In the midst of the #MeToo movement and the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, many well-meaning guys have been analyzing past decisions. Some of us have been wondering if there were times when we could have better supported the women in our lives or done more to put an end to the harmful behavior of other men.
Since my field is transportation, I recently asked several female friends, colleagues, and anti-harassment activists to share tips for men who might like to avoid being a jerk, or even become an ally, when sharing public space on foot, on transit, and on bicycle. Dozens of women and gender-nonconforming folks took part in the conversation via a Facebook discussion and individual interviews.
Librarian Anita Mechler summed up the golden rule for men who want to avoid causing hassles for women and nonbinary folks who are simply trying to get where they need to go: “Try to be mindful of how you take up space, physically, verbally, and mentally.”
Participants brought up a host of issues that folks with masculine privilege generally don’t have to worry about, from catcalling to sexual assault. Design professional Marie Walz called these challenges “a women’s experience in a patriarchal world,” one that may be invisible to men, but surely isn’t to the women and nonbinary people in their lives.
Take walking home at night, for example. While all Chicagoans have concerns about crime, some women told me they feel wary of any man they encounter on a darkened street. “You can hurt us,” said architecture and design writer Anjulie Rao. “Easily, quickly. We know this. So don’t be surprised when we move away from you, or walk on the other side of the street. It’s never unreasonable.”
Other women suggested that men try to avoid walking less than half a block away from a woman walking alone at night if they’re traveling at the same speed. If it’s necessary to pass her, they said, the guy should leave as much space as possible between them, perhaps saying a quiet “excuse me” as he passes.
It could be that most men wouldn’t think of making unsolicited sexual comments toward or otherwise intentionally harass a woman walking alone or on a CTA bus or el car. But would they intervene when they see it happen?
“I would kill to see a man shut another man down for catcalling,” said Hope Nathan, who works in the film industry. “If it’s one of your friends, for the love of Mike, check him.”
SlutWalk Chicago, part of an international movement “working to challenge mindsets and stereotypes of victim-blaming and slut-shaming,” provided a statement with advice on what folks with masculine privilege should do if they witness harassment, including getting the woman and yourself to a safe place if there seems to be a risk of violence. On the other hand, they said, “Be aware of how you approach her as well. This doesn’t need to be dramatic, so you don’t need to make a scene either—it’s an embarrassing moment.”
Similarly, law student Ezra Lintner, who identifies as genderqueer, said it’s important to follow the lead of the person who is being catcalled. “I’ve made the mistake of being confrontational when the women I was with just wanted to keep walking. . . . A simple ‘Ugh, should we deal with this or keep walking?’ is enough.”
When it comes to riding transit, participants had a wealth of pointers to avoid being “that dude” on the train or bus. The scourge of manspreading—men sitting with legs akimbo, encroaching on the personal space of other riders—is well documented. It’s especially problematic on the CTA’s newer 5000 series cars, prevalent on the Red Line, which mostly feature aisle-facing bench seating.
Walz brought up a related “don’t” for masculine folks on those type of rail cars. When straphanging, “please turn facing the front or the back of the train, so that people don’t have to have your package right in front of their faces.”
Other transit-oriented requests for men included removing backpacks while standing so they don’t wind up in people’s faces, avoiding blocking doors, and not leaning against support poles, so that others can use them as hand grips. Respondents also asked that men volunteer to help moms with strollers and elderly people getting on and off buses and trains, and be sure to offer their seats to pregnant ladies. “I kept a log of how many times I was offered seats during my first pregnancy, and it was seriously six times,” marketing professional Rebecca Resman noted.
Walz had some further advice: “If a woman has headphones on, she doesn’t want to talk to anyone unless the train is literally on fire.”
Assistant horticulturalist Yaritza Guillen told me that bike commuting has turned out to be a good solution for avoiding the hassles and indignities she regularly faces while walking or riding the CTA. “I don’t have to deal with strange men in my space, creepily talking to me about nonsense.”
But that doesn’t mean bikeways are free of sexism. Take, for example, the phenomenon of “bike mansplaining,” in which men assume women are ignorant about bike setup or repair and offer unsolicited, sometimes insulting, advice, or assistance.
For example, Danielle McKinnie, a technical trainer at a hospital, recalled attending a seminar on biking to work where the male presenter asked the audience members if they knew how to fix a flat. “I raised my hand. He said, ‘You—you know how to change a bike tire?'”
Yasmeen Schuller, owner of the local social networking site the Chainlink, noted that “not all women like being considered a damsel in distress” when they have a mechanical issue. She suggested that men who encounter women and nonbinary people with bike problems might ask if they have everything they need to fix them, rather than assuming that they need rescuing.
Bikesplaining even happens to professional bike mechanics like Mary Randall, who’s also a serious racer. In addition, she reports that during “literally every solo road ride” she goes on in the region, random men will attempt to “draft” her (ride close behind to cut wind resistance) without asking permission. “So you have this hulking stranger riding two inches behind you, and you have no idea who they are or if they can ride well enough to be that close to you safely.”
How does she deal with that deeply creepy situation? “I just pull over and stop for a few minutes and let them go,” Randall said. “Sometimes I say something like, ‘If you can’t introduce yourself, get off my fucking wheel.’ Sometimes I just blow snot rockets with reckless abandon.”
A number of women spoke out against “man-shoaling,” which refers to a guy cutting in front of a woman at a light under the assumption that when the light turns green he’s going to pass her anyway. “Man-shoaling is obnoxious and insulting,” Resman said. “Tip for men: Don’t fucking do that.”
But women also said that men don’t need to walk on eggshells when interacting with them in public space. Some maintained that it’s actually fine for men to strike up conversation, as long as they keep things brief and are mindful of nonverbal cues. As Randall puts it, just “consider how much space you’re taking up, and how that might be affecting the people around you.”
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.