Last night, as we took the train back from a friend’s birthday outing, a young man got on the train who instantly put me on alert. For a while, I tried to figure out what it was – his oddly clenched jaw, the sly look of his narrowed eyes (or were those just his eyes?), the constant readjusting of his over-large sweatpants, standing too close to others on a car that was only semi-crowded? I decided he was probably a pickpocket, and decided to keep my eye on him.

At one point, I lost track of him in the larger shuffle at 42nd street. I eventually saw him again, sitting across the car from me with one hand on his knee and the other on the seat near his hip, almost underneath a sleeping woman’s behind. Then I knew I was right to be on guard, but he wasn’t a pickpocket: he was a creep.

As I watched him slowly move his hand further over and her attempts to shrink away after his touch woke her, I got angrier and angrier. How come nobody else sees this? What is wrong with this guy?! I wanted so badly to say something and start a fight, and 10 years ago, I probably would have. Instead, I confirmed with my husband what was happening, and decided that it was the girl who was worth interacting with, not the guy.

She looked exhausted, like the way you might look after a 12 hour shift, and horrified. So I got up and gave her my seat, between my husband and another woman. When we got off the train a few stops later, I asked another girl on the train to take my husband’s seat. The relief in the “thank you” as we left almost made me cry.

As someone who lived in Manhattan as a kid, spent 2 months every year for 12 years after that back in Manhattan, and now lives in the NYC metro again, I have good urban instincts. They’re not all instincts though; it’s gut feelings as amplified by small things you’ve learned to notice through experiencing them over and over. When women talk about feeling “creeped out”, especially by an individual, we are frequently challenged to provide some kind of definitive proof. Even more than that one guy pissed me off, this enrages me. What is proof in these cases – waiting to take a picture of a guy after he’s managed to get his hand up somebody’s skirt instead of doing something about it before it gets to that point? What a horrific thing to believe in needing.

I had an instinct and the chance to act on it in a small and safe way when all signs pointed to it being correct, so I took it. I hope that woman made it home safely. Since creeps aren’t going away, and their behavior frequently excused (somebody nearby finally noticed and said that the guy must have been high, like that makes it okay), I also hope that we can support erring on the side of caution, especially when it costs us so little to do so. Trust instincts that come from a lifetime of experience. Please.

4 responses to “Instinct”

  1. I guess everybody is aware of this. I thought I was aware of this before. But now I live with a girl (not my girlfriend) and her stories are scary.

    She told me she feels “creeped out” too around these people when in the metro [among other places] : offensive remarks, obscene gestures, sexual harassment, … on a daily basis.

    Freakin me out…

    The feeling you describe could be related to survival instinct : predators, “creeped out”… It’s the same lexical field. In any case it’s not normal.

    I guess I would have stepped in too because I’ve already done it in the past but it might not be the best move.

    Best case scenario : you scare the scary man/men.
    Worst case : clash then probably street fight and/or call the police.

    Obviously it’s complicated like you said. Really difficult to prove, could turn really bad.

    I also do not care if the man is “high” or not, that’s never an excuse that’s “aggravating circumstances” period.

    I guess there is no simple solution but first we must not make these stories banal, we need to highlight this and blog posts can be useful, as first step, so thanks.

  2. Good call, I’ve found myself doing things that might put a woman on alert. Getting off at the same stop and going in the general direction. Or walking behind someone when is dark.

    I try to taka nother route, help the person feel better and not scared. As a guy, latino, a bit larger than average I might not convey a safe haven, but I do try to not make women be on high alert.

    You made something even better, engaged with the person who was feeling vulnerable. My wife uses me also as buffer to creepy guys.

  3. I’m glad you were able to make other female passengers feel safer. It’s a shame that we have to deal with these sorts of situations, and especially in NY due to having all “sorts” of people, we’ve learned to rush in/out blind and not pay attention. You know this is true because only the tourists are amazed by “show time” on the train or anything else that catches their eye where it can become very easy for native New Yorkers to miss the difference between the “usual unusual” or “OK this is not normal! Pay attention!”.

    As someone who also grew up in NY, in a neighborhood where unfortunately you could not, as a female, walk from one end of a block to the other without some form of hissing/cat calling, these instincts become a rightful result in such an environment. I live in the Bronx now and it’s natural to be suspicious, and yet, some of the neighbors here have been the nicest, most courteous people I’ve ever met. That surprises some due to the “Bronx” reputation.

    I’m also glad you resolved the issue without it getting out of hand. That’s another scary thing women have to think about – weighing what’s more dangerous, ignoring the potential threat or facing it head on. *sigh*

    And to echo on Arturo’s thoughts, my SO is a natural deter of potential creepers too, but the fact that as women, we can’t be respected unless there is a “man” there as protection, it’s a shame. It’s a damn shame that we have to feel unsafe unless there’s a bodyguard present or the comfort of whatever’s in our purse to use in defense. Here’s to hoping someday we’ll have to worry about these sorts of things less.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Helen.

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