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Sex and Gender
2005 First Web Papers
On Serendip

"Ignore It!"

Sarah Halter

It was a hot July day, and so my girlfriend and I decided to take the Septa home instead of walking. We got to the station early, and there was only one other young woman waiting for the train. Across the tracks, a few people were standing around.

We had been at the stop for barely a minute when a tall young male called from across the tracks, "Do you two like each other?" It took me a second to realize he was talking to my girlfriend and me, so I was caught off-guard Philadelphia's not exactly a friendly town, despite the name and I answered, "Um, yes?" before I even thought about whether or not I should talk to the man. He was young and had a friendly face, and his voice held no maliciousness. But his next question floored me:

"Will you two, like, kiss?"

My girlfriend snapped, "No," and turned away. Blinking, I answered in a voice that I hoped was silky with coldness, "No, thank you," and I turned, too.

In the three years I had been with my girlfriend, something like this had never happened to us. I had been honked at once or twice in the street, and one time a man yelled, "Slut!" out a car window at me, but this stranger's question was new. It surprised me partially because the young man didn't look particularly slimy or creepy he didn't fit the mold of a lecherous jerk. He had a bright, engaging face, he asked his questions in a friendly voice, and even as he continued to call to us for the next few minutes, he never lost that friendly smile.

The girl who had been at the station when we arrived turned to us then. "Ignore him," she said. "He was bothering me before." And a few minutes later, when another girl arrived at the station, the man stared to call out to her again in that friendly tone "Hey, girl with the red hair!" Over the next few minutes, we women slowly moved into the glass station house, and soon we were all standing in a tight clump. The man still shouted from time to time, but he made no motion to cross the tracks. I was glad when the train finally arrived for us.

It wasn't until later that night that I began to think about the situation in earnest. The incident had happened at four o'clock in the afternoon in an open station located near an upper-middle-class shopping area - you can see why I hadn't been scared in the least. But how we women had reacted bothered me. Here we had been, four strong, capable women, but when the man had started calling to us, all of us had turned away and ignored him. Not one of us had told him to stop or tried to explain to him that he was being rude.

The incident reminded me of the times in elementary school when a boy would bother me and I'd ignore him because it was "the mature thing to do," or so my elders had taught me. I didn't entirely regret our actions at the station undoubtedly we acted like adults but I did regret that not one of us had tried to talk to the man. And I hated the powerlessness I had felt the feeling that I had no other option but to turn away. I thought to myself that if I been a man, I would have shouted back but then again, if I were a man, I wouldn't have been in that situation in the first place, right?

Thorne says in "Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School," "Power is central to the social relations of gender" (159). I don't doubt that the stranger had the power at the station. Because of his aggressive approach calling to all of us multiple times and because of the sexual manner of his teasing, I feel I can accurately say he was threatening us. Like I had been taught in elementary school, I ignored these threats. But later that night, I began to wonder when I had first learned to ignore noisy boys. When did I first stop fighting for my rights, and start accepting that turning away silently was the only way to combat a threat?

My first memory of a boy provoking me verbally is from kindergarten. I used to ride the bus home from school. One boy on this bus, who I will call Shawn, liked to tease me. He'd tell jokes he called "eyeball jokes," meant to disgust and appall. He chose me as a target probably because at the end of the bus ride we were the last two students remaining. He took particular pleasure in teasing me because I didn't like a new, popular TV show, "The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Thorne says, "Invasion, a final type of border work, also takes asymmetric form; boys invade girls' groups and activities much more often than the reverse" (76). The man at the Septa stop certainly invaded my space, as did Shawn every day of the bus. I complained to my mom about Shawn daily, and finally she suggested that I cross my eyes at him. "It'll surprise him," she said, "and then he'll not know what to do." I don't remember what I had wanted to do to Shawn maybe I had wanted to hit him or get my mom to complain to a teacher. But Mom convinced me to cross my eyes at him instead, and then to ignore his further bullying. The next time Shawn teased me, he was probably confused when I made a face at him, but he certainly didn't stop picking on me. It wasn't until I watched an episode of the "Ninja Turtles" and decided I liked the show that Shawn and I became friends. Our friendship bloomed over the course of thirty seconds, like friendships do when you're five. Because I had shown myself to be worthy of his attention I liked a "male" show like "Ninja Turtles" I was no longer victim to his scorn. I even eventually learned to tell my own eyeball jokes.

Thorne says in her essay, "There is much to be gained by seeing children not as the next generation's Adults, but as social actors in a range of institutions" (3). This statement rings especially true if we look at Shawn's actions, and then at the actions of the stranger. Shawn teased me even when I ignored him, and he tried to make me feel like a lesser person, so his actions were much like the stranger's, just Shawn was five and the stranger was in his twenties.

Thorne says later in her essay, "Some boys more or less specialize in invading girls, coming back again and again to disrupt" (76), and Shawn was definitely one of these boys. I never fought back against him, and my only attempt to get him to leave me alone was crossing my eyes at him. My mother, most likely, had suggested the eye trick so she could prevent a potential fist fight between us kids, but what if I had been more assertive, told Shawn that he was being a jerk, or told him to get lost. Rather than ignoring him, if I had fought back, would he have left me alone? He respected me after I started to like a "male" show, so what if I had decided to approach Shawn on his own terms? Perhaps a display of male aggression would have helped me. But I can only comment on what I did do: I ignored him and hoped he would stop.

This method of ignoring a threat must have been further engrained in me as I grew, because my next memory of verbal abuse from a boy again has me ignoring the threat instead of confronting it. By seventh grade, I was at a private school. I was the quiet and studious girl and by no means a "loser;" however, popularity eluded me because of my shyness. A new boy, who I will call Eric, decided that he didn't like me. To this day, I don't know why Eric decided to pick on me. He was a small boy, fairly popular, and I had never spoken to him before he first started saying mean things to me in the hallway. I got along with his friends. But everyday Eric would call threats to me. I don't remember much of what he said, but I remember one incident in which I walked past him in the seventh grade locker room, and he said, "Oh, no, it's Sarah." I remember quite clearly the look of pure disgust on his face.

I complained to my mom about Eric, and I remember that she told me to ignore him. I did, and eventually he left me alone, but only after about six months. He stopped teasing me as suddenly and mysteriously as he began.

While I have had my share of fights with girls, I've never experienced such outright continual, verbal attacks as with these three males. All three of them invaded my space with no warning or provocation from me. Thorne makes one statement, a quotation from another gender theorist, that I think resonates with all three of my memories: "We do gender" (5), Thorne says. The actions of these boys are surely examples of them "doing" gender; they choose to pick on a girl, an easy target, and I ignored them, as I had been taught girls should.

Thorne goes on to say, "The harasser, nearly always male, often claims that verbal and physical intrusion into the target's personal space are 'all in fun,' while the target, usually female, sees it as unwanted and even coercive attention" (81). When I ignored Shawn, I was ignoring a low level threat he was just a childish tease. He probably thought he was just having fun, but I came home from the bus ride cranky and tired. The threat increased with Eric: he never made any attempt to approach me physically, but he was crueler than Shawn, and I was scared of him.

Now twenty-two, the idea of "ignoring it" is so deeply entrenched in me that I don't even think about it; the stranger at the Septa stop harassed me, and I simply turned my back on him, as I always have. But the male threat has become steadily greater over the years. While Shawn and Eric were harmless, the man at the Septa stop shouted comments that were overtly sexual and, frankly, frightening. At one point in her essay, Thorne says, "Aggression and sex are the dangerous desires in school, as elsewhere in the world, and these are the messages that often lurk within the lightened frames of play and humor that surround episodes of border work" (79). There may have been prepubescent aggression and sexual themes lurking under the surface with Shawn and Eric, but the stranger's misogynistic and vulgar shouts were more obviously aggressive and sexual.

I'm not sure where these thoughts leave me. I can hardly speak for all women, and I'm sure many have approached their male bullies and empowered themselves by doing so. All I can do is consider the lesson I was taught ("Ignore it!") and think about where this lesson leaves me. I feel that I am a strong and capable woman, and yet when the Septa stranger threatened me, I did not raise my voice in protest. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened differently that day in July had I learned a different lesson when I was younger.


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