Sunday, May 25, 2014

expectations of chivalry

Chivalry: The brave, honorable, and courteous character attributed to the ideal knight; disinterested bravery, honor, and courtesy; chivalrousness. --Oxford English Dictionary

A few weeks ago, I was riding the BART from Oakland to San Francisco. It was night, but not yet very late. I was with my sister and a friend, three women on our way home from a music show in a friend of a friend's living room. We were dressed nicely, but not extraordinarily. We were sober, tired, and probably talking about books or food. Across the aisle from us were four young men, well dressed, not boisterous. They were talking about apps and office politics.

Standing in the aisle, there was a crazy drunk.

The crazy drunk was muttering, occasionally shouting, and he smelled of drink, drink, drink. He sat down next to my friend and reached into my lap to grab my hands. He had filthy hair, filthy clothes, and his hands were so dirty that I could feel his palms sticking to my wrists. He said something and then he laughed. His eyes were very wet and very red. I thought about how unfortunate it was that I had crossed my legs with my bad knee on top. What if I kicked him and I was at a disadvantage because I have a leg that is slightly less confident in force? "Don't touch me," I said. He laughed and laughed. He was a cartoon lunatic, every now and then thrusting his chin or chest at one of us so we would clutch and wilt.

We didn't say anything because we were scared. We are physically capable women. I don't think any of us would hesitate to tell off an overeager man in a bar, to deflect a grope with a swat or a slap. But, when the harassment is both drunk and unstable, when you can't trust the efficacy of shame in returning  the situation to accepted boundaries, it seems safer to stay silent and hold still.

The four men across the aisle didn't say anything either. They looked at us out of the corner of their eyes and talked about bourbon and a co-worker's latest mistakes.

Eventually, the crazy drunk left us. He went to the other end of the car, slapped a man across the face, and started a fight. He had to be restrained by another man and pushed out of the train when we finally emerged from the tunnel that runs under the Bay.

People clapped for the man who restrained the crazy drunk. The four men across the aisle from us pointedly did not look. They talked about their plans for the weekend.

When my sister, friend, and I got off the train, we discovered that each of us was upset that the men across from us said nothing. We also discovered that each of us instantly felt guilty for feeling upset. We felt guilty for expecting a certain behavior, for expecting someone to rescue us from the situation. Why couldn't we do it ourselves? Aren't we strong? Aren't we adults? Why do we have the expectation that a person will intervene on our behalf, just because he is physically capable and a man?

We talked about how different a city is when you walk around it with a man from when you walk around it with another woman. We talked about how we have all been in situations where we were harassed, menaced, and scared by a man, but had the aggression immediately dissipate when another man leaned over and said, "are you bothering her?" Just that. "Are you bothering her?" We talked about how we have all been in similar situations where another woman asked the same thing and the harassment grew more belligerent, gleeful, unhinged. "How funny," says the man who harasses, gropes, or threatens us. "You're so angry. You look so pretty when you're angry." I have sat on a bus while a young man scraped a knife back and forth across the pole between us and told his friends that "girls like it when you have a knife, oh yeah, they think it's sexy," and I said nothing because I was scared.

It makes me feel both fussy and ridiculous to realize that I have expectations of chivalry from men. But, it makes me angry to know that, in certain situations, my desire to not be touched or threatened is not taken seriously until it is reinforced by a man. It makes me sad that experience has taught me that any upset I display has less effect than a man leaning over to say, "hey, man, are you bothering her?"