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The other night I was sitting with one of my best friends outside a restaurant we had just eaten in. It was a beautiful night, and we were happily stuffed with pizza and enjoying one those conversations. You know the ones where you walk away feeling a little bit more understood in this crazy world and a whole lot closer to your BFF? The kind where you say to yourself “I swear this chick is my soul sister.”
It would have been a perfect summer night moment except for one little thing — the bro quietly heckling us, just close enough so we could hear him but far enough away that it would seem a bit irrational to call him out. I was trying to ignore his cat calls while focusing on what my friend was telling me, when my friend turned toward him, looked him square in the eye, and sternly said, “Excuse me. I am trying to have a conversation and you are rudely interrupting. Please go somewhere else.”
Of course, he muttered something about her being crazy and waddled off. She then turned back toward me as if she’d done something as mundane as scratching an itch on her nose or tidying her ponytail. “You were saying…?” she said.
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As I drove home that night, I couldn’t get that moment of bravery and bravado out of my head. I could never do that, I thought to myself. And then, I was hit with the realization that of course I could do it — I just hadn’t.
What are you so afraid of? Why are you so afraid to say no to men? As a ride-or-die feminist, this wasn’t an easy question to ask myself, but it was too late. The question would not leave me alone.
As I fell asleep that night, I thought back to when I was 18. I remember boarding an airplane, walking down the aisle searching for a quiet seat where I could escape into my book without any interruptions. That’s when a 50-year-old bald man spotted me. “Sit here,” he said and patted the seat next to him.
I knew instantly that I would rather spend the whole flight in the bathroom (at least I could read in peace in there), but my body was already moving. I felt uncomfortable. But I didn’t know what to do. I sat down and had to endure nodding and mhmm-ing as I listened to him prattle on during the flight. He asked for my number as we were de-boarding. I gave it to him, praying it would end the interaction more quickly if I did. Could he not read my body language? Could he not see how uncomfortable I was? Wasn’t that part of his job as Human Being? To make sure he wasn’t making someone half his size uncomfortable? I would ask myself these same questions again and again.
In fact, I asked those questions just a few months ago.
I was power-walking across the street to pick up a sandwhich before a meeting when a man spotted me from the other side. “You’re not from here, are you?” he asked, blocking me from the sidewalk. “Nope. Haha. How did you know?” I asked, trying to simply be hospitable. Once again, I’m sure my face looked panicked and my body language was cold, yet he kept asking me a million questions. And I stood there answering every one with one-word blips. Why didn’t I just say: “excuse me, but I’m late. Can you move?” I kept urging myself. Once again, he asked me for my number, and I gave it to him, eager to speed up my escape.
“Why didn’t you give him a fake number?” my boyfriend asked when I told him about the situation. “I was too scared he’d know it was fake,” I said.
And there it is. I’m too scared. I’m too scared I’ll be labeled a b*tch. I’m too scared of the inevitable uncomfortableness for one moment. I’m too scared he might turn his anger toward me.
I then think back to my 10th grade self-defense class. It’s my final exam, and I replay the words our teacher has been telling us over and over. “Two things, girl:, 99 percent of the time your gut feeling is right. And 99 percent of the time women let their attacker know they’re a good target because they’re afraid of not being perceived as ‘nice.'”
It’s my turn for the verbal part of the exam and I am given the following scenario: I’m alone in a parking lot. A man follows closely behind me. My gut says this ain’t good.
“Do you have the time?” the man (who is an actor for the class) asks.
“I’m sorry, no I don’t,” I say.
“Oh come on! You have a watch on!” he says.
“I said no,” I say sternly. He stops following me. I got an A in the class, but what was more rewarding was the utter feeling of freedom — the freedom you feel when there is a lack of fear.
And sure, my life isn’t a self-defensive class, but I can tell you one thing, I’m tired of not feeling free. The next time I feel trapped, I am making a promise to myself (and to anyone reading this) that it will be as easy as this: “I said no.”