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Scowling Makes It Easier For Me To Be A Woman In Public

It's my first line of defence against men who feel entitled to my time and body.

One man followed me home. Another repeatedly harassed me over text for not going out for a drink with him. Another took my hand and attempted to kiss me on a subway platform — without even speaking to me. And who could forget the guy who spoke vaguely of his “Mafia connections” as he drove me home on our first (and final) date?

These are only the most mild examples of men I’ve encountered randomly on the streets of Toronto, and why I find that I am constantly in fight mode when I’m approached by a guy in public.

I wasn’t always like this. When I first moved to the city, I had stars in my eyes. I grew up in a small-ish city, a captivating, seaside paradise known as “Halifax.” It had a reputation for being the friendliest major city east of Toronto, and it was renowned in the Big Smoke to be full of sweet, innocent, desirable young ladies.

My courteous, mariner upbringing had some problematic side effects. I was too friendly, apparently. Whenever I was approached by a man, I would respond with a smile and become engaged in a long-winded conversation that could sometimes take me to hazardous, and even stalker-filled, territories. But it was how I was raised to be, and I didn’t consider that there was another way to react.

In retrospect, I was walking around with a target I had painted on my own back. Not every man who approached me was like the ones I describe above, but I had enough negative experiences that I soon realized my smile was seen as an invitation, a subtle — but definite — green light for leers, innuendos and lewd attention that constitute some people’s idea of “flattery.”

“These are grim reminders that women are at risk regardless of whether we ignore our attackers or fight back.”

As much as I hated the necessity, I slowly stopped being pleasant to strangers — especially to men. If a man motions for me to remove my headphones, I march past him with the discipline of a military officer. If I do engage verbally, it’s a curt explanation as to why I can’t stop to “just talk.” My once-sunny smile from the Maritimes has subsided into a perpetual scowl that acts as my first line of defence.

Can you really blame me? Can you really blame any woman for her hesitancy? Even if a man’s intentions are pure, why would most women risk the possibility of being caught in a situation that is at the very least awkward, and at the very most dangerous?

The ideas that a woman should “smile” and be attractive for men, and that friendliness or politeness are an invitation, can lead to harassment, stalking and, in some cases, violence. In one of the more horrific stories of the past year, a man shot a 10-month-old baby in the head after the mother rejected his advances at a party. A Toronto woman was even spat on for rejecting a man who was harassing her on the street. These are grim reminders that women are at risk regardless of whether we ignore our attackers or fight back, and that it’s constantly left to us to find new ways to manage the threat of escalation.

Consequently, this is why my reaction to some men’s entitlement to my time and company has not just been to let go of my smile, but to actively reverse it. When I feel as though a man is expecting me to be cheerful for his own pleasure, or to enhance his sexual attraction to me, I obliterate that attraction once and for all by scowling, glaring and doing everything in my power to make sure that man leaves me in peace.

So, is this coldness I cultivated a positive and necessary development, or is it a problematic transgression in the ever-widening gender gap? It’s hard to say.

I admit that I’ve been embarrassingly curt to some men who have approached me, only to find out that they only wanted directions on the subway. I feel sorry for these unsuspecting casualties who walked into my crosshairs. The ugly truth is that I was unpleasant to them because I was afraid.

I have denied myself the possibility of forming unexpected human connections, which I used to really enjoy. I love it when a stranger on the street can suddenly become your best friend, all because of a simple conversation. I do miss those possibilities, but sadly, the society we now live in doesn’t seem to allow for them any longer.

Communication is a roll of the dice these days, especially between genders. It’s not easy to be a man in the approach, and it’s not easy to be a woman on the receiving end. Intention is in perspective, and in a lot of cases, reading true intention is not something that can be done in a word or a glance. The solutions are never simple: sometimes, it takes entire decades to discover them. Nevertheless, a structure of value and respect may be key to creating a world where a woman doesn’t have to give every man who approaches her the stink-eye.

I hope one day that I can return to having a sunny disposition toward strangers. Even though I’m off the market, I find joy in the simple pleasure of connecting with another human being, if only for a moment. So if you do meet me in the street, forgive me if my hackles are up. When men regard women with respect and we don’t have to feel afraid, I promise that I’ll take you out for a beer.

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