driver cookies the next day.
She later told me she was “amazed” that in a decade of taking public transportation, this was the worst thing that had happened. She expected something like it might happen again; it seemed a part of life.
Anyway, these are some things that happened to women I know. Or to my co-workers and relatives. Or to me.
And last week when we read about Mollie Tibbetts, a lot of us weren’t thinking about undocumented immigrants, or statistics, or policy changes. We were just thinking about the times we have been approached by strangers in everyday places, wondering if we could reject them politely and move on with our days or if this time we would end up in the trunk of a car.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.