Let me set the scene:
It's a Saturday evening in San Francisco, CA. I am heading back to the East Bay after dinner with my girlfriend and her Aunt at a family-managed restaurant on Pier 39.
My girlfriend and I split ways, she jumps into a Lyft to work in the Mission, I walk to the pavilion to wait for the F-line along the Embarcadero back to BART. We weren't planning to split so early but she was late for work, so I didn't have my iPod or my headphones--things I usually take everywhere when I travel alone. The F-line rolls up, and as per usual is stuffed full. As soon as the doors opened, people on the trolley started telling everyone waiting to board that "it was too full" and they "couldn't take any more passengers." I, being one, fairly small, bagless individual squish myself on anyway, much to the dismay of the passengers aboard (I remind myself "you are just as special as these people!") in order to balance myself, I have to hold a bar right in front of an older man standing in the front-left of me. I say, "thank you.." and he replies softly after a slight hesitation, "you're welcome."
The train jolts forward. There are a lot of tourists on the train, especially apparent were a large non-English speaking group that is spread throughout the trolley--including two members of the group (a boy and a girl who are obviously together) that are standing directly in front of me--occasionally yelling to each other in a Spanish-sounding language and then erupting in laughter. While I am taking this all in, occasionally worried that they are making fun of me for standing so close to this foreign woman in front of me, I feel the person behind me start to sort of bounce. This person is standing very close to me (as would be expected in a trolley this crowded) and now are moving so quickly in their movements I can only describe it as jiggling. I didn't turn around, nervous to embarrass the person behind me who I feel must be very uncomfortable and panicky in a traincar so full, or must have an uncontrollable tremor. Eventually (say 1 minute) I turn around because the bouncing is basically occurring against my body. Behind me a very short Asian man wearing glasses glances at me, and immediately I understand what was just happening. I look at him in disgust, don't say a word, but reposition my body in a way that makes it clear that I know what he was doing, and makes it hard for him to continue his behavior. He moves away from me.
My repositioning is only slight, but it makes the foreign woman slightly to my right, and the older guy I spoke to after first entering the trolley slightly to the left. After only a few moments I realize that the older man has an erection. And I think to myself, "I think that dude has a boner." And then after that realization, I see him move closer to this woman. This woman who I previously established was with this larger group, and even more obviously, with her boyfriend that is standing in front of her. The older man starts to move up and down, starts to rub himself on her. I am standing face to face with him, and he is rubbing his body on this woman. Almost without thought I say, "Excuse me but do you know her?" He looks at me, and without hesitation puts his hand on her waist, and says, "yes." This reaction almost, almost gives me pause. I reply, "You're with all these people?" and gesture around me. He replies, "yeah, I am." And I ask, "Oh really? where are they from?" and he hesitates, "...sounds like South America." At this point, the woman had moved away from him, and turned so he couldn't put his hand on her waist any longer. I give him a look that says, I see you, asshole. The trolley stops at my stop and all I feel is deep disgust as I exit. He exits as well, and no one from the group leaves with him.
This happened three days ago now, and I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop thinking about how he felt so secure in his actions, he put his hands on this woman that he doesn't know. He put his hands on her in a way that says, "I own you" after rubbing his penis on her. I felt mad. I felt mad at him, and I felt mad at her for not doing anything. But my anger at her is unprecedented. This is anger that is projected, anger that I have at myself for simply moving my body and not saying anything to the man that was doing the same thing to me, just seconds before. Anger at society at large, anger at men who think they can do whatever they want to woman's bodies. Anger at this system we exist in where woman sacrifice themselves, their very bodies to take care of others' feelings, not willing to create conflict. I won't. I won't take care of any of you any longer. I will take care of me, and I will take care of my sisters, in an effort to create a community of social responsibility, where men take care of women, men take care of men, women take care of women, and women take care of men, where people take care of other people.
I think this experience is especially shocking to me because I have always prided myself on my empathic approach to the world, to look deeper than surface level to understand what is happening in any given circumstance. I was reminded that my empathy, while many times built upon true-to-life experience, is also very much founded in the abstract. In considering how I would treat another individual in certain circumstances. This is the first time that I have experienced myself in the middle of one of those circumstances, and what I felt was little to no empathy for these human beings.
I've told this story so many times now, and I often apologize afterwards for "bringing down the conversation." But that blame doesn't belong to me. That blames belongs to the men on the F-line who brought down and broke my moral and physical boundaries of the world that I live in. That made it a little scarier to exist as a woman. That made me look behind myself every few seconds after leaving the trolley to make sure I was safe, because I called out a man and his disgusting, sexist acts towards another. In any regards, I feel the need to spread this story. To let people know that they can do something, and they should do something. This woman now exists in a world where men are allowed to touch her body, (touch it sexually) without her consent (she has always existed here, but now she is aware of it). I now exist in this world, and because of this, we all do.