The “Manspreading” Scourge isn’t Just for Subways

From sidewalks to condoms, why do men think they need more room than they do?

What a rude awakening the past few weeks must have been for so many men out there. What a constant deluge of cruel evidence that perhaps they don’t really need to take up as much space – on their subway rides, inside their condoms — as they think they do. That maybe they’re just rude.

First, beginning in December, there was the New York City MTA’s campaign against thoughtless subway behavior – notably the dreaded “manspreading.” If you’ve successfully avoided our city’s public transportation all your life, and in particular the rush hour L train, allow me to explain. It’s the common phenomenon of male passengers sitting with their legs as far apart as humanly possible — no doubt to accommodate the oversized beast residing between them – making it uncomfortable to downright impossible for anyone to sit next to them. Last month, the New York Times conjectured that the problem might be regional in its nature, with transit officials in Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago asserting that the issue “is not a major concern for riders in those cities.”

Yet it must have struck a familiar chord, because the issue made international headlines, and inspired a social experiment in which a female and male rider spread out on their subway rides with — very different results, both in how they were treated and how they felt about the experience. Afterward, Elizabeth Plank wrote, “Space is inherently gendered” and noted that “Researchers have found that taking expansive body postures doesn’t just make people feel more entitled, it also makes them more likely to steal, cheat and fail to respect traffic laws.” She concluded, “Sorry, dude, the status quo just isn’t working out for us.”

Similarly, earlier this week, labor organizer Beth Breslaw revealed the results of her experiment on male and female pedestrian styles. After learning that “men were less likely than their female counterparts to make room on a crowded sidewalk,” she decided to find out what would happen if, during her walk to her Financial District job, she took a more masculine approach. As she put it, “I’m going to be the Frogger, and this person who’s rapidly approaching me is going to be the log.” She says she spent the next two months colliding with male pedestrians, including one day in which “Every single man who came across her path on the stretch of narrow East Village sidewalk between the N train and her sister’s apartment smacked right into her.” Because sure, these guys – like the commenter who explained “I’m bigger than females due to a million years of hominid evolution; and aggressive females who want to physically confront me on the street are not going to win the collision or make a point” — probably need the entire sidewalk.

Finally, as if to prove the most intimate point of all, Swedish singer  Zara Larsson this week Instagrammed a message “To all the guys saying ‘my dick is too big for condoms,’” saying,“TAKE A SEAT”–  and showing her entire leg comfortably sheathed in a prophylactic. Gentlemen: Is your penis the size of a woman’s leg? Then no.

Will any of this awareness raising lead to more men actually putting their legs closer together on the subway, or moving to accommodate the person walking toward them on the street, or not complaining that condoms just don’t fit them so sorry, baby? Maybe not, but change begins by pointing out what needs changing. All of these stories happened because women started speaking up about these things, started saying, you need to make room for us here. Whether we’re talking about the subway or the sidewalk or sex, guys, you need to not have selfishness as the default. And the easy cure for manspreading is simple manners.


Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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