My travel schedule has increased over the last few months, which always makes me more present to the surroundings in new environments. During this time, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. The first time I experienced it was in a small hotel lobby. I was waiting for an elevator, as was the stranger standing just behind me. It was taking forever, so I decided to take the stairs instead. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the man waiting had also opted to do the same.
About five paces ahead of him, I already had scoped out his general description—height, build, approximate age, facial hair, clothes. Sorry, guys, it’s an automatic response ingrained early on just in case you decide to assault us and we need to describe you to the police. I’m heading to the third floor at my normal pace, looking for evidence of any security cameras and monitoring his footsteps. It’s then I realize that he’s actually slowing down a bit to maintain almost a staircase of distance between us. He also starts announcing his presence by joking about the slow elevator in a light, non-threatening tone. “I saw you head toward the stairs and decided to steal your idea! I need the exercise!.” Weird.
A few weeks later in another city, a similar thing happens. This time a complete stranger and I are walking off an elevator into the parking garage. It’s late at night, the parking garage is relatively empty, and we’re heading in essentially the same direction. He doesn’t say anything, but keeps a good three feet in front and just off to the side of me. Hands out of his pockets and plenty of distance between us.
After these two incidents, I started noticing similar behavior in my home city. I described it to a friend of mine and she jokingly referenced the ‘hey, bear’ approach used in outback hiking. If you encounter a bear, make yourself look big and speak in a calm but confident voice. Back away slowly and keep distance, because you don’t know how it will react.
These men were using this approach not because they believed I was a threat; because they believed I would likely view them as one and wanted to mitigate that response. Raising your arms up and shouting “I’m not a threat” is creepy; keeping more distance than is needed and avoiding putting yourself between her and the door, not creepy.
I started calling this behavior “Personal Space +”, kind of like an upgraded airline class. It’s conspicuously creating personal space for women and behaving in non-threatening, non-creepy ways.
Yes, there is the risk of physical harm for everyone; not just women. But walking through the world as a female presents a higher degree of risk and often causes us to put men in the default category of “potential threat”. There is an inherent power imbalance in society that contributes to this different framework for women.
I liken this power imbalance of personal safety to men being “catcalled”. When women are catcalled or similarly harassed by strangers, we immediately start investing thought and energy into developing exit strategies. How far would we have to run before getting to a public space? Who else around here might help me? What do I have on me that could be used as a weapon? How do I negotiate my safe extraction from this situation?
Have you tried to catcall a man? I’ve witnessed the phenomenon, and the responses are what I like to call “unsettled confusion” from each of the men. They don’t know what to do with it. Is it a joke? Is she crazy? Am I on a very special episode of “What Would You Do”?
What I haven’t seen is fear. Or abject terror. Or the sense that they were afraid of being raped or killed by the young woman making lewd suggestions at them on the street. Or any indication that, from the time puberty hit, this had happened to them more times than they can remember.
So, when I see men who are demonstrating Personal Space +, I appreciate it. Not because I need you to fall over yourself to make me comfortable, but because I need you to understand that in many situations your presence is going to be perceived and evaluated as a potential threat by women.
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