“I am not your baby.”
Last Monday night, with my heart racing, I spoke these words to a man I do not know in downtown Boston.
Meet Joe: Let’s give this strange man a name so he doesn’t feel so distant from us; so that in no way do we make him separate from you or me. Allowing this stranger to remain nameless, referred to as “the man”, would run the risk of characterizing him as an outsider. But the reality is just the opposite — this man, Joe we will call him, is a part of our society. Joe, in-part, is a product of the society where he lives; the same society where you and I exist.
Once Upon a Monday Night, I found myself at the subway station being followed by a man who insisted on calling me baby.
His first address was straightforward and shameless,
His approach that followed was determined: slowly walking towards me and intensifying his gaze, never considering how his lingering eyes may affect me.
Within seconds of his first, “Hey baby” and his persistent gaze, I could feel it— we were entering the Harassment Zone. He was not about to walk away and I was not about to make a scene.
Traditionally, for me, managing the Harassment Zone means using the I’m-going-to-pretend-you’re-not-here method. I’ve used this method before, so I began my standard practice: Play it cool, be aware of your surroundings, have an exit plan.
Unfortunately, ignoring Joe was ineffective in shaking his interest. And so began the game of cat and mouse…
I walked away, but he followed me.
“Awe come on baby, don’t walk away from me.”
I kept quiet, but he harassed me further.
“Just tell me where I’ve seen you before baby, then I’ll leave you alone.”
I refused to make eye contact, but as he trailed closely behind my fast walk I could feel his eyes on me.
My efforts to shake Joe’s interest seemed to accomplish just the opposite— it made the chase playful. With my heart pounding and my palms sweating, I hoped the train would come soon and end Joe’s game.
Of course, I wanted to scream, “Leave me alone you asshole! I am not your baby! Stop following me!”, but I worried about the consequences that may ensue should I respond how I wished. In any situation like this, I am wary of upsetting a man who I know does not respect me; as many women often are.
Just as I began to worry about what to do next, the loudspeaker came on,
“The Riverside train is now arriving.”
I walked towards the arriving train to finally shake Joe, but he followed me all the way to the edge of the doors. At this point he was kissing at me, like I was a puppy, but with a sexual twist. Now I was in the train, he was in the doorway, and a few more people were around. The small crowd was quiet and observing with a sense of indifference.
Now in the train with Joe standing at the doorway, I looked around to survey the people around me. I saw an MBTA worker at the top of my train car. He was a man of decent size within ear shot and he appeared to be MBTA security.
Finally, I had my chance to stand up for myself and tell this man what was racing through my head since I first heard his voice.
I took a deep breath, widened my stance, looked him directly in the eyes, and sternly proclaimed,
“I am NOT your baby.”
I was firm, but I didn’t yell. I did not want to yell.
All I wanted was for him to hear from me, I AM NOT YOURS.
I am not anyone’s. And no matter how much you follow me, kiss at me, or even scare me, I will never, ever be yours.
The story should stop here, but Joe was not ready to give up his game.
Upon hearing me address Joe, the MBTA worker ran over and placed himself between me and Joe,
“Come on buddy, back off, let’s go.”
Joe didn’t flinch, instead he just snuck a peak past the burley worker to meet my gaze and continue with his kisses.
Joe refused to move after being directed to walk away. Now, he wanted to get on the train but the worker wouldn’t let him pass. The worker called to the train driver,
“Hey, shut these doors now! Shut them!”
Upon hearing this, the conductor shut the doors. As the door began to shut, it filled the inch of space between Joe and the worker.
With the door shut, Joe took to the window—banging on the glass and yelling at me through it. With Joe still knocking on the window, the train began to roll forward.
At this point, I was shaking.
The worker yelled,
“Stop! Stop the train and open the doors!”
The doors opened and the MBTA worker ran off the train to pursue Joe.
I have no idea what happened next. The doors closed and we steamed ahead.
There were people around, but nobody spoke. Like nothing had happened. To me, it felt like they percieved the harassment as a nuisance and I was the reason it all started. When the doors shut and we drove away, I was shaken. I found myself yearning for just one person to communicate support or acknowledgement to me in any way. This could have been done in various ways. It could have been as simple as asking, “You good?”
But nobody spoke a word. When we got to the next stop, people filed in unaware of my fear that still hung in the air. The silence told me: These things happen, we don’t address it, we move on.
I spent the whole train ride home processing my encounter with Joe and every thought lead back to the same questions:
Who lead Joe to believe that he could call me baby?
Could this who actually be a what?
Could that what be society and language?
Why didn’t anyone nearby say anything?
How is this normal?
Sure, we could simplify all of this—maybe Joe is just a bad person—but what if it roots deeper than that?
I was scared when Joe followed me and disgusted when he kissed at me, but above all else I hated the fact that he called me baby.
Without my permission and without warning, Joe used language to figuratively place me below him. This was not an intellectual strategy on his part by any means, but it wasn’t a mistake either. Words have power.
Occasionally my mom calls me “baby” and it’s sweet. Coming from a lover, “baby” can be comforting or sexy, and Dirty Dancing wouldn’t be the same without it. Spoken by Joe, “baby” was demeaning, objectifying, and infantile.
This brings us to context. Obviously, words’ meanings change depending on where they are used and with whom; this much we know.
Obviously, context was at play Monday night when Joe used language to make me feel vulnerable, unsafe, and disrespected but, I am not concerned with the context of Joe’s language. I am concerned with the subliminal messaging of the language Joe has heard all of his life leading up to our encounter.
Is it possible that Joe has been conditioned by subliminal messaging in language all of his life to think that I am below him?
Yes, I believe it is.
All language communicates a message, and though all messages are not outright, they are continuous. A lifetime of hearing certain messaging from your family, friends, classmates, employers, people around you, politicians, etc. can build up a visceral sense of mislead feelings towards certain subjects.
I believe this happens with women.
Which brings me to the question, what if we eradicated all subliminally demeaning language towards women?
This is where you come in. Please take a moment to brainstorm any language, words or phrases that you use which may imply women are inferior to men. Also consider words or phrases that you let the people around you use. Actually mull this one over and try to come up with 5. It shouldn’t be difficult.