Last weekend, I took a trip to a small town on Vancouver Island with my boyfriend. He is an avid cyclist and planned to write for his cycling website about the 72-mile (that’s 115km in “Canadian”) ride from his apartment to the town center. I drove his truck and arrived a bit early to enjoy a breakfast sandwich and coffee at a local café. The town was quaint – I could have stood in the center of the road on Main Street for several minutes without any passing cars.
If you’ve never been to Vancouver Island, I can pretty much promise that it is more beautiful than you have heard of or imagined. The entire island is a rainforest, for starters – and did I mention all the beaches, lakes, tall trees, and inviting cities and towns? Our getaway was no exception to the island’s appeal.
Unfortunately, it seems there is one thing that happens everywhere: men creepily staring at women.
At twenty-eight, I have lived in three different cities in the United States and traveled for several months in Europe. In Catalonia, I encountered spiders I still have nightmares about, but will probably never see again. In DC, my first apartment had cockroaches, something I hadn’t experienced during my time in the Big Apple.
But, there’s one pest that you can find no matter where you live.
In the midst of what was otherwise a delicious and enjoyable dinner at an old hotel on our Saturday night, I encountered one. Situated in a corner of the restaurant, comfortably sitting and facing the doorway with a beer and a book, he was ready to take everything in for himself. My boyfriend and I were seated diagonally from him and I had a perfect view of the back of his balding head. Right next to his table was a young married couple.
When the woman’s husband got up to use the restroom, the stranger made no small scene of craning his neck around and looking the woman up and down for a solid twenty seconds. It was like a rodent taking an opportunity to grab a piece of cheese unscathed. The smug look I could now clearly see on his face implied that he had just imagined her naked and was picturing the first few moments of sleeping with her. Her back was turned to his creepy gaze, but I could see her face overcome with the feeling of being watched. A feeling I would venture to say all women are familiar with. It creeps, it crawls.
What struck me most was how unperturbed he was with the fact that 1) he was so blatantly obvious, 2) this woman could turn around at any time in his lengthy look-over to catch him in the act and 3) he was doing all of it in such close proximity, surrounded by people, at a sit-down family-friendly restaurant. The casual and pleased look on his face was horrifying. This dude was enjoying his visual dinner and dessert and ruining my appetite for anything in the process.
When her husband returned, the man went back to eating his burger. And though the restroom was calling my name, I was trying to put nature on hold so I wouldn’t have to walk past him all the way to the opposite side of the restaurant where the restroom was.
When my fish fry arrived at the table, I made an effort to focus on the delicious fresh seafood and enjoy myself, but my eyes kept traveling to the back of his head, chowing down on his sandwich.
What type of guy pulls this stuff?
As I mentioned, I think that it has very little to do with location. I’ve witnessed similar incidents all over. I also think it has little to do with age, as I’ve seen men both young and old partake in these behaviors, looking at women of varying ages. The men I’ve noticed not behaving this way were my boyfriend and the male half of our nearby dining partners. I am certain that both have participated in some sort of eyeing-ups before, but I greatly doubt either of them has found themselves leering in such a creepy manner.
Is it something men feel entitled to? I keep picturing a sitcom episode. Cue the audiences’ whistles and hollers when a sexy female saunters into a coffee shop scene. Are we programmed to think that this kind of attention is wanted and okay to deal out?
In the real world, two full glasses of water and a whiskey ginger later, there was no holding my pee. I made the walk to the restroom, doing my best not to swing my hips and double-checking that my button-down was sufficiently buttoned. I recognized in that moment that these alterations are second nature for me. When I stand in a restaurant (or walk past a construction crew, or walk near an outdoor organized sport, etc.), I check my womanhood. I try to draw it in so that it doesn’t look like I am trying to draw the looks out.
I wonder whether men take this into consideration when they stare, as harmless as I think they believe it to be. Do they realize that women try to tone themselves down when they’re walking to the d**n bathroom to avoid unwanted stares? I wish I could make them experience what it feels like to be watched: the self-consciousness I feel about what my butt, boobs, and hips are naturally doing, the creeping feeling of being watched and, worse, the shock when you first realize you are.
When I experience this, I don’t feel sexy, I don’t feel appreciated, there is no third-party audience voicing their approval of this interaction. I feel like I want to lock myself in a bathroom stall and stay there. I feel like a commodity being sold for much less than I am worth. I feel uncomfortable in my own body.
Dessert is waiting when I return. My boyfriend knows me well enough to recognize that I am pissed off at something he did not do and should leave me to a little more than half of our Irish cream cheesecake. When I ask him about it later, he confirms for me that the man gave the back of me the same treatment he gave the other woman’s.
Everyone at the restaurant left without saying anything to this man, myself included. I am a little bit ashamed, but also astutely aware that if I choose this battle, I will be fighting it constantly. Sometimes I do enter into the fight, other times I just want to enjoy my Saturday night and ignore it.
Later on I think about what I would like to tell him. That it would be nice to eat my meal and use the restroom without his gaze. That his behavior is gross, inappropriate, and obvious. I would maybe shout that I noticed his stares, that he’s not as sly as he’d like to think, and that no woman would ever choose to be with him with behaviors like that. Or maybe I would just look him dead in his eyes and ask him what he thought he had done to deserve to treat people that way.
I would really like to know the answer.