Walking to Safeway, school was out. The students oscillated through gatherings and dispersions on the sidewalk as I waded through. Singing, gossiping, teasing, shoving amongst each other, they drifted away from the building. During one of the receding waves, a girl and a guy drifted behind. The guy rose up, swatting the girl while she attempted to bob under and away from his arms. The sound of teenage taunts mingling with exasperation. “They’re probably just playing,” I thought as I walked along.
I slowed down, frightened by how quickly I was able to come to that conclusion.
Glancing up, I noticed her friend watching, perhaps thinking the same thing.
While browsing the aisles, I realized why I did not do anything: it went against the social norms ingrained in me from a young age. I am sure I have experienced this same thing and witnessed this same thing hundreds of times before. A guy pulls a girl’s hair and teases her because he likes her. Because men supposedly are incapable of expressing emotions without physicality, although I have yet to meet one. Crying, because this one guy would not leave me alone, I was taught the great technique of “ignoring someone.” One that everyone is expected to hone and master: a tough skin that perhaps we learn to wear too well.
Furthermore, whether it was the girl with crazy hair and tattoos, the guy sitting on the street, or the loud commotion in the middle of the store, I was taught from a young age: “Don’t point, Jessica. It’s impolite.”
Don’t point. Don’t ask. Don’t notice.
Yes, it was a relatively small event and interference may have exacerbated it into something. If it were a more critical situation, surely people would have interfered. But where is this cut-off point?
The woman who was gang raped in India, who had a metal pole shoved up her anus, ripping a hole in her intestines, was her friend the only one who tried to stop them? Even afterwards, many passed them on the street before they were able to get help.
Maybe we need a universal safe word. Something to break the sounds of silence. One that we can yell when that guy will not stop feeling you up or you lose your way home using Apple maps. One that you can shout, knowing that someone will respond to help.
Or even just a question the witnesses can ask: Are you okay?
Yes, it was small, but if we do not make an effort to stop the small, who says we will actually do anything about the big?