Saturday, July 26, 2008

women, self defence, and male allies

From: Foxomally

I have a question. Recently I re-read Always and the Atlanta-chapters got me thinking about something.

Some time ago I was sitting on a bench on a railway station reading a book. On the bench next to me was a girl (in her early twenties I guess), talking on the phone. This was during the day (around 3 o'clock) on a fairly major station. After a while some guy walked past her, stopped, greeted her happily and hugged her. At first I assumed they knew each other, but it was soon clear she didn't know him, and he was drunk. The guy kept talking to her, wouldn't she like to come with him and how pretty she was, and so on. The girl kept refuting him, saying "I can't talk now, I'm on the phone." After a few minutes he walked on.

My question is about handling this. In this case I basically did nothing. I stopped reading my book and looked their way so she could know I wasn't completely ignoring her/them if things got out out hand. I however didn't intervene because I thought she was handling things fine: There wasn't any bodily contact after the first hug (which I couldn't have stopped anyway) and I thought that my intervening would have potentially escalated the situation, because it wouldn't have been her disinterest that stopped him from his "dream date" or whatever he's after, it would have been me (for the record, I'm a 30 year old male, but not the type that spends days in the gym, so I think he would probably think being able to "handle" me).

I think it's stupid to assume she needed help just because she's a girl, but on the other hand, perhaps I was just being a coward and afraid to put myself on the line. What's your take on this? Should I have done more? If so, what/how?

It sounds as though your instincts were good.

I've been in a situation roughly analagous to that of the woman you describe. I was in a pub with five men--fellow karate students; we'd just got out of class at the community centre next door--and was half drowsing in that post-endorphin state of relaxation when this drunk plopped himself on the bench next to me and started chatting. I blinked. (It takes a few seconds to figure out any unexpected situation.) After a moment--five seconds?--I said, Hey, go away, but without any edge because, you know, he was just an amiable (if rude) drunk. He kept talking. I said, this time with some edge--drunks require especial clarity--I don't know you, get up and leave, right now. Then he blinked, processed, opened his mouth to protest, and I said loudly and clearly, Fuck off. He did.

I turned to find my fellow students (and instructor, Ian) still blinking (the whole thing took way less than a minute). Huh, my instructor said after a moment, I thought you knew him. Sorry I didn't jump in sooner. I said, No need, I was handling it. And I was, but deep down I think I was shocked and a bit miffed. It astonished me that even after I'd told the drunk, loudly, that I didn't know him, and to fuck off, the people around me assumed we did know each other. And, because of that, that he had a right to do whatever he felt like, against my express(ed) wishes. It's a lesson I won't forget: onlookers believe the body language of men. That's what they absorb initially. In our culture, there's a hierarchy and boys, whether we know them or not, even if they're drunk/intrusive/boorish, are higher up the ladder than girls.

Having said all that, of course, if Ian had jumped in, I would have been equally miffed: I was handling it, I didn't need help. (I was only 24, that's how my brain worked at that age. Nowadays of course I'll take any help I can get in just about any situation; I've come to terms with my fundamental laziness: get someone else to do the work.) So, in my case (let me stress, this very particular case), anyone observing and wondering whether to help was damned if s/he did and damned if s/he didn't.

But the situation of the woman you observed, and my situation, differed. I knew the karate students around me; she didn't know you. I was clear and straightforward with the man intruding on my space; she wasn't. She used her phone to hide behind: I'm busy, she said, and for a drunk the easy inference is, if I wasn't busy of course I'd talk to you; I like you; I don't mind your rude/drunken/boorish behaviour. That could mean two things: she was frightened, didn't know how to simply stand up for herself, or she was an idiot. Possibly both. How can an observer tell? What's an observer's responsibility, if any?

This is complicated. Like Aud, I'm a big believer in simply going with your first instinct. Only you know what that is, deep down. Only you know the right thing for you do/have done. Drunks are volatile. Some are docile. Some are like nitroglycerine. I think you have to be there to tell the difference.

You gave her an I'm here signal. You put down your book. I think you took all prudent precautions. You also offered her the courtesy of assuming she was an adult able to take care of herself. If you'd barged in, she might have been even more upset. (She might also have been profoundly grateful. No way to tell.)

In your position I might have done what you did: send the I'm here and ready if you need me signal. I might also--and this depends very much on an in-person reading of the situation--have ambled over and said something like, "Wow, Judy, is that really you? How great to see you again! Do you fancy grabbing a coffee?" And then she could either say gratefully (yes, I dream about pretty girls being grateful) "Oh, yes! Let's go right now." Or she could say, "Jeez, what is it with creepy jerks in the railway station? You two are made for each other. I hope you'll be very happy but I'm on the fucking phone!"

I think a fine human being is cognizant of what is going on around them and is ready to help if it doesn't involve too much risk. But what is too much? I don't know. Everyone has to decide for themselves.

I'll tell one more story. Once, when I was about twenty (long, long before I learnt self-defence or studied any martial art), I went to the pub with my girlfriend. We'd had a very bad day. We were tired and feeling very vulnerable. The pub, usually reasonably queer friendly, had just changed management, and therefore clientele. It was full--and I mean full, the way only English pubs on a weekend night get--of men looking for a bit of aggravation. My gf and I got hassled the instant we walked in. I found us a seat. I went to the bar. More hassle. (Nowadays of course I'd just leave. Back then I thought, this is my pub, damn it. No one is going to intimidate me. Sigh.) But I wanted that beer. I pushed through the crowd at the bar, shouted my order, started to get some serious hassle. I turned...and saw a couple of layers of people back, a biker I knew, Felix. Now, Felix was a serious biker, the kind who broke people's legs, and carried a shotgun, etc. But we liked each other. We'd made an amazing high-pressure bong one afternoon from a fire extinguisher (and other, ah, adventures). So I strolled over to Felix, smile, pointed to the two apes beside me and said, 'Felix, would you kindly explain to this gentlemen how rude they're being?' Bless Felix, he just looked them up and down, looked back at me, and said, 'I don't know why you're bothering me. You could take these clowns with one hand tied behind your back'.

So every situation is different. Go with your gut. If everyone lives, it's a good decision.