Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Beast in the Bookstore: When Even the Feminist Feels Helpless

TW: Sexual harassment

 I drove past a friend today. I didn’t even see her until our cars were parallel. Later she said “You were sitting at that light for a while – I was wondering if you were going to go!” 

“I was thinking…thoughts,” I slowly replied. She laughed.

What I didn’t share at the time is when she saw me at the intersection I was just thinking about how I was violated at Barnes and Noble and then brushed off by the manager.


A true book nerd, I love Barnes and Noble. Today I visited there and was pleased to find one of the plush chairs back in the corner free. Across from me was a coffee table and matching cozy chair. After a few moments an older man sat down. White, around 50 years of age with dark hair, his protruding beer belly was covered by a casual t-shirt and he wore glasses. I dislike how Barnes & Noble arranges its furniture so you end up across from strangers and I wanted to leave, but dammit that chair was comfy.

Immersed in my reading, I jerked up when I heard the unmistakable sound of a cell phone camera going off. The man across from me was looking away and rubbing his grey flip phone casually against his shirt.

The camera click was like a gunshot in the forest and I was the frozen deer.

I first thought ‘Oh god, did he just take a photo of me??!!’ Creepshots are a popular internet theme and I’ve read countless news stories about how ‘this’ is a thing – to photograph unknown women for the purpose of sexual perversion. It’s even all over Twitter.

My pulse sped up and my gut instinct told me that this happened, that this man had photographed me. I froze for a moment, not sure what to do. Quickly I got up and walked away. The towering bookshelves stood between us like wooden soldiers. I tried to get control.

Except, I couldn’t.

I felt fucking violated.*

I found my male companion and tried to explain, but either I didn’t explain it well or he didn’t believe the guy actually took a photo. I felt crazy and began to doubt myself. ‘Maybe it didn’t happen….’ When I decided to walk back around 5 minutes later to see if he was still there, the perpetrator was gone. I searched the store. He was nowhere.

I sat down at one of the wooden tables, not wanting to invite another opportunity for some stranger to sit by me. I wondered, ‘My legs were crossed and I was wearing a skirt. Was that it?’ and ‘My keyhole peasant top shifts around and sometimes shows more cleavage than it should. Was that it?

I wanted to cover myself with my favorite blanket and go unseen.

And then I thought…What the heck was wrong with me? I’M A FEMINIST. Of course it isn’t my fault that rape culture exists and we have these freaking creepers who harass women. I KNOW THIS.

I'm a freaking Khaleesi...so where were these thoughts coming from?

So what’s up with all the internal misogyny? No matter how much we learn, how much we engage in discussions on the topic, how much we advocate for women and the activist work that we do – are we still chained to the patriarchy? I am pretty self-aware and didn’t think I had internalized oppression like this…but I guess I had. Maybe we all do.

I texted one of my friends who has training in this sort of thing. She quickly texted back and then called, recommending that I file a police report and speak to the Barnes & Noble manager.

I balked…for some reason I felt shame, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. And the idea of telling someone, someone in authority…well, that made it real. That made me a victim.

I’m not a victim!

And yet…I am. Many women are or will be.

Stats don’t lie - According to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women are raped in their lifetime. A sexual assault occurs once every 2 minutes and while it is difficult to obtain stats on sexual harassment, any woman can tell you this happens often.  My situation? Just another day in the life of being a woman.

I realized that my friend was giving the same advice that I would have counseled someone, so I decided to speak to the staff at Barnes and Noble.

And…the most screwed up thing happened…somehow this affected me on a deeper level emotionally that I would have thought would be triggered. That feeling of violation resulted in a combination of angerfearshameanxiety that struck me like a viper.

My hands started shaking and I spent the next five minutes in the bathroom to give myself a moment. I didn’t want to report it. I mean, maybe I was wrong? Maybe it’s just all in my head?

Again, that feeling of ‘feminist guilt’ flooded me…this wasn’t me. I’m the girl raised on badass feminists like Xena, Buffy, and Eowyn!

I pushed myself to go make a report, approaching a younger woman at the Customer Service desk. When I told her I wanted to file a report about a creepy man who took a photo of me, she looked shocked. “My manager should know what to do…”

I waited. I fiddled with my phone, running my finger lightly over the smooth case.

The manager approached me. I told him what happened, how I was pretty positive that this creepy man took a photo of me and I wanted to file a report in case this was a regular thing he did.

“Ohhh,” he drawled. “That is creepy. We want all of our customers to feel safe here. What did he look like?”

I explained but added that he had already left. I had not been sure to make a report but decided to do so (not mentioning how it took me a while to get over the anxiety of the issue).

His remark? “You don’t have to [i.e., in a ‘you should have’ tone] , but I wish you had reported this right away so we could have said something. If you see him again in here let us know.”

I was dumbfounded. And feeling a bit guilty. Had I screwed up by not reporting it sooner? No, wait, I hadn’t – forget this! Who is this manager trying to make me feel guilty?

That last bit of anger spurred an additional question. “Oh, but what about the cameras…? I mean, maybe—”

His expression stopped me and he said that the cameras don’t actually work.

OKAY BARNES AND NOBLE, I SEE YOU. Way to decorate the place with fake cameras. Cool.

I left. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t make a report. He didn’t offer me any options (did I  want to file a store report? did I want to take any action?).

My friend called back to check in right after and I began laughing from the ridiculous of it all. Did I honestly just experience the patriarchy in action? I mean, first the violation, then my male companion doubting me, and then the male manager expressing no remorse and taking no action….are you serious??

I’m not quite like Xena, Buffy, or Eowyn – I don’t use a sword. But I do wield words. I wrote this because it’s a form of empowerment for me, but I also wrote this for you, Gentle Reader.

Should you ever have someone (woman or man/friend, family, student, etc) approach you because they felt violated (harassment, assault, rape), remember this story. It’s not easy to approach someone when you’ve been made to feel victimized. Don’t brush off their concerns or make them feel worse about the situation. Words are powerful. Be careful how you wield them.

Most especially, as I reflect on this event I realize how much more I have to go when it comes to deconstructing the patriarchy. Although I consider myself a feminist who understands these terms and concepts, I realize how much I have internalized the oppression. It’s important to identify this…so I may eradicate it.

But ultimately, regardless  of all the reflecting that I do…I’ll always wonder if a creepshot of me is floating around the internet.

Author Notes:
*Yes, this blog is professional. But high emotion calls for swearing and there is nothing wrong with that. Ask science.


  1. Oh, honey. *hugs* We're all indoctrinated into patriarchal and misogynistic views and thoughts and feelings from day one. Even if we're feminists from kindergarten, we still internalize it - we can't not, because it's all around us, every day, every night. We can recognize it, but I don't think we can ever, at this point in time, really get RID of it. It'll keep popping up, like mushrooms, except not as delicious.

    I hoe this post reaches B&N higher-ups and they do something about that manager.

  2. Sorry you had to go through this! You are an amazing woman!!! <3 -Steph Serda