lifestyle

Every woman has a story that starts out like this one.

Every woman has a story that starts out like this one.

Recently when I was walking from the bus stop to my house, there was a very intoxicated middle-aged man up ahead yelling in a jovial manner at people as they walked past. It was just late enough that all the restaurants were closed, but there was still a lot of foot traffic along the streets, so I felt safe.

I already knew that he wouldn’t just yell at me as I passed. Because if you’re a young woman walking alone that’s an invitation for conversation, obviously.

Melissa Wellham.

I walk past as purposefully and swiftly as I can. Of course, the drunk man gets up and starts walking alongside me, talking at me. I smile grimly, and make it clear I don’t want to engage. During a lull in his rambling, I try to fall back, but he walks back to me. He starts asking me questions about myself, and I explain that I’m in a rush to get home and don’t really have time to talk. I pick up my pace, but he keeps up. I start looking for a break in traffic so I can cross the road. By this stage he seems to be a bit offended that I’m not answering any of his questions. “I just want to know your name, okay?”

I should say at this point that he was not especially threatening – I’m sure you all know the sort: congenial drunk man who will just not leave you the fuck alone – but I was getting quite distressed. It was close to the turn off of my street, and I did not want him following me any further.

A young guy walks past and I try to make eye contact, but he keeps his head down. The drunk man keeps asking me why I don’t want to talk to him – and to be completely honest I am now on the verge of angry-crying because in what fucking universe do I have to explain this?

“Because if you’re a young woman walking alone that’s an invitation for conversation, obviously.”

I had now told him repeatedly that I didn’t want to talk to him, as politely and firmly as I could manage (while being on the verge of tears). I had stopped walking and was waiting at the side of the road for a break in traffic. My plan was to head back up the street to a nearby bar. I was still frightened.

And then, a guy jogs down the street towards us? “Hi, it’s Jessica right?” I mumble something. He introduces himself to the drunk man, takes over the conversation, is saying how surprised he is to run into me. The drunk man is not an idiot: “I just wanted to ask her name, okay? I wasn’t doing anything.” The other guy: “Yeah, well, Jessica’s just on her way home.

Eventually the drunk man gets bored and wanders off, and my new companion crosses the street with me. I’m so relieved I’m shaking. “I’m sure he was harmless, but thank you. He wasn’t doing anything, and I’m over-reacting, but thank you, really.”

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Even as I say these things, I know that it should be a given that women don’t want to be harassed by anyone while they’re walking home. I know it should be obvious why. But the desire to justify myself, after years of similar behaviour – “I just want to know your name, okay? What’s the big deal?” – is hard to shake.

““I just want to know your name, okay? What’s the big deal?” – is hard to shake.”

The new guy explains that he was driving past and saw the drunk man talking to me – and also saw that I was visibly distressed – so he pulled over further up the street to walk back down. Even as he talks to me, I am painfully aware of the fact that he is also a stranger.

I am standing there feeling incredibly grateful that he has stopped to make sure I am okay; at the same time grateful that he is staying a few metres away from me, hands non-threateningly placed in his pockets. He chats to me for another minute – to be honest I’m only half-listening, my mind still racing, my body still gearing up to run – and then I keep walking home.

Later, I asked myself what else I could have done. Maybe I shouldn’t have grimly smiled at the drunk man when he first started talking to me? Then again, I’ve been in situations where ignoring a man like that only makes them more aggressive. Maybe I should have been more forceful in rejecting his attempts to make conversation? But that could’ve had the same effect. Maybe I shouldn’t be walking alone, along a busy street at night? What’s my cut off: 8pm, 9pm, 10pm? I’ve been harassed walking along the street after work at 5.45pm.

Of course, there’s no trick for keeping yourself safe. Women can be attacked no matter where they are, what time it is, or how they react. Until society’s attitudes towards women begin to change, we all just keep doing the best we fucking can. And feeling grateful when other people are looking out for us, too.

Moral of the story: if you ever see a situation where it looks like a woman is being harassed, and she looks uncomfortable or upset, it might seem impossibly awkward to intervene and find out if she’s okay – but it can be done.

Maybe just pretend her name is Jessica.

Also: thank you, stranger.

Melissa Wellham works in social media by day, and writes by night. She blogs very sporadically at The Honeybee and tweets very frequently at @melissawellham.

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