How Bodies Assert Space in the Public Domain

9 years ago

While I believe that women's bodies are generally regarded by society as public domain, how we assert our bodies in the public domain is a very different story. If our bodies are generally considered accessible for observation (and often times touching), then it makes sense that women would internalize a message that space is not ours to control. I came up with this theory while riding the subway in New York City.

Since I've lived in New York for over 14 years and am a frequent user of public transportation, I have had lots of time to observe and participate in the subway environment. It is rare for me to encounter a woman who takes up more than the space that she needs on the train, even if it is not crowded. What I mean by this is that women tend to sit in the amount of their space that their bodies occupy, no more than that, and sometimes, even less than what they need in order to wedge themselves into a narrow spot on a crowded train. When women do use more than the space needed for their body, it is almost always because they have placed a bag or package on the seat next to them.

Men, on the other hand, often sit down and then spread their legs are wide as possible. This will often block access to the seat space on either side of them. Clearly, they feel entitled to more space than their bodies require. I am sure in some cases that it is more comfortable to sit as sprawled out as possible, without regard for the space other people are entitled to occupy. In other cases, I think that the space abuser is doing so because he is asserting that he simply deserves more space than other people on the train. These are the men who refuse to adjust their positions when other passengers (women or men) say, "Excuse me," and attempt to sit down. Sometimes, another rider will attempt to force the space abuser to give them the space that he or she is entitled to by smooshing himself or herself in the limited space while shooting fireballs at the abuser from their eyes. This may or may not work, depending on how much the abuser wants to assert dominance.

At any rate, it is very unusual for me to notice women hogging up an entire bench. When they do put their items on the seat next to them, it is typical for them to remove them without being asked to as other people enter the train and move to sit down. There are times when other riders must first request a woman to move her bag so that they can sit, but unlike the men who take up multiple seats by aggressively spreading their legs, I've yet to see a non-mentally ill woman refuse to comply witht the request. (Although to be fair, some women are absolute bitches about it, muttering and shooting eyeball darts, furious that they can't dominate the space, but not really aggressive enough to defend what they see as their turf.)

The seat situation annoys me. But it is the pole situation that really makes me wonder why men believe they have more right to comfort and space than women. For those unfamiliar with New York City subways, each car has a series of bars and poles for standing passengers to hold on to. The horizontal bars come down from the ceiling, and are positioned at a height that is comfortable for people who are over 5'4" or so, which is the average adult. (For the record, I'm slightly under 5'2", and when I grab the bar, it stretches my arm to literally the fullest point I can reach. Not exactly comfortable, but doable.) The poles run vertically from the floor to the ceiling, making it easy for people of all heights to grasp at a point that is comfortable for them. People cluster around the poles, each holding on at a different level. In theory, this is very democratic, or even Marxist ("to each according to his ability, to each according to his need)." I am a big fan of the pole.

The problem is when one rider decides that the pole is there for his exclusive use, and he leans his body against it. I say he because I cannot remember ever noticing a woman decide that the pole is for her use only. When a person leans against it, his body effective blocks anyone else from wrapping their hand around the pole. Sometimes other people can get him off the pole by saying "excuse me," then attempting to grab the pole. Far worse, however, are times when a person will be holding on to the pole, minding her own buisiness, when a man gets on and then leans against the pole, crushing her hand and/or trapping her. In those instances, saying "excuse me" is useless, as the space abuser already demonstrated that the pole holder(s) are either invisible or don't count as people. This happens to me all the time, and it tells me that my claim to space is to be ignored. As my fingers are smashed, I wish that I were Wolverine. Enough said.

One final space-public domain issue that I notice on the subways involves unwanted touch. On a packed train, it is inevitable that people will brush up against each other. However, this situation can be used against female riders when male riders seize upon the crowded conditions as a cover for groping, which I would classify as stemming from the idea that women's bodies are public domain and therefore some men feel entitled to touch without permission. Groping and other harassment is enough of a problem that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which oversees the subway system, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to report abuse. The launch was temporarily canceled for murky reasons over the summer, but my friend Mia at Mint Jelly contacted the MTA about it, and had an interesting back and forth e-conversation with the director of community affairs, which reminds us all how important it is to claim our verbal space and speak up for justice.

Incidentally, Mia contacted the MTA at the encouragement of HollaBackNYC, a blog that reclaims women's rights in the public domain and:

...empowers New Yorkers to Holla Back at street harassers. Whether you're commuting, lunching, partying, dancing, walking, chilling, drinking, or sunning, you have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some turd's fantasy. So stop walkin' on and Holla Back: Send us pics of street harassers!

There are active (i.e. - posted in the past 30 days) Hollaback blogs for Arkansas, Boston, Chicago, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Toronto. Their point is that women's bodies are not, in fact,t public domain, but that we have the right to the space we need in the public domain. I may not be able harness the powers of Wolverine to protect my space, but I am very glad that there are women who are fighting back.

Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in New York City.

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