When You’re a Woman, Personal Space Doesn’t Exist

As a woman, I am again and again reminded that I’m not allowed the luxury of personal space. Everything is public domain.

I am 16 years old, standing among a crowd of outdoor concertgoers, my boyfriend at the time by my side. Someone gropes me and I remember the shock that courses through my body. I look around and have no clue who it was. My boyfriend wonders what is wrong and I don’t remember if I told him. If I did, I downplayed it. I don’t know why.

I’m in college and I go to a house party on what I thought was a group date. The guys are watching porn and evaluating the women. I wish I was somewhere else. Anywhere else.

I am pregnant and my body is the main focus of conversation at my job, in the grocery store, at the mall. Wherever I go, it’s all anyone sees. A male co-worker asks me if I’m looking forward to “time off,” and if I’m going to take the maximum allowed. I explain I don’t consider caring for a newborn a vacation and that since I’m the breadwinner, no, I will not.

I walk through the mall, newborn in stroller. An older woman comes up and demands to touch my baby. I rush away from her, full Mama Bear instincts on high alert.

A random stranger approaches to tell me, “Your daughter is beautiful, are you going to have more?” “One and done!” I say, irritated that my fertility plans are up for discussion and angry at myself for even answering.

When you’re a woman, anything can be a talking point, particularly your body. And this is true when it comes to not just interactions with men, but other women too. Not just by strangers in the grocery store or acquaintances at your office, but by politicians thousands of miles away or family and friends in your own community.

I put the concept of “personal boundaries in public spaces” up for discussion on my Facebook page and got a range of responses from my female friends. This is admittedly a completely unscientific sampling, but I did find the results interesting. The overall feeling from the women who commented was summarized succinctly by Erin, from South Carolina, who said: “I don’t think there is any woman out there who has been spared these experiences.”

When you’re a woman, there are levels to the crossing of your personal boundaries. There is the offensive, the uncomfortable, and the dangerous. Does this interaction offend me? Make me uncomfortable? Or do I think I may be in danger? Sometimes what can start as offensive can spiral into the dangerous very quickly. Women are always on guard; sexual assault is an epidemic in this country (and beyond). We know how to hold our keys and cell phones. We know how to diffuse an angry man in a bar or club. We know the safest way to pump gas or walk to our cars late at night. We know we shouldn’t go running with both our earbuds blasting. We’ve all watched Law & Order: SVU. This doesn’t mean we won’t be victims, it just means we’ve learned to live our lives aware of how easily we could become one.

My friend Amy told me how a man demanded she smile, and then reached out to grab her hand, “I kept walking until I had extricated myself from his grip, smiling the whole time to try to keep him calm . . . I hate that my attempt to keep the situation from getting more dangerous was to smile, thus letting him think it was okay!”

These experiences start much too young. I was 14-years-old when a twenty-something guy told me that, “if you were old enough, I’d f*** you.” I guess I should be happy he understood the concept of statutory rape, although he certainly didn’t understand sexual harassment. Bethany from Minnesota said, “I think one thing that is telling about our culture is the fact that men of all ages stare at, and feel the right to, sexualize girls and women of all ages. I can tell you that it was very disturbing to be a teenager and see men who were my dad’s age looking me up and down.”

Josie mentions that as a freshman in college, “A guy came up behind me, started dancing on me, and then BIT MY SHOULDER—before I even got to see his face!” But her friend had an even more horrifying experience that same night, “She had been dancing with a guy for a while, I was nearby, and all of a sudden she started flailing around for me…And she yelled at the top of her lungs, “He took out his f***** penis on the fucking dance floor!”

Christie was groped while aboard public transportation. Celeste was followed when she exited her train. There have been countless reports of sexual harassment on various forms of public transport across the country, so much so that hotlines are being established to report it.

Erin shared her experience as a teenager taking the D.C. Metro, “I have several memories of being approached by men who would sit down next to me and try to talk to me and get personal information out of me…Then it stopped happening as I got older. These guys were clearly not interested in a woman in her 20s.” Several women concurred that as they got older, into their late-20’s and 30’s, that type of blatant sexual attention slowed or stopped. That has been my experience as well. Is it because we are less conventionally pretty as we age or do we radiate a “leave me the eff alone” attitude now? Regardless, age doesn’t make them, or me, immune from boundary crossing.

Boundary crossing can come from the oddest sources too; like Alicia’s dentist, who used to pet her hair until she demanded he stop. Or there’s Kristen from Boston, who regularly is questioned about whether she is having more kids. Jeanette had a man ask if he could touch her pregnant belly, and then she asked if she could touch his. I want to give her a standing ovation. #hero

It can come from loved ones. In my early 20s, I was in a fight with an ex-boyfriend and I tried to walk home. He picked me up off the ground (I am only five feet tall) and put me in his truck. Granted, I was being dramatic, but DO NOT PICK ME UP. Ever since I was a teenager (especially when I was thinner, back in the day), boys and men felt it was within their right to literally pick me up off the ground. I get more attention than I want for being small, but sometimes it makes me invisible too. My fellow short friend, Nicole, told me about her adventures on Chicago’s public transportation: “It actually seems like they don’t see you…I’ve had people rest their bags on my shoulders whether they realize it or not.”

At work, the crossing of boundaries can have negative effects beyond just that one interaction. It can affect your future career prospects. Celeste noticed that male vendors always go in for a hug after business interactions, but that her female vendors never do. This puts her in the uncomfortable position of having to sacrifice her personal comfort in order to make a business dealing less awkward. Francesca works at a restaurant and shared her recent experience with two male customers: “I said, “Is there anything else I can get for you right now?” The men finally looked up me and one said, ‘No we are fine, but you can smile at us more, we are regulars here.’…I turned red with anger in the face, and held my tongue and walked away because dammit, I am a mother and a 32-year-old woman and it is about time I stopped being asked to smile for some goddamn man.”

In the case of Lauren, pregnancy at work swiftly became a nightmare. She told me, “One woman in particular constantly touched my stomach every time she saw me . . . Your vulnerable growing child is mere inches away from a stranger’s (or almost stranger’s) hand . . . It made me really uncomfortable. That was my first dose of ‘Mama Bear’ instinct.” It’s not simply an issue of uninvited attention from men, but from women too. Tiffany tells me how she has what coworkers so nicely refer to as, “Resting B**** Face.” The requests to smile don’t strictly come from male colleagues, she says: “Don’t forget to include the number of times we women criticize each other for looking crabby. I’m told by other women constantly to smile. Sweetheart, I’m a hockey mom and have a high stressed job. I’m not crabby, I’m trying solve everyone’s problem while trying to remember if I took a shower in the last 48 hours.”

At a North Dakota junior high, a presentation was recently given on personal boundaries by University of North Dakota graduate students, Jenna DeSchmidt and Morgan Devine. It seems like this is something women of any age could use a refresher on. We may rationally know these things, but to practice them is something else entirely. The graduate students told the eighth-graders, “”You have a right to set a boundary . . . It’s really that self-awareness, knowing what you like and don’t like.”

Another very simple statement from the presentation stood out to me, “There’s no need to debate with somebody. Once you set your boundary, there’s no reason to defend yourself.” I think as women, we constantly feel we must justify or qualify our opinions. And we shouldn’t.

Fighting back against boundary crossing can come at a cost. It may be a hit to your ego, your personal standards, your safety or your sanity. While men may experience this feeling from time to time, I do not believe it’s something they live with every day. For my part, I’m going to be cognizant in the ways I can work on supporting fellow women, calling out those who purposely or unintentionally cross boundaries, and teach my daughter to do the same.

Photo Credit: “No Trespassing,” unaltered photo, by Michael Dorausch (michaeldorausch.com). Licensed via a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution/Sharealike License. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)