Friday, April 20, 2007

'Did he expose himself to you?'

As I was walked to the bus-stop yesterday a man sitting on a bench seat lifted his jacket for a second and I was shocked to see that he was masturbating. Two young women were sitting on either side of him, waiting for the bus, completely unaware. I don't think that he meant for anyone to see. I sat down at the neighbouring bench, it was a beautiful sunny day, plenty of people around walking to and from buses. The man was in his late thirties and looked like he might possibly be homeless, or in some kind of state of despair. He didn't look scary, he was balding, overweight with large round glasses.

After a few moments debating in my mind what I should do (I could hear my mum saying 'sometimes not to act is to condone'), I walked over to his bench and said in front of him to the two young women 'I think you should move seats, I just saw that this man masturbating'. One of them got up, and the other ignored me and stayed there sitting with him. The young woman who had gotten up said she was going to get the police, and I sat back down, the man started talking to me, and I realised he was mentally ill. He mumbled repeatedly 'is that what you think is it? are you offended? I don't have any hair..... etc etc etc' more to himself than me.

A security guard came back with the other girl and he asked me if we wanted to press charges of 'indecent exposure', in which case he would get the police. I said that I didn't want to, I just didn't want him to make people uncomfortable in this way and think it was ok. I had wanted someone embarrass him, a man preferably to say to him 'look mate, that just isn't appropriate, put it away'. As we spoke to the security guard ( who seemed reluctant to approach the man) 'he just didn't take his medication today' he suggested, the man got up muttering to himself and walked away.

As soon as I realised that the man was mentally ill, and I realised he was likely not intending to be malicious or inappropriate, I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry that there is nowhere for him to go, no one to look out for him and guide him as to what is appropriate, how to be socially ept. And that the only place we could direct him to would have been a police jail cell.

Santa Barbara is very beautiful and very wealthy, but there are homeless people on every corner of the main street. I suppose they have a bit more of a chance because they may not be battling mental illness and know how to 'beg appropriately' (that sounds awful). Unlike this poor dude. I hope there are people in the community that look out for him. And I hope he never hurts anyone or commits a serious crime. He seemed pretty out of his depth already at the bus stop.

I coulnd't shake the slightly gross, slightly worried feeling that stuck with me all day.

I am interested to know, what would you have done?


Blogger Wamut said...

Geez i don't know what I would have done. I think you did pretty well.

My sister and her friend were walking home from the pub one night and saw a guy in his yard wanking while watching them walk by. I can't quite remember but I think they were pretty grossed out and may have called the police.

Anyway, a couple of months, walking home from the pub again, they were joking about the mystery wanker as they were walking past but when they looked, there he was again! going at it! And so with a bit of drunken courage they started to heckle him: 'is that all you got?' 'having a good wank there mate?' etc. etc.

I think humiliation is a very good tactic for pervy guys, but your situation is very tricky in that he may just not have known he was acting inappropriately. Sounds you like did the right thing, but of course it's gonna make you feel pretty gross/concerned

2:10 pm  
Blogger Catalin said...

Anyone who is publicly wanking is either an exhibitionist (who knows he's inappropriate and who gets off on knowing he's making people uncomfortable) or likely someone with so few actual social contacts that he has lost (if he ever knew) the line between appropriate and inappropriate. So I think it's appropriate to say to any such person, "Hey, you can't do that here" just as you basically did.

The mentally ill on the streets of California are always heartbreaking(and there are more here than most other parts of the country for a few reasons including the mild climate). I've also heard it said that the very fact of living alone on the streets creates mental illness.

I remember being really startled in Katherine when, on my bike ride to or from work, I came across a young (teenage? or twenties?) man masturbating right next to the bike trail as he watched me and others ride by. I reacted without really thinking and said something like "That's disgusting. Shame on you!" but I felt bad afterwards, wishing I'd said something gentler.

I think you handled your situation well.

3:18 pm  
Blogger Wamut said...

I dunno Catalin. Does such a vulgar action deserve a gentle response?

You said that they 'get off on making people feel uncomfortable'. I think if you show you are comfortable enough to ridicule, humiliate and embarass them then there's no discomfort for them to get off on. A soft approach might come across as a bit submissive... I don't know though... I'm a man and I don't have a lifetime of having to deal with this stuff.

I recently read a book by Helen Garner called The First Stone, all about sexual harassment and how women treat it has changed in the past few decades. Lots of food for thought in there and highly recommended.

4:18 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

It's funny you say that Catalin, I actually felt a bit bad (!!), a bit worried because I had embarrased him too much. Perhaps it is hard sometimes not to feel like everyone has their story and should be accepted for it.

I do feel like it is important to know when you are uncomfortable and say something, to feel like you have a right to change the situation if you don't like it.

The main thing that made me get up and speak was thinking how much I wouldn't like to be one of those two women sitting next to him, not knowing and no-one doing anything about it.

It surprised me very much that the other young woman completely ignored what I said and the whole situation.

This is not the first time this has happened to me in the US. Last time the man was clearly a creepy pervert, swimming naked and watching us swimming, playing with himself. I told him very loudly 'mate you are being offensive,its inappropriate- get lost', a few times.

He pretended to ignore me, eventually he got dressed and left- but my heart was pounding, and I was surprised to see other people around who said nothing to him (there were young children present), and a bit angry that others were prepared to just ignore it.

5:09 pm  
Blogger Catalin said...

I think dealing with other people's behavior that's offends us is always tricky. Is one's purpose to make the person stop that behavior in the present or for some longer-term change? I mean, I think when people are humiliated, they are unlikely to change the behavior that led to it if they feel angry and defensive because then they'll rationalize their own defense. I'm thinking of something like asking some neighbor to turn their music down. If you said something really harsh, they would likely get angry, whereas if you come at them in a way that shows respect for them as a person, they're more likely to think about why their behavior might be inappropriate. That's what I think.

However! Sexual misbehavior seems like its own category. I think people who are mentally ill do not need to be humiliated, but do need to be taught. People who aren't mentally ill, but are just pushing the boundaries of acceptability as far as possible (like Sophie's swimming incident) maybe do need a different approach.

I think Australians are much more likely to be confrontational than Americans are in general about all kinds of things. I think if nobody is in physical harm, people here are more comfortable ignoring a weirdo than confronting him. Different types of discomfort, I guess.

I hope you don't have any more such experiences while you're here!

3:00 pm  
Blogger bulanjdjan said...

I think what you did what right Soph. It takes so much guts to say anything in those situations - I always feel so much fear, which (if the person is aware of what they're doing and the impact it has) is exactly what's intended.

In my early twenties, while doing my washing at a laundromat, a homeless guy was in there masturbating. From memory, there may have been another young woman there. We both ignored/avoided him. I was too freaked out to know how to address the situation. I think I even tried to tell myself 'you have to co-exist with this, these people are in the world, just because he's doing this, it doesn't have to have any impact on you.'

An older woman came in and straight away told the guy that he was being disgusting, that he shouldn't do that here etc. He stopped, and, I think, left.

What I learnt from seeing how that older woman reacted was:

a) you don't have to accept behaviour that makes you uncomfortable - that you can draw boundaries and even expect people who are homeless or mentally ill to observe them. That being a victim doesn't mean you have the right to behave however you choose, or that being a soft lefty doesn't mean you have to accept bad behaviour from marginalised people just because you *understand* their story.

b) older women are fierce. Can't wait to be one.

c) fear isn't useful.

I'm not convinced humiliation is useful either. Can lead to either a) violence (which, as Helen Garner wrote about in The First Stone is why women don't all react with anger and vitriol immediately they are sexualy harrassed: fear of escalating the situation to violence) or b) the underlying message of 'it's not ok to sexually harrass people' getting lost amidst the humiliation.

I'm getting fiercer as I get older - and part of me wishes that all the dickheads who tried it on when I was younger would have a go now. Cos they'd really cop it.

10:08 pm  

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