Small, snug, and unyoked from laptop or phone, AirPods are easy to wear for hours at a time, without a second thought.
This, BuzzFeed News recently declared, is “Making Things Awkward for Everyone Else.” All-day AirPod wear can make social interactions clumsy and uncomfortable: Has the AirPod wearer hung up the call or turned off their music? The person on the other end of the interaction doesn’t know. Particularly in situations that require some sustained face-to-face communication—ordering coffee or crossing paths with a co-worker—wearing AirPods and ignoring others, intentionally or not, can be a jerk move, BuzzFeed News concludes.
But something’s missing in the lamentation over the Apple buds and their erosion of social norms. There’s actually a very good reason for wearing AirPods all the time, even at the risk of offending someone: to safely ignore street harassers.
The currency of street harassers is attention—they want it, and they act as if they’re entitled to it. Leaving your AirPods in while ordering at Starbucks is rude, because the barista at the counter is owed some common courtesy. Wearing them on your commute to pretend you didn’t hear that nasty comment is not, because the harasser isn’t owed anything at all.
I wear my Apple EarPods, the classic kind with cords, for this purpose. A familiar gut feeling, the kind sharpened over years of simply existing as a woman in the world, told me I probably wasn’t alone. When I put the question to Twitter, asking users whether they wear their AirPods—or any headphones—in part because they want to tune out unsolicited attention from strangers, I heard from nearly 100 people, mostly women. Twitter is not a representative sample of the United States, let alone people who wear headphones, but a clear theme sounded through the responses: Wearing headphones made navigating public spaces feel safer.
Headphones act as both cue and barrier; they convey an air of unavailability that warns strangers not to bother and provide a membrane of protection when someone decides to anyway. Suspended in a state of plausible aloofness, people with headphones plugged in their ears can pretend they didn’t hear those comments and keep on walking.
“Before I started wearing headphones, catcallers who felt that they were being intentionally ignored would sometimes follow me, touch me, or say increasingly graphic things—sexual, racial, violent,” says Whitney Lee, an attorney in Washington, D.C. “When they believe that I’m only ignoring them because I can’t hear them, they tend to disengage faster.”
Even if the headphones can’t stop a bad situation, they can help their wearers cope with the encounter. On a recent morning, Anni Glissman, a marketing manager in Chicago, was wearing her Apple EarPods on the train when the car emptied out. A man entered from an adjacent car, sat down next to her, and began to masturbate. Glissman didn’t move, afraid a reaction might somehow make the situation worse.
As the train approached her stop, the man ejaculated onto the floor next to Glissman’s feet, and she rushed out of the car, focusing the whole time on the music streaming into her ears. “I really felt that the only way that I was able to get through that was because I had my music in,” Glissman told me. “He knew I couldn’t hear what he was saying, even though I could tell that he was saying something.” The headphone barrier, she said, gave her the courage to stay stony and keep her gaze steadily out the window.
The headphone force field can also help signal the inverse—that a nearby stranger doesn’t pose a threat. Zappa Johns, who works in marketing and lives in Monterey, California, wears headphones to not only ignore stray comments, but make others around him more comfortable. Johns, who is transgender, once used headphones to tune out sexual harassment from male strangers. After he transitioned a few years ago, he found the same implied barrier can also reassure strangers that he’s happy to stay in his own bubble.
“Before, I was trying to sort of fend off attention, and now I’m like, How can I look as nonthreatening as possible?” Johns says. “Men of color tend to be seen as more threatening than not, even when we’re just minding our own business. I’ll go out of my way to give people, especially women who are at the bus stop by themselves, as much space as I possibly can.”
Feeling at ease in a public space, especially for those who identify as women, can be an impossible balancing act, says Laura Logan, a sociology professor at Hastings College in Nebraska who studies street harassment. Wearing headphones is just one of many tactics available to “a woman in America going about her life while trying, and at times failing, not to be assaulted,” as the author R. O. Kwon put it in a Paris Review essay last year. These tactics involve quick and careful calculations in response to potential threats. Refusing to acknowledge a call for attention might discourage one harasser and infuriate another. “When women wear headphones, or read books, or do other things that mean they don’t have to acknowledge this is happening in some way, they’re managing that dilemma,” Logan says.
This predicament might be easier to navigate with the AirPod shield up at all times. “It’s become part of my routine everyday to have headphones in when I leave, just like grabbing an umbrella,” says Alex Zins, a consultant in the Washington, D.C., metro area, about her pair.
Sally Edwins, an executive assistant in Seattle, says her AirPods make her feel safer than bulky, over-the-ear headphones. Like other women, Edwins grew up hearing and heeding the warning that big headphones can tag women as easy, distracted targets. At the same time, she is concerned her AirPods make her vulnerable in another way. “Because they are so bright white and such a wealth signifier, sometimes I worry that that’s also making me a target,” Edwins says. “Because obviously I’ve got an iPhone on me, and I’ve got these nice, expensive earbuds in my ears, and I’m not paying attention.”
For some, AirPods aren’t the same blazing do-not-disturb sign as other kinds of headphones. Their inconspicuous design, while convenient, can be easy to miss, and their users try to remedy that. “I make a pretty distinct effort to keep my hair pulled back so that people see that I have them in,” says Maggie Powers, an advertising consultant in Boston.
In addition to appearance, volume matters. Some people said they blast music, choosing to be blissfully unaware of negative comments. (“If a guy catcalls you and you can’t hear it,” Zins says, “did he even make a sound?”) Others prefer to be a mix of checked out and alert, donning a single bud. Still others walk around in silence, the AirPods nestled in their ears serving as nothing more than miniature armor. Passersby and would-be harassers alike are none the wiser.
This behavior comes with a societal cost: Sometimes, the stranger trying to get your attention, mouthing muffled words and miming removing the buds from your ears, just wants directions, or to ask some other benign question. But for many people, the desire to avoid a bad experience, the need for some self-preservation, wins out. As the BuzzFeed News story made clear, most people don’t enjoy being rude to well-meaning strangers. But the shield, a pair of snow-white gadgets, stays up.
“I felt guilty about that a time or two,” Glissman said, about overreacting to strangers with harmless intentions. “But honestly, I just don’t anymore.”
All this hypervigilance, several people told me, can be exhausting. Perhaps someday, the proliferation of AirPods and other wireless earbuds—and the habit of keeping them in all day—could ease some of that pain, Logan says. If women ignore their comments, catcallers might assume they’re wearing AirPods tucked underneath hair or hats—just like everyone else is—and move on.