Since being home in Toronto I have been thinking a lot about how different my experience as a woman is in Toronto as compared to Pearson. There are of course many factors in this, but one that I want to look at in this article is the threatening way that I perceive men when I am alone in the city. Below is an exploration as to why that may be, and what I can do about it.
Before I head out I quickly flip through the weather app on my phone: 24 degrees and sunny all afternoon. I pull on a pair of jean shorts that my sister left behind in her closet (it’s not stealing if she gets them back before she’s back home, right?). I go downstairs, have too many cups of coffee, and head out the door to the grocery store.
I start walking down Carlaw avenue. I instinctively pull down slightly on the back of my shorts. I almost turn around – maybe I should change, maybe there’s a reason my sister left these particular shorts at home, maybe they’re too short – no, I have to go get groceries before dinner, there’s not enough time.
As I get closer to the store I see a group of construction workers standing outside working on the bus stop shelter by the store. My body tenses up. The way that they are configured means that I have to walk directly through the group: three on one side of me, two on the other. It’s too late now to cross the street because I would be jaywalking and although this scenario makes me uncomfortable, getting hit by a car would be substantially more uncomfortable. So I walk through the group…
A few of them step back slightly to give me more space, and they continue their conversation normally. I mean, of course they do. What did I think was going to happen? Well what I thought was going to happen was a number of different things. Several scenarios had very quickly run through my head. Terrifying and traumatizing as they all would have been – none of them occurred. And maybe I should have known that. It’s a safe neighbourhood, it’s a local grocery store with lots of people I know walking by, and they were nice men for all I know. Except, I didn’t know. So I assumed the worst. And perhaps that’s unfair. I was making an assumption, but I was making it for my own protection. I was making it because something told me that a young woman, walking through a group of men might not be safe, and that perhaps I should take myself out of that situation.
I have thought about this a lot since it happened. Not because it was particularly significant, or anything really happened, but because it created a shift in my thought patterns about being alone in the city. Not so much in the sense that I let my guard down in those situations, because, unfortunately, that’s just not the sensible thing to do. I could give you statistics about that, but I think most readers can think of at least one experience of harassment, they or a friend have undergone in a city while by themselves. However, what has changed for me is that now when I see a man or a group of men, I don’t glare at them or make it seem as though I have already assumed what they will do to me, even if maybe I have. I will give the appearance of giving them the benefit of the doubt, so that when nothing happens again, I can have a normal human interaction with them – more than normal, a warm human interaction.
I know this may not seem like a drastic shift. And it’s not. But for me it allows me to keep the feeling of personal safety without being outwardly cold to every man I see in public while I’m alone. For example, the other night I was coming back alone from an event with my friend, at around 11:30pm. I was taking the bus and there were only a few people on board. As I got off at my stop, I noticed a man sitting on the diagonal across from me and he smiled at me as I got off. I did not smile back, I didn’t want to give him the “wrong idea”. What if he had followed me off at my stop? What if he took note of where I got off and came to find me there later? But also, what if he was just being friendly? Next time a stranger smiles at me, I want to smile back.
One of the single most important things that I learned at Pearson was the value of warm, friendly, and sincere human interactions. It’s the simple things: the warm smiles, the hellos, and the random compliments. I learnt their importance at Pearson more than anywhere else because people expressed their appreciation for such interactions. My goal, by shifting the way I outwardly interact with strangers I come across in the city, even if I am being guarded on the inside, is to give others, and myself, the pleasure of that warm interaction. Because I know now that the impact of a smile, greeting or compliment can be truly immeasurable.
I in no way want to diminish the importance of staying safe and alert when alone in the city, but I just wanted to highlight how my own anxieties about the many possibilities of the horrible things that might have happened, have in fact limited my ability to give and receive the beautiful exchanges with strangers that are so common, and so needed, in this amazing city. On top of that, I want to acknowledge that I am in a position of great privilege to be able to even consider going out at night by myself, let alone letting my guard down while alone.